Oiler kids evoking great ghosts

Publish date:

Nobody wants to go there. Nobody dares to go there. But you're just a little bit tempted to go there. Really, though, it isn't a good idea.

Let's do it anyway:

There is just a slight resemblance to Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier in center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and winger Taylor Hall.

There, it was said.

The operative word right now is slight, defined in the adjective sense by Webster as "Lacking in strength or substance; flimsy, frail."

This really isn't a good idea to entertain, but...Gretzky wore No. 99 and was a flimsy, frail looking kid when he came up and Nugent-Hopkins wears 93. Good luck cleary reading that number if he's turned sideways. Nugent-Hopkins and The Great One both did/do that little curl-back move with the puck that sends opposing defensemen skidding off the cliff.

Thicker features, big, wide eyes, lots of skill but also a bulldog mentality. Those things came to characterize No. 11, Messier, and differentiate him from Gretzky, the same way that Hall is now being differentiated from Nugent-Hopkins.

This is just dumb. This is impossible. But the Edmonton Oilers started the season 8-2-2 and, dammit, you just want to go there for a second:

Is this the Second Coming in hockey's great white north?

OK, stop it. Now.

"Ha ha, yeah that may be putting the cart a little before the horse there," Oilers coach Tom Renney said over a cellular connection between Alberta's second-largest city and Denver earlier this week. "There's never going to be another Gretzky and Messier."

But isn't there just a little bit of a chance these two youngsters could have careers...slightly resembling those Oiler hockey gods?

"Oh I tell you what, that Nugent-Hopkins is going to be one hell of a player," says former Stanley Cup-winning coach, Ken Hitchcock, who has traveled every inch of the Western Canadian hockey prairies in his lifetime and doesn't hand out praise lightly. "I've seen him play a lot, and he's got that half-a-frame faster development of the play in his mind's eye than everyone else. The great players have that ability."

The sign that comes into view about 10 kilometers into the drive from Edmonton's International Airport says "Welcome to Edmonton, Alberta's Capital City -- City of Champions." It is a sign with letter fonts that are distinctly '80s, so much so that they should be surrounded in acid-washed denim with a feathered haircut on top.

Since that halcyon decade, well, aside from one Cinderella-sponsored trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, the city of champions has been akin to the spare-tired guy at the end of the bar rhapsodizing about the old glory days on the high school football team. Two straight 30th-place finishes for Edmonton's beloved Oilers capped off the largely mediocre period since the last of their five Stanley Cups was hoisted in 1990, and the citizenry hasn't been in much of a bragging mood. Which is why, even after Burnaby, British Columbia-native Nugent-Hopkins was selected first overall by the Oilers in this year's NHL entry draft, fans weren't exactly saving all their spare loonies for playoff tickets like they did in the old days. After all, the Oilers had the first pick in the previous year's draft, tabbed Alberta boy Hall with it, and still finished dead last with a 25-45-12 mark.

How was an 18-year-old B.C. boy with a body like the "before" picture in a Charles Atlas ad -- 6-foot, 171 pounds soaking wet -- going to make much of a difference this season? (Funny, they said the same kinds of things about Gretzky when he came to Edmonton as a teenager in 1978).

Despite seeing Nugent-Hopkins score a goal in his first career game and a hat trick in his third, Renney was still wondering after Edmonton's first seven games. Games 8 and 9 would come at Rexall Place against Vancouver and Washington, after which the Oilers would have to decide whether to keep Nugent-Hopkins and absorb his $3.775 million cap hit or send him back to the Red Deer Rebels for another year of Western Hockey League seasoning. To Renney, "RNH" still had two more auditions to pass.

While it may now seem as hard to believe that the Oilers nearly passed on Nugent-Hopkins as it is that several record companies once passed on the Beatles (an executive at Decca Records famously sniffed, "the Beatles have no future in show business"), Renney swears that his team was still undecided about letting the kid stick around as the deadline neared.

"Those (Canucks and Capitals) were two heavy teams, and I needed to see if he could handle it still," says Renney, the former Rangers and Canucks coach who took over for Pat Quinn in Edmonton before last season. "It was still in question whether he would stay. But I saw what I needed to see."

In his first 12 games, Nugent-Hopkins produced 11 points (including five goals), while Hall put up nine. After Edmonton's dominating 3-0 victory at Los Angeles on Nov. 3, their record stood at 8-2-2, tied with Chicago for best in the West.

Jim Matheson, who has covered every Oilers season for the Edmonton Journal since the team was founded in the World Hockey Association in 1972, isn't ready to go there with any Nugent-Hopkins just yet.

Or is he?

"When you first saw Gretzky here, you thought, 'Is that it? This is the savior?' He was just a frail looking kid with bad acne," Matheson said.

Nugent-Hopkins' complexion is better, but his body type is similar. Then there's the playing style: the left-handed shot, the quick give-and-go passes, the extra second of patience along the half-boards and behind the net, that little curl-back move. OK, stop.

Nugent-Hopkins, Renney said, is "a good listener, a coachable kid, very humble."

Hall, 19, is more outgoing, more of a "chirper" in the Oilers' dressing room, said veteran Ryan Smyth, who is on his second go-around with the team and off to a great start with 11 points (six goals).

During a recent stop in Denver against the Avalanche (a 3-1 Oiler win), Hall did all of the talking on behalf of the young dynamic duo.

"Ever since late last year, when it looked like we would end up with the No. 1 pick again, I was thinking about playing with him," Hall says. "It's been great. He's really skilled and smart too. He's quieter than me for sure though. I'm kind of a hyper guy and he's pretty quiet, but a good guy."

Hall, who scored 22 goals in 65 games as a rookie, likes to read biographies of other athletes and sports personalities. He just finished one about Texas Rangers star Josh Hamilton and is currently reading a new book by Ron McLean of Hockey Night in Canada. He has compliments for both, even if they seem more backhanded than a Smyth rebound shot from crease.

"They kind of slow my mind down and help me sleep," Hall said.

The Oilers may be a Paul Coffey and Kevin Lowe on the blueline away from really comparing to the dynasty days of the '80s, and it took Gretzky and Messier four years together before they won their first Cup.

Expecting Edmonton to be the real City of Champions for the NHL this season is likely too much of a fantasy, although some are forgetful of the fact their No. 1 goalie -- veteran Nikolai Khabibulin -- has won the Cup before and is off to a sensational start (through Edmonton's first 12 games, they allowed only 18 goals).

Adversity, Renney says, "is sure to come, as it does for any team in a season." But the Oilers' coach talks of confidence, not fear, about the future.

"In a way, I'm very interested to see how these guys will handle the bumps that come. It's a natural curiosity to me," he says. "I would say I was hopeful of this kind of start, but not outright expecting it. But we like our team. We like what we have in our room. And I don't worry about comparisons to the past at all. Our past as an organization is a great thing, but this is their time, their book to write now."

What would it be called? How about "The Second Coming"?