For the second time in as many seasons, the Edmonton Oilers will have their first-overall pick in the lineup for opening night.
Head coach Tom Renney confirmed after practice on Monday that centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will begin the 2011-12 campaign with the NHL club.
"Ryan will start the season with us," he told reporters. "We all understand the parameters there, that he can operate (here) before we have to make a real concrete decision on the season. Again, we'll do it a game at a time, but he's had a very good camp."
The first pick in the June draft centred a line at practice on Monday with 2010 first-overall pick Taylor Hall and veteran winger Ales Hemsky.
"I definitely am excited," Nugent-Hopkins said. "It's going to be my first regular season NHL game, so I couldn't be more excited. I'm just really happy for the opportunity."
Nugent-Hopkins, who signed an entry-level contract with the Oilers over the summer, scored a goal and five assists in five pre-season games. The Oilers can still opt to send him back to Red Deer of the Western Hockey League after he plays nine games so that he doesn't use up a year of his contract.
While the Oilers were cautious to lay any high expectations on him throughout the preseason, Renney has no problems throwing the young centreman into the heart of the Oilers' gameplan.
"I'm going to play him. This is about two points now. The guys that can help us do that, will play, and I fully expect that Ryan will be a contributor to our needs every night," he said. "I believe I've got more weapons in front of me from the forward group this year. With that, you might see minutes diminish across the board a little bit. At the same time, if we need to double up a line because they're going that well and he happens to be on it, all good."
The Oilers begin the regular season on Sunday night at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a night Nugent-Hopkins is eager to get to.
"It's really important for me to handle my emotions. I can't get too high. I know it's my first NHL game, so I'm going to be very excited but I think I've got to just channel that into a really good thing," he said. "The team's taken some strides the last couple of years. I know it's just exhibition but it shows a lot. We've definitely shown some character. I think we've put some good points on the board. So I think things are looking pretty good right now."