In December of 2010, when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins arrived for his first Canadian world junior tryout camp, there was already excitement about the young Red Deer Rebels prospect. Nugent-Hopkins's playmaking skills were uncanny and were drawing comparisons to a young Wayne Gretzky.
The Edmonton Oilers were an awful NHL team that year and people were already connecting the dots. If Edmonton finished last overall, which seemed possible, even likely, then Nugent-Hopkins might represent a good consolation prize.
Accordingly, there was a lot of scrutiny and attention paid to Nugent-Hopkins back then and eyebrows were raised when he didn't make the cut. But that is a fact of life in the tournament known officially in International Ice Hockey Federation circles as the world under-20 championship.
Even the most precocious players are at different stages in their development at 19 than they are at 17. So now, here is Nugent-Hopkins, with two years of learning under his belt, and he will be the first to tell you. The difference in every part of his game – physically, mentally, technically – is night and day.
"I feel like I'm a different person than I was a couple of years ago," Nugent-Hopkins said Monday. "My game has definitely evolved a lot. I see myself as more of a two-way player now, so I'm definitely going to try to take on that role at this camp and moving forward."
That is why, when Canada's players arrived Monday to begin the 72-hour sorting-out process to select the 2013 world junior team, much of the early focus was on the 19-year-old forwards who are here, largely because of the NHL lockout: Nugent-Hopkins, Mark Scheifele, Ryan Strome, Jonathan Huberdeau. Scheifele suggested he was already anticipating a switch from his regular position, centre, to wing, because that would permit him to play on the same line as Huberdeau and Nugent-Hopkins.
Line combinations are generally in flux for weeks heading into the tournament, and then can change again once play gets under way.
But for now, all these 19-year-olds – a little older, a little wiser, a little better equipped to handle the challenge of playing a tournament in Ufa, Russia – give the Canadian team a maturity that it otherwise wouldn't have.
Nugent-Hopkins has spent the first part of this season playing in the American Hockey League for Oklahoma City on the same line as Jordan Eberle, who was a big reason why Canada won its last world junior title, in 2009. Eberle scored the tying goal against Russia with six seconds remaining, which forced overtime and kept Canada alive in the tournament. Since then, Canada has finished second twice and third last year, as the Americans, Russians and Swedes have won the last three under-20 championships.
The Oilers left the decision to play or not up to Nugent-Hopkins, and he did his due diligence before opting to go to Russia for Christmas rather than stay in the minors.
"I've talked to quite a few guys who've played in the world junior before," Nugent-Hopkins said. "They all say positive things about it. They all say it's one of the greatest experiences in their lives. That definitely helped me in making my decision. Obviously, he [Eberle] had great success at the tournament, as well as Taylor Hall. I mean, having those guys there, [talking] about their experiences, definitely helped me out."
Twelve months ago, Canada received a handful of players on loan from NHL teams, including Devante Smith-Pelly from the Anaheim Ducks and Brett Connelly from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Don Hay, coach of the 2011 team, made an interesting observation about that development, noting how sometimes it is a good thing mentally for a junior-age player to get back with his own peer group.
The goofiness that sometimes characterizes junior hockey can be a significant culture change from the NHL pressure cooker, where they are still filling out physically while playing professionally against men immersed in their own adult lives. This is a chance – briefly – to go back to being a kid.
"It's definitely a change of pace," Nugent-Hopkins said, "but I think it's going to be good. I'm excited about it. I know most of these guys and it's a great group of guys. I'm really excited to get going."