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COVID-19 isolation means dog days for Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins speaks to the media at Rogers Place following the conclusion of the Edmonton Oilers' 2017-18 NHL season, in this file photo from April 8, 2018.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins speaks to the media at Rogers Place following the conclusion of the Edmonton Oilers' 2017-18 NHL season, in this file photo from April 8, 2018.

Every dog has its day, especially Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ golden retriever Sophie, who wouldn’t know COVID-19 from a milk bone.

But her tail has been wagging with all the times the Edmonton Oilers centre has gotten out her leash lately.

“I think she’s the only one that’s happy with the whole quarantine thing that is going on. She gets lots of attention, lots of walks right now,” said the longest-serving Oilers player at 604 games, who is currently camped out with wife Breanne at their house in Edmonton during the stoppage, rather than return to their off-season home in Vancouver.

Like pretty much everybody staying inside and practising social distancing during the coronavirus threat, he’s safe but bored, sleeping in later than usual, trying to get some exercise, watching Netflix.

Yeah, he’s seen Tiger King .

“Pretty bizarre, the whole thing,” he said, not stick-handling around the question on whether Carole Baskin’s departed husband had been fed to the tigers.

“Sure seemed that way to me,” said Nugent-Hopkins on SportsNet’s Hockey Central .

He’s spending more time in the kitchen than usual. Not as big on take-out with Skip the Dishes or Uber Eats.

“I’ve been cooking a lot, something I don’t usually do during the season, lunches and dinner, a little unusual for me but cooking is something I’ve wanted to get more into and my wife and I are trying to come up with creative dishes to try out,” said Nugent-Hopkins.

Getting creative is what he’s done with his playing too, moving to left-wing from centre. This may be his true NHL calling if McDavid and Draisaitl are the NHL’s best tag-team at centre. Just as Joe Pavelski moved to wing with Joe Thornton in San Jose with Logan Couture as the other Sharks’ centre.

Nugent-Hopkins had 61 points in 65 games at the stoppage, 41 of those in 30 games since New Year’s Eve, when he and Draisaitl found themselves with Kailer Yamamoto.

This may be the start of Nugent-Hopkins’ second chapter, the first player taken in the 2011 draft, now a winger like so many other centres in the NHL because all those Canadian Olympic teams are populated with centres who have to move over.

Either Nugent-Hopkins stays with Draisaitl, the NHL’s scoring leader, or shifts to left-wing with McDavid because the Oilers third-best forward can’t be a No. 3 centre; not nearly enough ice-time for a guy who was on pace for a career high 70-plus points before the stoppage.

“Playing the wing changes your game a little bit, it does open up a little more offensively for you,” said Nugent-Hopkins on a video conference call. “When you’re centre, you’ve always got to make sure you’re coming back and playing deep in your own zone. You’re kind of catching up to the rush more so coming out of the defensive zone, transitioning to offence.”

“Whereas as a winger, you’re usually the one leading with the puck or at least supporting the guy who’s leading with the puck. So it’s kind of, as soon as we get it, we have that offensive mindset. At least, that’s how I saw it once I went onto the wing. I got to play with obviously Leo and Yamo and we got some chemistry going right away. Definitely a lot of fun,” said Nugent-Hopkins.

Yamamoto’s arrival from Bakersfield saved the season for the Oilers, gave them a second-line, taking the heat off McDavid on the first unit. Yamamoto has 25 points in 26 games, and nobody’s looking at the 150-pound winger like he’s a work in progress any longer.

“What do I like about Yamo? The way he goes and gets pucks, he’s not afraid to go into the corner with anybody. He battled with (Zdeno) Chara — a little height difference there, but he’s not afraid,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “He wants to win the puck battle and get pucks back for us.”

It’s a strong scouting report, just like the one he’s got on 14-year-old forward Connor Bedard, who was just granted exceptional-player status by the Western Hockey League, who will welcome him as a 15-year-old.

Nugent-Hopkins can relate because he was the first-overall pick in the bantam draft by Red Deer Rebels in 2008, just as Bedard will be when the Regina Pats call out his name.

“I’ve skated with Connor with Power Edge Pro in Burnaby. I think we started skating with him when he was 12 and when we found out how old he was, we were pretty shocked. He’s a bigger kid for his age (165 pounds), I definitely wasn’t that big at that age, but everything he does is so advanced,” said Nugent-Hopkins.

“His shot is already very good, hard and so accurate and a great skater. Pretty special player for sure and for him to become the first guy to be granted exceptional-player status in the WHL is pretty impressive.”

Nugent-Hopkins would rather be talking about the other Connor, and Saturday’s game in Calgary to end the regular-season, bringing back the fire on ice in the Battle of Alberta. But, we won’t be getting that now.

“I’ve thought about all the games we’ve missed. We had that one eastern road trip left and then a lot of home games left,” he said.

“It’s hard not to think about that when you’re going over those days we should have been playing. Everybody’s kind of just taking it one day at a time now, waiting for updates. It’s definitely strange, knowing we would have been playing our last regular-season game on Saturday.”

E-mail: jmatheson@postmedia.com

On Twitter: @NHLbyMatty

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