Boy becomes a man: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ready for WJC challenge

The Calgary International Airport was turned into makeshift press centre on Monday as Canada’s top junior players arrived at camp.

Amid the baggage carousels, weary travelers had to sidestep the likes of Edmonton Oilers star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who would have been playing in the NHL if not for the lockout.

The 19-year-old, on loan from Edmonton’s AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City, said he was happy to be finally getting a taste of the world junior experience. He attended Team Canada’s camp once before as a 17-year-old, but was cut from the team. He spent last season in the NHL, where he scored 52 points in 62 games, after being chosen first overall in the 2011 draft.

There was a distinct difference from the reserved kid dismissed by Hockey Canada in 2011 and the confident young man standing at the centre of the media crush at the airport.

“I feel like I’m a different person than I was a couple years ago,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “My game has definitely evolved a lot and I see myself as more of a two-way player now and I’m definitely going to take on that role at this camp and I look forward to it.”

The centre said he’s not thinking about the NHL lockout – particularly what should happen if it ends during camp – but noted it would be interesting to come back and play with players in his own age group.

“I’m only a few years out of junior so it’s still fresh in my mind,” said the former Red Deer Rebels star. “There’s a lot of guys going into this camp that probably would be with their NHL camps right now so it’s one of those unique situations that doesn’t happen too often, so I’m excited to take advantage of it.”

To be sure, the lockout has been a boon to Team Canada, even without the addition of Nugent-Hopkins. Winnipeg Jets pick Mark Scheifele (No. 7 overall in 2011) of the Barrie Colts is another among the long list of first-round NHL picks – Ryan Murphy, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Strome and Dougie Hamilton to name a few – who found themselves playing junior this season instead of in the NHL.

“There are a lot of great players and that’s a good thing to be a part of,” said Scheifele. “You want to challenge yourself against the best players for your age and that’s my goal. I want to make this team. I want to be a part of all those superstars and that’s what I’m looking forward to right now.”

But make no mistake, with a team this deep, head coach Steve Spott will have to do his best juggling lines and having players adapt to playing out of position. Scheifele, a centre, said he’s already been practicing playing right wing.

“I’ll play any position,” said the 19-year-old who won bronze with Team Canada at last year’s tournament in Calgary. “If it was goalie, I’d play goalie. If it means playing wing, I’ll play wing.” 

The players haven’t even stepped foot on the ice yet, but many are already saying this has the chance to be one of the best teams Canada has ever assembled. That notion has not been lost on players like Ottawa 67’s forward Tyler Graovac, who will be trying to crack the elite lineup.

“This is a great group of guys,” said Graovac. “To put my name in this kind of pool with some of the best junior players in the world, it gives me shivers a little bit. I’m just going to work hard because I know I belong here.”

The 6-foot-3, 180-pound forward said the toughest test for players will be trying to remain consistent throughout camp, which will see its final cuts made on Thursday.

“It’s a tough group this year,” said Graovac. “You’ve got first-round draft picks… we’ve got a lot of depth this year and it’s going to be a tough roster to crack, but I’m looking forward to it.”

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