Edmonton hits big with Lottery Line

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - According to American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "youth comes but once in a lifetime."

These days in Edmonton, a trio of Oilers are making the most of those once-in- a-lifetime years.

Whether you call them the Lottery Line, the Kid Line or the Baby Oil Line, the chemistry displayed by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle in the early part of this season has folks seeing light at the end of the tunnel in Edmonton.

Perhaps the only good thing about missing out on the playoffs in five straight years since making a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006 is that the Oilers have been able to build an impressive stable of young prospects.

Still, after back-to-back 62-point seasons it's time for the rebuilding project to bear some fruit. The play of Edmonton's top line is a clear sign that better days lie ahead.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has appeared to be the missing ingredient for the Oilers' youth movement.
With the pedigree of the players on Edmonton's top line, the unit's success really shouldn't come as a surprise. In Nugent-Hopkins and Hall, the Oilers boast the NHL's last two No. 1 overall draft picks. Eberle, who is the elder statesman of the group at 21, was selected with the 22nd overall pick in 2008.

Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and Hall are currently 1-2-3 in scoring for Edmonton and the trio have combined for half of the Oilers' 16 goals in eight games this season.

"It's awesome," Nugent-Hopkins recently said of his line. "They make things so much easier out there and they also make it a lot of fun, too. I feel like we complement each other with the way we play. It's been great and I'm really happy with the start we've had."

Hall also leads Edmonton with a plus-five rating, while Eberle and Nugent- Hopkins are each plus-four on the season. Only five other Oiler players are above even this year.

The powerful top line has created serious matchup problems for the opposition and, along with the play of veteran goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, has been the biggest factor in Edmonton compiling a 4-2-2 record so far this season. Last year, the Oilers didn't win their fourth game until 12 games into the season and they posted their fifth victory in the 19th contest.

Just eight games into his NHL career, Nugent-Hopkins, who was the top pick in the June draft, has appeared to be the missing ingredient for the Oilers' youth movement. Before the draft, the 18-year-old was billed as a player with a tremendous offensive skill set that needed to get stronger before filling the scoresheet at the NHL level.

As it turns out, Nugent-Hopkins didn't need as much seasoning as expected. He scored a goal in his NHL debut against Pittsburgh and two games later lit up the defending Western Conference champion Canucks with a hat trick. Nugent- Hopkins also tallied a game-winner and assisted on the other goal in a 2-0 win over the New York Rangers.

Now, with Edmonton weighing whether or not to send Nugent-Hopkins back to his junior club in Red Deer, his linemates are lobbying to keep the British Columbia native up with the big club.

"With Ryan coming in and playing the way he has and showing the wherewithal to deal with everything and do as well as he has, we don't want [our line] to break up anytime soon," Hall told his team's website.

With his ninth game coming Thursday evening against Washington, Nugent-Hopkins is approaching the threshold for NHL teams to return players back to juniors. If Nugent-Hopkins takes the ice in Friday's game in Colorado -- Edmonton's 10th test of the year -- then his three-year, entry-level contract will begin.

It's difficult to believe the Oilers are actually thinking about sending Nugent-Hopkins back to the WHL. Even if he was struggling at this point of the year, the rebuilding project in Edmonton would not be served by returning him to Red Deer. With Nugent-Hopkins currently leading all NHL rookies in goals (5) and points (8) it's clear that he belongs.

Still, Nugent-Hopkins is not taking anything for granted and the centerman sees Thursday's game against the Capitals as another opportunity to prove his place is in the NHL.

"I'm going to keep taking it a day at a time and a game at a time, and go into [tonight's] game trying to make a good impression," Nugent-Hopkins said.

The Oilers have been patiently waiting for their young core to turn potential into positive results, and all Nugent-Hopkins has done so far is make Edmonton a better team. Splitting the trio up at this point just to save themselves some money, simply does not make sense.

Longfellow's words hint at the fleeting nature of youth and they can't help but make one think about how best to spend those younger years. When watching Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins skate together it's easy to see that they are making excellent use of this precious time.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.

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