Jim Mone, Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is widely considered the best available player in this weekend's NHL draft.
He said he'll be happy wherever he winds up, but all signs point to Edmonton. For the second straight year, the Oilers have the first pick. They've been struggling, sure, but they've also been accumulating young talent. So perhaps that's not such a bad place for an 18-year-old phenom to go.
"I'd love to join them as a rebuilding team and help the ultimate goal, which is winning a Stanley Cup eventually," Nugent-Hopkins said.
Last summer, the identity of the first pick remained a subject of intrigue right up until Taylor Hall's name was called by the commissioner. Tyler Seguin went to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
One of the many questions posed to Nugent-Hopkins during a session with reporters Thursday was whether he'd rather be the first pick — or go second and win the Cup.
"Oh, man. Like, to any team? I'd probably go second and win a Cup," Nugent-Hopkins said.
The first round of the draft is Friday night at Xcel Energy Center, home of the Wild.
The Oilers could use a young center to pair with last year's prize, left wing Taylor Hall. Nugent-Hopkins led the Western Hockey League with 75 assists last season for the Red Deer Rebels. The native of Burnaby, British Columbia, said he's confident he's ready to enter the NHL right away.
"Red Deer should have a good team next year, so if I did go first overall and I played another year of juniors I think it'd be good for me just getting bigger and stronger," Nugent-Hopkins said. "Obviously my goal is to crack the NHL and make an NHL team, whichever team it is, but if I do go back I wouldn't be disappointed."
The 6-foot, 164-pound player would be the first WHL player drafted first since 1996, when Ottawa picked defenseman Chris Phillips. Minnesota's selection of Mike Modano in 1988 was the previous first pick from the WHL.
"It's amazing competition. The players there, a lot of them are big, strong guys like you'd see in the NHL," Nugent-Hopkins said. "I feel like it's a really close league to the NHL. It's just younger players."
He said he's added 10 pounds since the end of his season and expressed confidence he can add five more before the fall.
"I know I'm not the biggest guy obviously, but when I go into the corners with the bigger guys I try to just get the puck and make the move and get out of there as fast as I can," Nugent-Hopkins said.
Vision on the ice and pure passing ability are the strengths for Nugent-Hopkins, who has even heard his name compared a few times to Wayne Gretzky. Edmonton, then, would then be a fitting place for him to play, even if that would bring more pressure.
Bring it on, he said, of the scrutiny that falls on stars in Canada.
"I guarantee those guys don't pay too much attention to it, so it probably doesn't bother them too much," he said. "They're also praised when they're doing good so there's not much more you can ask for."
The pressure is already on the once-mighty Oilers to make the most of this.
"I don't plan on having the first pick overall next season," general manager Steve Tambellini said recently. "When you do get a pick like this, it's highly coveted with the organization., because this is how you build something great."
The Colorado Avalanche have the second pick, and defenseman Adam Larsson of Sweden, considered the top European prospect, could be their selection.
Strong, mobile, puck-moving defenseman have become a premium asset in the NHL, and as many as a half-dozen blue-liners could hear their name called in the top 15 picks.
"I feel that my body is ready, and everything like that is ready," Larsson said.
Dougie Hamilton, of the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League, is another one of those top defensemen. He roomed with Nugent-Hopkins at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament last year for Team Canada.
Hamilton spent some time Thursday walking on the Xcel Energy Center floor.
"Kind of pictured it and imagined it, and it puts a smile on my face," Hamilton said, "so it's going to be fun."
Though this crop could be shorter on franchise-changing stars, it's considered one of the deeper drafts of the past decade, perhaps comparable to the windfall of young talent that arrived in 2003, like Jeff Carter, Zach Parise and Ryan Kesler.
One of those first-rounders, Minnesota defenseman Brent Burns, spent some time with some of the top prospects Thursday as part of a promotion with equipment manufacturers Reebok and CCM.
Burns looked back on the once-in-a-lifetime experience of draft week.
"I think probably at that time I was worried there were so many good players they were going to forget about me," said Burns, who went with the 20th pick. "I think, like a lot of things in hockey, you don't really think about it at the time, but later on you look back and remember it and it becomes a little bit more important."
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