Spend a few minutes talking to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins outside the bustle of the daily scrums that have become his routine, and it’s difficult not to come away as impressed with him off the ice as on it.
Given how good Nugent-Hopkins has been at his first training camp with the Edmonton Oilers, and how it looks like he’s on his way to a claiming a season-opening roster spot well before he shaves for the first time in his life, that’s saying a mouthful.
While fans are giddy at what they’ve seen from Nugent-Hopkins this pre-season, the baby-faced 18-year-old pivot from the Red Deer Rebels is a picture of composure and understatement.
Short on bravado and long on aw-shucks is Nugent-Hopkins, who awoke Wednesday morning to rave reviews after scoring a goal and adding two assists on a line with Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle in a 3-2 win over the Phoenix Coyotes, giving him 1-5-6 in four pre-season games.
Not prone to an inflated cranium, this kid.
KIDS IN THE HALL
Just a couple of examples of what was out there this morning when Nugent-Hopkins and the Oilers filed into Rexall Place for a noon-hour skate. Over at the broadsheet, The Journal’s John Mackinnon wrote:
"They will score, these young Edmonton Oilers. That’s obvious. Not only that, the gifted likes of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will swash, they will buckle, they’ll sizzle, they’ll dance, they’ll drive the net, they’ll lift the Rexall Place faithful out of their seats early and often this season."
Equally impressed was Terry Jones at The Sun, who chimed in with:
"It was a line which looked, only moments after it came together, like it could live happily ever after. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made magic with Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle as coach Tom Renney decided to go forward to the future and the kid basically served notice he’s not going to be easy to ship back to his past.
"Forget about it Red Deer? Play on Rebels? You’ve seen the last of the No. 1 pick in the NHL Entry Draft? How do you send the kid back to junior after that performance?"
TAKING IT ALL IN
If Nugent-Hopkins is a pumped as he has to be at the prospect of cracking an NHL line-up, he’s doing a masterful job of hiding it publicly. No swagger. None. Not a trace of Rob Schremp in him.
"I came in here and I just wanted to play my game and try to earn a spot on this team," Nugent-Hopkins told me matter-of-factly. "I feel like I’ve definitely played my game as well as I could right now.
"I’m happy with the way things have gone. This week will be the last chance before the regular season to kind of prove myself a little bit more. I’m just going to do everything I can. Just play my game."
Nugent-Hopkins just smiled when asked about what’s been written and said about him.
"The coaches told me that the only thing I have to do is play my game and they’re going to give me a good opportunity here," he said. "I feel like I’ve done that. I just want to keep it going and make it a tough decision on the coaches."
Surely Nugent-Hopkins must allow himself a fist-pump here or there behind closed doors, given how well he’s performed with the eyes of an entire organization on him, no? You can tell me, kid . . .
"Obviously, I’m extremely excited about the opportunity I have, but I’m trying to just take it day by day," Nugent-Hopkins said as he peeled off his gear in a near-empty dressing room.
"If I get too high or too low, then things can go bad, so I’m just trying to keep level-headed here and have fun with it."
Nugent-Hopkins is at a stage where he’d rather have fun with it than talk about having fun with it, which is to be expected for a kid yet to play his first regular season NHL game. Better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around, after all.
The right stuff. The right words.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.