Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will need more than Infinite Patience, the name of his prize three-year-old filly, to ever grow a Grizzly Adams playoff beard or the stylish mutton chops of teammate Zack Kassian.
But even with a nifty Auston Matthews-type moustache, it’s not how he looks, it’s how he works alongside Connor McDavid in the NHL’s return to play.
At the first day of Phase 3 Monday, Nugent-Hopkins, who had 41 of his 61 points since New Year’s Eve, was on the same left side with McDavid and Kassian as he was for the last half dozen games before the NHL pause.
He wasn’t on left wing with Leon Draisaitl — who’s going to be be named the Ted Lindsay award winner Tuesday as NHL’s best player as voted by the players — and right-winger Kailer Yamamoto making up the hottest Edmonton Oilers line for two months.
So that answers one of the big questions.
“I’ve played before with Connor at the world championship, we were together all the time,” said Nugent-Hopkins, the most portable Oilers forward. “I know both Leon and Connor’s games very well and while they have different styles, for sure, the big thing is to be ready for the puck. Connor has the explosive speed, of course, and when I get the puck I have to think: ‘Where is he?’’’
All three will be on the NHL’s best power play, but as for five-on-five, coach Dave Tippett wants to spread the wealth. McDavid and Draisaitl might also find themselves together at even-strength if they are behind in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks in the qualification round. And Nugent-Hopkins could be back at centre on a second line.
“We have a lot of flexibility on the left side, where anybody can flip back and forth. Our depth there is very strong. I know that Nuge can play on that line with Leon but he played very well with Connor and Kass too,” Tippett said of his eight points in the last six games. “We’ve tried Tyler Ennis with Connor and we’ll see how this goes. It’s early in camp.”
Tippett had Andreas Athanasiou on left wing with Draisaitl during practice and a short scrimmage Monday at Rogers Place. Athanasiou was on the left side with Riley Sheahan and Josh Archibald in the Oilers’ last league game loss to Winnipeg here March 11.
Nugent-Hopkins’ horse had her unbeaten streak end at Woodbine earlier this month in the Fury Stakes, a length behind the winner, Curlin’s Voyage.
“She ran well and came third,” he said. “First time out there and she didn’t have a lot of time to adjust.”
There was a game night photo of a smiling Colby Cave leaving the ice, slapping the hands of fans, on the Jumbotron as the Oilers went out for practice. Also a message that said: We Skate for Colby. Only 25, Cave died April 11 of a brain bleed, a month after the last league game and with the team scattered.
“We felt it was something we had to address right away,” said Tippett. “It’s a fitting tribute and we wanted to make sure we pay our respects to Colby and his family. He’s with us in spirit.”
McDavid added: “He’s obviously going to be in our thoughts and hearts as we move through training camp, into the playoffs and hopefully go for a deep run here. We’re going to play for Colbs, and hold him with us throughout.
“Colby would have been with us today if he hadn’t passed. He was an unbelievable young man, a wonderful teammate. Colby and his wife (Emily) were good friends to everybody on our team.”
ONE CARD SHORT
Tippett is rolling with the punches after defenceman Mike Green opted out of the Stanley Cup tournament as COVID rages on.
“It didn’t catch me off guard. We knew there were some family issues (he has two kids, boy Axel, 4, and girl Lula, seven months) for a bit and I think he was really struggling with the decision,” said Tippett, who had considered playing Green or Matt Benning as right-shot defenceman in the third pairing. “You have to respect Mike’s decision. We traded for him (they’ll give Detroit a fourth-round pick at the October draft) and we thought he could really help us but these are unprecedented times.”
Green sprained his knee in his second Oilers game in Las Vegas and played only 32 minutes for the team.
At present, there are no plans to bring in another defenceman from Bakersfield, Calif., for Green. Philip Broberg, who turned 19 three weeks ago, is here to get his feet wet with NHL players. He’s not expected to be on the 31-man tournament roster. That leaves Caleb Jones, William Lagesson and Evan Bouchard as seventh, eighth and ninth on the depth chart.
Jones did not skate with the big boys, deemed unfit. There’s no disclosure of a player’s medical condition in Phase 3 or Phase 4. Jones, who did not skate in Phase 2 here according to the Oilers website, was scheduled to be on the ice with the extra goalies.
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