Ryan Nugent-Hopkins doesn’t have any trouble measuring up when it comes to talent and hockey sense, but in a league where the perception has long been that size matters and bigger is better, he doesn’t fare as well when NHL scouts take out the tape measure and scale.
So, while the 18-year-old center from Burnaby doesn’t have to take a backseat to anybody in terms of the former after tallying 106 points in 69 games with the Red Deer Rebels this season, it’s the latter that has some people wondering if bigger might be better.
That’s a question Edmonton Oilers chief scout Stu MacGregor and his staff will be tossing around between now and the 2011 Entry Draft in Minnesota, where the Oilers will follow up the selection of Taylor Hall in 2010 with No. 1 pick for the second year in a row.
At just a touch over six-feet and weighing just 165 pounds, Nugent-Hopkins is eye-to-eye with other top-rated prospects like Adam Larsson, Gabriel Landeskog, Sean Couturier and Jonathan Huberdeau in terms of skill, but not stature.
How, exactly, does that fact play into the equation for MacGregor and the Oilers, who already have a roster laden with smaller forwards like Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner, Linus Omark and Andrew Cogliano who don’t play a robust, physical style?
It’s a fair question, and one I asked MacGregor.
While Nugent-Hopkins certainly isn’t the second-coming of legendary mites like Bobby Lalonde or Steve Tsujiura — you have to be a fossil to remember those big talents in little bodies — and isn’t much smaller than Huberdeau, who is half-an-inch taller and 170 pounds, there’s no question he isn’t an imposing physical specimen. He likely never will be.
"Will he get big enough? Will he get strong enough to play in the NHL? I don’t know if size is an issue in terms of height, but he will have to get stronger," MacGregor said.
"He’s six feet and half-an-inch, that’s what Central Scouting has him at. The issue is, is he going to put on enough poundage to handle the rigors of the NHL?"
That’s a question that’s been asked about a lot of players who turned out just fine, as in Hall of Fame fine, like Wayne Gretzky and Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman, who were all scrawny, pencil-necked kids as NHL rookies.
Of course, just mentioning three of the greatest players to ever lace on skates draws a groan from MacGregor, as you’d expect.
"I’ve never been one who likes to compare players, especially when you get to Gretzky. Like, come on," MacGregor said.
"Yzerman was drafted at 155 pounds. Sakic wasn’t very big either. I’m not comparing this guy to those guys because they’re hall-of-famers, but remember these guys are 17 and 18 years old.
"The question is, can he put on the weight that gives him the strength and power? Those guys did, so obviously it’s not impossible to do that. Now, is it possible for him to do that?"
Obviously, it’s tough to say for sure with an 18-year-old. Fitness programs and diet aside, Nugent-Hopkins should put on size naturally as he matures. He has an older brother who is the same height and his father is shorter. Both are "thicker," according to MacGregor.
I’ll get into what MacGregor had to say about other aspects of Nugent-Hopkins game later in this series, but my read is he puts other attributes ahead of size when it comes to this player.
"He’s got great hockey sense and he’s got great skill," MacGregor said.
BY THE NUMBERS
There is also concern in some circles that Nugent-Hopkins scored 59 of his 106 points this season on the power play and that his even-strength numbers don’t stack up favourably against other top forwards. That’s not a fact lost on MacGregor.
"I guess you can look at it any way you want and we will have those discussions," he said. "There will be somebody who will bring that up in our meetings. They are important things to discuss."
Discussion about the breakdown of the numbers put up by Nugent-Hopkins — he finished fourth in WHL scoring and was the youngest player in that group — is one thing. Consternation about them is another.
"I’ve watched the kid play at both ends and he seems to do a lot of things on the power play and 5-on-5, so it’s not a real issue at this point," said MacGregor.
"He had the same number of points that Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin did last year. He rose to the occasion enough to be the leading scorer with his team and one of the top five in the WHL. He didn’t have a lot of guys to play with, but in the games I saw he was the guy who stirred the drink."
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.