Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins stepped off the plane from Edmonton, Canada, in late September and quickly found their way to Bricktown.
Thanks to the ongoing National Hockey League lockout, two of the world’s best young forwards will spend the foreseeable future playing for the Oklahoma City Barons.
Most NHL players are locked out of competition, but players on entry-level contracts — those age 21 and younger — are allowed to compete for minor-league affiliates. That means two of the Edmonton Oilers’ brightest stars will be shining in OKC.
Nugent-Hopkins arrives after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NHL entry draft. In 62 games last season, he scored 18 goals with a whopping 34 assists. Eberle last season was 15th in the NHL in scoring with 34 goals, nearly double the year before.
If you’ve never checked out a Oklahoma City Barons game, now would be the time to do it.
“It’s huge. They’re not just NHL players; they’re top NHL players,” said Barons goalie Yann Danis. “Ask any of the other 29 teams in the NHL if they’d like to have Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins, and they’d jump on the chance. It’s huge for us. But with that will come high expectations.”
The Barons play their first home game of the season at 7 p.m. Friday against the San Antonio Rampage. Both Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins are expected to take the ice.
“We don’t know how long they’ll be here, but it’s definitely a plus for us,” Danis said. “I think everybody has raised their game, and they’re definitely a reason for that.”
Oilers to OKC
Awaiting news of the lockout’s end, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins check a secure, players-only website for daily updates from NHL Players Association Executive Director Don Fehr.
“I know most of these guys from camp the last couple of years,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “The rink is great and the room is unreal. It doesn’t feel much different at all. It’s a really first-class organization.”
Most years when AHL training camp starts, NHL players are with their parent clubs. The feel was markedly different this year.
“From the get-go, guys were ready to play. Obviously, there’s a lot of people watching from high up in the organization,” Danis said.
Danis was named AHL Most Outstanding Goaltender last season while registering a .924 save percentage and yielding an average of less than 2.5 goals per game.
This year, he finds himself in a teaching role, with 2009 fifth-round pick Olivier Roy squarely behind him and 2010 fifth-rounder Tyler Bunz spending the preseason in OKC before being shipped off to the East Coast Hockey League.
“I know they’re going to push me, and I have to perform to keep playing. I think it will be good for me and good for them,” Danis said.
Eberle said OKC is on par with other professional sports cities.
“It’s very similar to Edmonton,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is just getting into a routine ... but once you get down here skating with the guys, it gets easier. It’s 100 percent opportunity.”
top: Yann Davis (photo: Steven Christy / OKC Barons)
middle: Jordan Eberle (Getty Images)
bottom: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Getty Images)