As impressive as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been in his first seven NHL games, the rookie sensation has no guarantee he will remain in the big leagues all season.
Nugent-Hopkins leads rookies with five goals and seven points, but the 18-year-old center, taken by the Oilers with the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, still can’t yet claim a permanent address.
With two games to go before Nugent-Hopkins reaches the nine-game threshold that would start his three-year, entry-level contract, fans are convinced the kid dubbed ”The Nuge” should stick around.
But the Oilers haven’t made a decision, and Nugent-Hopkins says he doesn’t know if he will soon be sent back to his junior team — the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League.
”No. Still nothing,” Nugent-Hopkins said Monday. ”Still just waiting. I’m going to go into (Tuesday) night and just play and see what happens after that.”
If Oilers coach Tom Renney and team management have made a decision on their leading scorer, they aren’t tipping their hand.
”Have I told him he’s staying? No,” Renney said.
Renney also wouldn’t say if the Oilers would wait the full nine games before announcing a decision on Nugent-Hopkins’ immediate future.
”I don’t think we’ve really identified an internal timeline,” Renney said. ”We talk about all our players every day, and he’s certainly one of the ones we talk about a lot. I can tell you that it’s all favorable, you know? The kid’s doing a good job. At the end of the day, and I’ve said many, many times, it’ll be the body of work we’ll look at.
”There are other players who are involved in this process, too, that we have to make decisions. It’s about a number of other players we have to pay attention to in terms of whether or not they’re part of the lineup.”
While Nugent-Hopkins shrugs off the silence, fans haven’t been as quiet. Renney had Oilers supporters buzzing when he cut the ice time of Nugent-Hopkins and linemates Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle late in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota on Thursday.
The chatter turned into a roar on radio call-in shows Saturday after Renney suggested Nugent-Hopkins might sit out a game as he sorts out his roster.
”I was surprised by the lack of intellect in as to why that would come about,” Renney said of the reaction to his comments. ”Why wouldn’t I at least consider, never having said I would, what our team would look like without him in the lineup?
”If you want to know how valuable a guy is, you don’t really know how much you miss someone until you don’t have him anymore … I was kind of disappointed it grew the legs that it did, and people started to draw conclusions he might not play. I never, ever said he wouldn’t play in the next game. I never said that at all.”
Nugent-Hopkins was in the lineup against the New York Rangers on Saturday and bounced back from two games without a point with a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win.
”He’s a point-a-game player,” Hall said. ”He’s got five goals. It’s pretty hard to say that’s not NHL caliber.
”He was brought in to produce offense, and he’s done that in spades. That’s what he wanted to do. I’ve said all along that if he came in and did what he did best, and he’s even done more than that, he’d be a capable NHL player this year.”
The Oilers told Hall, selected first overall in the 2010 draft, he would stay last season before his fifth game. At the time, Hall had just one assist.
”Maybe they think what they’re doing, just keeping him on his heels a little bit, has worked,” Hall said of management’s insistence since draft day they won’t rush Nugent-Hopkins.
”Before the last game, Tom gave him a little bit of a scare. Jordan and I love playing with him. We don’t want our line to change, by any means, but we’ll stand by the team whatever they do because that’s who we play for. We all pull for all the best for Ryan. We want him to stay all year.”
Under the current CBA, there are two thresholds to consider with Nugent-Hopkins and NHL rookies.
If the Oilers play Nugent-Hopkins in 10 games this season, they use the first year of his entry-level contract. The Oilers can, however, return him to Red Deer before he plays 40 games without having this season count as service toward unrestricted free agency.
”I don’t really worry about it. I just try to take it day by day,” Nugent-Hopkins said. ”Right now, I’m here so I’m happy. I’m just doing everything I can to stay here, and I’m just going to keep doing that until I get told whether I am or whether I’m not.”
Nugent-Hopkins has made about as strong a case as possible to stay on a team that finished last in the NHL in back-to-back seasons.
”I try to just play and have fun,” he said. ”I’m having a blast so far.”