I didn’t expect anybody with the Edmonton Oilers to be at or near a point-a-game pace past the quarter-pole of this season, but if I’d been asked to make a short-list of three candidates to be close, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ryan Smyth would not have been on it.
But here were are with 24 games in the books as the Minnesota Wild come calling Wednesday and here they are – Nugent-Hopkins leads the Oilers in scoring with 10-15-25 and Smyth is right behind with 12-12-24.
Each of them has provided a compelling storyline this season and made a lot of people look like fools along the way with how they’ve performed so far. One guy’s a fossil in hockey years, the other barely needs to shave.
I thought about that juxtaposition today when I was writing a Smyth feature for Canadian Press. Smyth and I had a good laugh about it when I mentioned that Nugent-Hopkins was four years old Smyth scored a career-high 39 goals for the Oilers in 1996-97. Today, The Kid is playing at pivot between Smyth and Jordan Eberle.
Seeing as The Nuge is 18 now and looks about 14 even with Mo-vember almost done, I found myself contemplating how old he must have looked at four. As much as anything, it made me appreciate what I’m seeing from both them – and it makes me feel old as dirt, which I am.
MORE THAN A FEEL GOOD STORY
Having travelled a lot of miles with Smyth in my years on the beat, I’ve got all the time in the world for him as a player and a person. I was unhappy to see him leave and thrilled when GM Steve Tambellini managed to get him back for spare parts and pocket change.
At 35, I was happy to see Smyth get the chance to close out his career here because this is where his heart has always been, contrary to what those who accused him of tearfully playing to the cameras when we was traded to the New York Islanders in 2007 were saying. Knuckleheads.
While I was certain Smyth would provide youngsters like Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and Taylor Hall the same solid blueprint of what it takes to be a pro captain Shawn Horcoff does, I really wasn’t expecting much on the ice – certainly not points-per-dollar value in the last year of a contract that pays him $4.5 million this season on a cap hit of $6.25 million.
So far, Smyth, who at times looked worn out and over with as his ice time diminished in Los Angeles, has been money in the bank. He’s out on the ice early and off late at practice, as always. He’s still battling his backside off in front of the net looking for loose change with all the gusto of a rookie.
As I mentioned in the CP piece, Smyth is today on pace to set career marks in goals and points, which is absolutely astounding to me at this point in his career. Overwhelming odds are that he will cool off or get hurt, maybe both, before the end of the season. Smyth isn’t going to score 45 goals. No way. Right? Doesn’t matter.
Smyth has delivered as expected in the dressing room and exceeded every expectation on the ice. At the very least, it looks to me like re-signing him – I’m thinking $6 million for two years – is a no-brainer. This is where his career started and this is where it should end when he’s ready to go.
WHAT ABOUT THE KID?
How many people, experts and fans alike, are going to be eating a heaping helping of crow if Nugent-Hopkins wins the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year? Hell, even if he doesn’t win it.
To hear some people tell it, Nugent-Hopkins was some kind of pencil neck who was going to wet his pants and run home to momma when he started playing against men. He wasn’t big enough or tough enough to hack it.
I had one foot in that camp. I wasn’t sure if his game, no matter how slick it was, would translate to the NHL against bigger, stronger, faster opponents. I’ve seen kids like him fade against men when it gets real. If it goes wrong early, the confidence and success that gets skilled kids like RNH to The Show can disappear in a hurry. It can take years to get back. Sometimes, it’s gone for good.
Despite playing some protected minutes, as you’d expect, and some stretches of struggle on the road, Nugent-Hopkins has pretty much SIUTBOHC, way up, since training camp opened. With all the emphasis on his physical size, it seems obvious a lot of people underestimated his hockey IQ.
And don’t even get me started on the ELC argument with this kid. Imagine, in the name of the greater good and the big picture, Nugent-Hopkins riding the bus in Red Deer, knowing he was good enough to pull people out of their seats at Rexall Place, just as he’s done.
I didn’t see him being this good this fast.
THIS AND THAT . . .
— If you haven’t heard it, Dustin Nielson and the creative people at TEAM 1260 have put together a catchy little send-up of We Built This City, called We Built This Smitty, you can link to at: http://www.theteam1260.com/blog/nielson/blogentry.aspx?BlogEntryID=10319086 .Give it a listen.
— Mark me down as convinced Jeff Petry can be a second-pairing defenseman at the NHL level and that Colten Teubert, despite some rough edges, looks like a keeper as a third-pairing guy. I like Petry’s instincts and Teubert is going to be a nasty bit of business to play against when he realizes he belongs and gets settled in.
— Smyth isn’t limiting himself to playing the kindly elder statesman in helping the kids along. Smyth was in Eberle’s ear loud and clear at practice at Rexall Place today when he didn’t spot the open man and pass the puck during a drill.
— I’m with Jason Gregor when he says Magnus Paajarvi is going to wither on the vine here if he’s only playing fourth-line minutes and would be better served in OKC. Now, he’s got a window of two to four weeks to find his game with Hall out. He’d be well-advised to make the most of it.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.