Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Ready for Sean Couturier in CHL Top Prospects Game
Nugent-Hopkins and Couturier have been joined at the hip as far as the hype for the 2011 NHL Draft goes. They're both pegged to be top-five picks and either could be best in class when NHL teams select what they hope will be their future stars in June.
But for the time being, the annual Top Prospects Game could be the only time between now and the end of the season that Nugent-Hopkins gets to face Couturier in a game, unless their respective major junior clubs advance to the Memorial Cup championship tournament, which takes place in May.
Nugent-Hopkins is captain of the Top Prospects team coached by Doug Gilmour while Couturier wears the "C" for the team coached by Don Cherry.
"I'm looking forward to facing him," said Nugent-Hopkins, who plays for the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League. "We got to play against each other a little bit at the (December tryout) camp for Canada's junior team, so this should be fun.''
"I am going to try not to over-think it. It will be a lot of fun but I will just play my game."
Couturier won the battle of the promising prospects in December when he became the youngest and only draft-eligible player on Canada's roster for the world Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo, N.Y.
Like Couturier, Nugent-Hopkins is a highly skilled offensive star. He has 13 goals and 56 points in 43 games by the Rebels and is seventh in league scoring.
Former NHL coach Ken Hitchcock has kept a keen eye on Nugent-Hopkins and the way the teenager has come on has impressed him.
"I've changed my mind on Nugent-Hopkins. I started out thinking he reminded me of Joe Sakic. But now, it's Pavel Datsyuk. He strips people of pucks. In one game, I saw Nugent-Hopkins strip seven guys. Pretty impressive. He's got really high intelligence," Hitchcock told The Edmonton Journal.
When it was noted that Nugent-Hopkins is pretty small at 170 pounds, Hitchcock replied: "So was Datsyuk when he first got to the league."
Nugent-Hopkins was born in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby and played his minor hockey there. While the Canucks have a place in his heart, the chance of being drafted by Vancouver is slim to none unless the team makes a jaw-dropping trade to move up in the draft. That or the bottom completely falls out on the Canucks for the remainder of the NHL season.
But there is every chance Nugent-Hopkins will find himself on the radar screens of both the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames. Both NHL teams are in the running for a berth in the draft lottery.
Given Red Deer's proximity to both Edmonton and Calgary, Nugent-Hopkins is well versed in what is happening with each NHL team, how the Oilers are rebuilding with youth and how Calgary may follow suite.
That being the case, Nugent-Hopkins may have a short trip to his first NHL training camp.
"The game is becoming more about speed and the NHL likes the young players so it gives me more drive,'' he said.
Nugent-Hopkins started playing hockey when he was two years old and two years later he was the target in net for his older brother in street-hockey games.
He was the first overall pick in the 2008 bantam draft by the Rebels and has had more than just a taste of top-level hockey. He played for Canada at the top-level U-18 tournament in Slovakia last summer and scored the winning goal in the gold-medal game against the United States.
Nugent-Hopkins was asked what he likes most about hockey.
"I like the camaraderie with your teammates and it is really cool. I like how the team bonds together and you become a family. It is a great feeling. The overall feeling of playing hockey is a tremendous feeling."
By the end of the week, Nugent-Hopkins will return to the Rebels. He says his learning curve has lots more twists and turns ahead of him in preparation for the NHL Draft.
"I think you always have to keep working on your defensive game because that is one of the most important things in hockey and that is what I have been working at for the past year,'' he said. "My coach has been keen on that and for me that is one of the hardest things to get better at.
"I was always the kind of guy who back checks hard, but in my own zone I would want to get the puck and go up ice and beat guys. But you can't always do that and just go end to end.
"I've also learned that the time you have with the puck is way different in junior than it is playing midget or minor hockey. You have to make your decisions really as fast as you can.
And that's what NHL general managers like to hear.