Home > Edmonton Oilers, Sports > Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the Perils of Expectations

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the Perils of Expectations

Wayne Whozky?

Another NHL season has dawned across the continent, and, in Edmonton at least, with it comes the stirrings of hope that inevitably accompany a roster chocked full of blazing young talents on entry-level contracts. If the Oilers’ young star quotient is tilted disproportionately towards the forward lines at the expense of a thin rearguard and half-unproven, half-queasy goaltending tandem, then you can’t exactly blame that plethora of talented forwards for that. But expectations are also tilted disproportionately, and, since this is the Edmonton Oilers, their listing trends towards the late 1980s, of course.

After scoring a goal in his NHL debut that was a combination of skill, hustle, and anticipatory ingenuity, 18-year-old #1 overall draft pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins followed it with a slick hat trick in a loss to the Vancouver Canucks this past Saturday night for a national audience on Hockey Night in Canada. Although the third goal was of questionable attribution, to use an art world term, there’s little doubt that the young man known variously as RNH (in Oilogosphere shorthand), the Nuge (in the full-throated shouts of the fans), and Hoppy (dubiously, in the Oiler dressing room) was impressive, and hardly needed a bit of feel-good narrative-building official sleight-of-hand to emphasize that.

It’s not only Nugent-Hopkins’ offense that is of note, either; he cleared the crease on an alert goal-saving defensive play, and both the plus-minus and the advanced stats suggest that he’s far from a liability when the opposition has the puck, which is not usual for rookie straight out of junior. His face-offs are still lagging a bit behind, sure, but very few centres, even potentially elite ones, come into the league winning a high percentage of their draws right off the bat. It’s a subtle art that needs to be learned from experience, but from all indications thus far, Nugent-Hopkins is blessed with boatloads of subtlety on the ice.

It is that surfeit of subtlety that must surely have inspired CBC’s HNIC studio crew to make a distinctly unsubtle comparison between Nugent-Hopkins and another famously tricksy Oiler centre who bent the game elegantly and almost imperceptively to his will: Wayne Gretzky. Puck Daddy’s Ryan Lambert documented the atrocities very well, but left out the concept that attempting to understanding the Nuge through the lens of the Great One is par for the course in considering the Oilers. The ghosts of past championship glory refigures perspectives with the deformations of nostalgia.

"Are you a mod or a rocker?"

Making strong associational insinuations about Nugent-Hopkins’ first hat trick on the same night that Gretzky broke the all-time scoring record, 22 years later, or constructing the bold and heedless Taylor Hall as a modern, rushing Mark Messier as the in-game commentators did, is all part of parcel of an official narrative that shoehorns this exciting new group of parvenus into the role of resurrected Boys on the Bus. They cannot be allowed to be themselves, only peach-fuzzed bodhisattvas of Edmonton’s long-spent sporting glory years. Whatever they end up accomplishing, it is preconditioned by the achievements of the greats that they are supposed to be re-embodying. Not only is this unfair to the players themselves as concerns their own results in a very different NHL, it does them a disservice in the realm of individual hockey aesthetics. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is not Wayne Gretzky, and not only because this is not 1979 and because he will (probably) not win 4 Stanley Cups and shatter every offensive record in existence. He is not Gretzky because their energies are different, their contexts are divergent, their abilities shaded with distinct hues.

For Nugent-Hopkins, as equally for Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, Linus Omark, and whichever other young Oilers will still be around when (and if) this team grows into a winner, expectations can drive performance and can provide motivation for success. But expectations related to the specific fulfillment of vague, re-incarnatory prophecies of hockey history by quite distinct individuals do no one any favours, and can indeed be perilous from the observer’s point of view. Hockey may or may not be an art, as it definitely resembled when practiced by the likes of Gretzky, but it stubbornly resists narratives and is an ill-fit for myths. Whatever other hopes we fans clutch to our chests as concerns our tribal team allegiances, we’d be well served to remember and heed this warning.

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Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

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