Tencer's Blog: Early Returns
The question that I'm wondering is this: does Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have to "wow" us to make the team or is it enough to just look like he belongs? If it's the latter, I think it's becoming pretty obvious that he certainly does look comfortable. In Saskatoon on Tuesday and in Edmonton last night, Nugent-Hopkins didn't look out of place in any zone, and in addition to picking up a couple of points has also demonstrated the strong back-checking abilities that were also on display at the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton. His ability to make quick decisions and get the puck off his stick quickly has also been obvious, and Tom Renney was pleasantly surprised at his release when shooting. The only really obvious negative at any point has been his low winning percentage in the face off dot last night.
With the credential of being a first overall draft pick on his resume, perhaps there's an expectation for more flash from Nugent-Hopkins. But, is it flash that the Oilers are looking for from him? Perhaps on the power play, but it seems to me that this is a player who executes a more subtle game than the previous first overall pick, Taylor Hall. He thinks the game on a superior level relative to most players, and accomplishes a lot by virtue of strong positioning and a seemingly inherent understanding of where the puck is going to end up on any given play. If he looks comfortable, but not dominant...fits in, but isn't flashy...does he play in the NHL this year? It's a worthy question.
The news isn't nearly as positive as relates to Ryan Whitney, though. When asked this afternoon about where his frustration level is at, he quickly responded, "ten out of ten." The issue is a build-up of scar tissue in the ankle/foot area that Whitney had surgery on in the off-season. For the first time in training camp, Whitney skated a full on-ice session without cutting it short due to the pain. He says, though, that the pain was still very much present and he just decided to fight through it to get a full practice in. "It's prohibitive pain," he told me. "You can practice, but it's not something you can play through."
Whitney says the frustration level is buoyed on by the fact that he had planned all summer to be healthy in time for training camp, and now isn't. He says there's no debate about the fact that it will get better and heal...but the question is, when? According to Whitney, there aren't any answers right now. He's clear about the fact that he will not play injured and, if need be, will go to the AHL for a conditioning assignment if the injury holds him out of playing any pre-season games. The uncertainty surrounding his status is, perhaps, the biggest question hanging over the Oilers as they prepare for their season.
Tip of the cap to Reid Wilkins, who produces Oilers Now on 630 CHED, for digging up this little factoid: today is the 32nd anniversary of the first pre-season game that the Oilers played, a 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets in Brandon, Manitoba. I chatted with Kevin Lowe for a couple of minutes reminiscing about that night and he recalls almost missing the game! He was rooming with Colin Campbell at the time, and after the morning skate, they settled in to watch whatever CFL game was on that afternoon before indulging in the traditional pre-game nap. Without paying much attention to the clock, they fell asleep later than planned after getting caught up in the game, and missed the team bus! That would be one of Lowe's last experiences rooming with Campbell; shortly after, he and Wayne Gretzky became road roomies.