Whether it was a year ago, as he was lighting up the Western Hockey League, four months ago, when he was selected first overall at the NHL entry draft, or a number of weeks ago, when the Edmonton Oilers broke training camp, the consensus on Ryan Nugent Hopkins was that inevitably, he would head back to junior hockey in Red Deer for another season.
Sure, it's been in vogue for the first selection to play in the NHL at 18 years of age. In fact, its been the norm. But at first glance, it would have been a stretch. The native of Burnaby, B.C. is generously listed at a six feet and 171 pounds. You hear about his elite vision and skill set, but can't be faulted for being a bit, well, skeptical. This was, after all, a player that wasn't even deemed ready to enough to play in the World Juniors last winter.
So why, and how, is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins still hanging around, getting a longer look than many people thought possible?
When you watch him, you finally begin to understand.
Those close to the Nugent-Hopkins camp since day one, when he dominated the AAA Midget ranks in B.C as a 15-year old, had his way at Calgary's Mac's Midget Tournament, and subsequently scored six points in five games as a WHL underage call-up, were the first to realize: "The Nuge" is special.
It's not something that can be defined in advanced sabremetrics, or confined in the X's and O's of a power-play strategy. It's not something that be measured in goals and assists. It's a gift that many scouts will tell you, transcends with the Sakic's, Neidermeyer's, and Modano's of WHL lore.
If you know RNH, the sequence of events that we've seen in recent weeks were almost predictable. Even if the Oilers had designs on sending him back to junior, he'd force their hand with an awe-inspiring camp. It was destined to happen. Then, when they decided to give him some preseason games, he'd get his points, and leave pundits scratching their heads. Again, inevitable. So next up, is his nine-game NHL "tryout". And at this rate, we know how this story ends. The first overall pick, like it or not, is ready for the next stage. He just is.
If Tyler Ennis can survive in the harsh climate that is the NHL's offensive zone, so can Nugent- Hopkins. If Alex Burmistrov is deemed ready to hop the boards at 18, then so is young number 93.
The chance remains that the Oilers will eventually send him back to junior, and the Rebels, WHL, and Hockey Canada will all reap the benefits. But if it comes to that, it will strictly be a contractual venture, one that they will hate to make.
From a projection standpoint, the sky is the limit. The effortless gliding ability reminds you of Ales Hemsky. The quick hands in traffic and ferocious hounding defensively is Datsyuk-like, and his penchant for running the half-wall on the powerplay, even at 18, is comparable to Mike Ribiero.
There will always be those that doubt. But, when you watch him play for the first time, you just know.