ST. PAUL, Minn. — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins took center stage when the Edmonton Oilers made him the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft.
It was quite fitting. Center was clearly the coveted position as player after player came off the board.
Nugent-Hopkins was the first to go Friday night, starting a run of pivots with six of the first eight selections. Then came the defensemen, with six being chosen in the top 14. After that came a couple of eyebrow-raising trades.
Defenseman Dougie Hamilton was drafted ninth overall by the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. The son of an Olympic rower (dad) and basketball player (mom), Hamilton had 58 points in 67 games last season for Niagara in the OHL.
Nugent-Hopkins, the first Western Hockey League player to be drafted first since 1996, has been raising eyebrows at the junior level for a while. The Oilers, slotted first overall for the second straight year, selected the slick passer from the Red Deer Rebels. The 18-year-old center led the WHL last season with 75 assists, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll be the next great player for the Oilers.
Edmonton took left wing Taylor Hall No. 1 in 2010, and Nugent-Hopkins could eventually find himself on a line with him. The first British Columbian to be taken first overall in the NHL draft, Nugent-Hopkins has already spoken with Hall.
“He was so great to talk to. Everything looks good right now,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He just said, ‘Enjoy this whole experience. You’re going to be nervous and stuff, but try to enjoy it as much as you can.'”
As for their chemistry?
“I guess we’ll never know until we get on the ice together, but hopefully we do. I can see it working,” Nugent-Hopkins said.
To get there, Nugent-Hopkins has to bulk up. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 164 pounds, he said this week he’s added 10 pounds to that total since the end of his junior season and plans to pack on five more.
“Steak and potatoes, mostly,” he said when asked about his diet. “Just trying to put some weight on.”
Nugent-Hopkins said he’s heard general manager Steve Tambellini is in “no rush” to bring him to Edmonton.
“If I do go back to junior, I won’t be disappointed at all,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “It’ll be a great opportunity for us as Red Deer as a team to hopefully get to the Memorial Cup. Personally, it’ll be a good development year for me, too. But my goal right now is to make the Oilers.”
The remaining rounds, two through seven, will take place on Saturday.
The home fans will return happy, after the Minnesota Wild drew roars from the crowd following the announcement of their big deal with the San Jose Sharks. The Wild sent All-Star defenseman Brent Burns and their 2012 second-round pick to the Sharks, and they received a pair of forwards Devin Setoguchi, a former 30-goal scorer, and Charlie Coyle, a first-round pick last year; plus another first-round pick this year, 28th overall.
Setoguchi had just agreed to a three-year, $9 million-deal on Thursday.
Chicago then dealt right wing Troy Brouwer to the Washington Capitals for the 26th overall selection, giving the Blackhawks a pair of first-rounders.
Left wing Gabriel Landeskog of Sweden went second overall to the Colorado Avalanche. He had 36 goals in 53 games last season for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League.
Jonathan Huberdeau, a center from Quebec, was taken third by the Florida Panthers, who were also in the same slot for the second year in a row. Huberdeau was the MVP of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs after getting three goals and three assists in four games for the Saint John’s Sea Dogs.
Huberdeau attended an English-speaking high school to help ease his transition to the NHL, and he spoke this week about finishing his exams, another reminder of just how young these players are under the spotlight on the stage with the whole hockey world watching.
Landeskog spoke of the “surreal” experience, hearing his name called while sitting in the seats with his family.
“I was just telling my dad, ‘I can’t believe this is really happening,'” Landeskog said.
Adam Larsson, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound defenseman from Sweden, was selected fourth by the New Jersey Devils. He played two full seasons for Skelleftea and was the third blue-liner to make his debut in the Swedish Elite League at age 16.
Then the New York Islanders chose center Ryan Strome of the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL. Strome was third in the league with 106 points in 65 games. Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo, a native of Minnesota, introduced Strome. The Islanders, too, were picking fifth for the second straight year.
After that, the Ottawa Senators chose center Mika Zibanejad from Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League with the first of their three first-round picks. His mother is Finnish, and his father is Iranian, but he was born in Stockholm.
Then came the big announcement by Winnipeg: The team will be called the Jets. Formerly the Atlanta Thrashers, the franchise waited until the seconds before choosing center Mark Schiefele with the seventh selection to announce the new — er, old — nickname.
Team chairman Mark Chipman turned to general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to make the pick “on behalf of the Winnipeg Jets.” That drew cheers and “Go Jets go!” chants from the dozens of fans wearing white T-shirts with the old red-and-blue Jets logo.
The Philadelphia Flyers, using the eighth pick they obtained in one of Thursday’s stunning trades, the one that sent leading scorer Jeff Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets, took center Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the QMJHL.
After the Bruins’ pick, more cheers erupted from the crowd, with defenseman Jonas Brodin from Farjestad of the Swedish Elite League drawing a roar from the Wild fans in attendance at Xcel Energy Center.
The Avalanche were the first team to pick twice. They took defenseman Duncan Siemens at No. 11, a selection obtained earlier this year in a trade with the St. Louis Blues headlined by defenseman Erik Johnson, himself a former No. 1 overall pick. Siemens was plus-40 for the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL last season.
The run of defenseman continued when Ryan Murphy went at No. 12 to the Carolina Hurricanes. He led OHL blue-liners with 26 goals last season for Kitchener. Then at No. 13, the Calgary Flames picked left wing Sven Baertschi of the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. The native of Switzerland had 34 goals and 51 assists in 66 games last season.
The first American selection — and first college player — was defenseman Jamieson Oleksiak of Northeastern University by the Dallas Stars at No. 14. Another American, center Jonathan Miller, went 15th to the New York Rangers. Miller, headed for the University of North Dakota in the fall, was part of the U.S. national team development program. He had 37 points in 48 games last season in the United States Hockey League.
Four Americans, three from the U.S. program, went in the first round.
Ottawa took right wing Stefan Noeson from Plymouth of the OHL with the No. 21 pick that they got from the Nashville Predators and the Senators then nabbed forward Matt Puempel from Peterborough of the OHL at No. 24, a selection they picked up from Detroit during the draft.