- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2011

EDMONTON, Alberta — There’s a little rule in the NHL that allows teams to keep players of a certain ripe age around for nine games before deciding whether to keep them for the season or return them to their junior or European teams.

That taste test is almost complete for the Edmonton Oilers and No. 1 pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who will play his ninth game of the season Thursday night — the final one before the team must make the decision.

Bruce Boudreau would love if that judgment day came sooner rather than later.

“I think they should send him down before tonight’s game,” the Capitals’ coach joked. “The kid’s great, what are you going to do? He’s going to be really good.

Nugent-Hopkins, 18, seems a mortal lock to stick, as he leads the Oilers in points with five goals and three assists. He’s playing on a top line with fellow first-rounders Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle and appears to be adapting to the pro game quicker than anyone expected.

Still, coach Tom Renney ducks the questions and Nugent-Hopkins insists he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, even as teammates rib him.

“I haven’t gotten word yet, so I’m just waiting,” he said. “I’m not going to think about it; I’m just going to think about playing tonight.”

Blocking it out off the ice is a chore for Nugent-Hopkins when he’s alone in his apartment. At the rink, it’s easier because his focus is on the game and the Oilers‘ surprising early-season success.

“So far I’ve been playing with some great guys and the team’s been doing really well,” he said. “It all just seemed to work out.”

With the big Canadian press corps trying to coax any answer out of Renney, the coach only admitted that Nugent-Hopkins is going with the team on its trip to Denver on Thursday night following the game against the Caps.

Though he wouldn’t divulge any team secret — if he even knows — the 18-year-old center joked that he better pack for the trip or “I’d be kind of screwed.”

That’s a good bet. Nugent-Hopkins has been a revelation for Edmonton, filling in perfectly in the middle of the top line. His success hasn’t really surprised teammates, given the tools he possesses.

“His biggest strength as a hockey player is how well he sees the ice and how smart he is. If you were to take all the skills of a hockey player and find out which one was most important, I think that would be it,” Eberle said. “And I think that’s why he’s adapted so quickly. He’s made the games look so easy.”

It’s been so easy for Nugent-Hopkins with the Oilers that he hasn’t even paid attention to his old team, the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League. Instead, he’s spent time asking ex-Caps forward Eric Belanger plenty of questions about how to improve his all-around game.

“He’s a good player. He’s a great kid. The game has changed so much, and you’ve seen a lot of kids come in, but he wants to learn,” Belanger said. “You can see he wants to learn and wants to get better.”

One of those things is Nugent-Hopkins‘ faceoffs. At 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, he’s not physically imposing but is leaning on Belanger and veteran center Shawn Horcoff to round out his faceoff game.

“I was struggling with it at the start of the year. I really wanted to focus on that. I really wanted to work on that. At practice every day I’ll be out there doing that,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been getting more comfortable in the faceoff circle.”

His linemates have had no trouble feeling comfortable with him, either. And they can’t wait until it’s a done deal that he’s in an Oilers uniform all season.

“He’s played great — that goes without saying,” Hall said. “And for him to finally know and kind of sleep on it a little bit and realize he’s going to be here for the year will be relieving when it happens. We’re very happy to have him here.”