Top-tier prospects bring excitement to OKC

On Sept. 15, 26 players were assigned to Oklahoma City by the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, and while many had experience with the Barons as recently as last season, three names stood out on the list: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Justin Schultz. While these names may not immediately ring a bell locally, their accomplishments as young, up-and-coming athletes can’t be ignored.

The 6-1, 175-pound Nugent-Hopkins was the #1 overall selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. The 19-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., wasted no time in making an impact in his first season, scoring 52 points (18-34-52) in 62 games. For his efforts, he was nominated for the Calder Trophy, awarded annually to the top first-year player in the National Hockey League.

Eberle, a 5-11, 184-pounder from Regina, Sask., was a first-round selection (22nd overall) in the 2009 NHL Draft. In 147 games over two seasons in the NHL, Eberle has scored 119 points (52-67-119). Last season, Eberle was nominated for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, given annually the player judged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.

Originally a second-round selection of the Anaheim Ducks, the 6-1, 195-pound Schultz became a free agent this summer and entertained offers from several NHL teams. The native of Kelowna, B.C., was a standout in the collegiate ranks each of the last two seasons at the University of Wisconsin. In 121 games, he scored 113 points (40-73-113) while earning WCHA Defenseman of the Year award in each of the past two seasons.

“Having these players skate with the Barons is a fantastic opportunity for the sports fan in Oklahoma City,” said Prodigal CEO Bob Funk Jr. “Athletes like [Oklahoma City natives] Sam Bradford and Blake Griffin were selected #1 overall based on a combination of their skill, work ethic and personality. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was selected #1 overall in 2011 for the same reasons. Eberle and Schultz will add to the already tremendous skill level increase the value of our games for our fans.”

“It is very exciting to have these three players in Oklahoma City, they are all extremely talented and will bring a unique skill set to our team.” said Barons General Manager Bill Scott. “Ryan and Jordan have already established themselves as elite talents and playing in OKC this year will only help to further their development as it gives them a chance to solidify their game while playing alongside other top prospects. Justin was the most sought-after college free agent this offseason with tremendous potential. It will be a great opportunity for him to begin his professional career in OKC with the rest of our prospects who are the future of the organization.

“The last lockout season in 2004-05 made the AHL the best hockey league in the world for that season and the development time given to such players as Eric Staal, Jason Spezza, Ryan Miller, Patrice Bergeron and others proved to be instrumental in laying the foundation for excellent careers, and we expect the same results for these players while they are in OKC.”

When Nugent-Hopkins plays for the Barons, he joins a short list of six athletes that have been selected #1 overall in their particular sport and played professionally for a team in Oklahoma City. Most recently, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, the #1 overall selection in the 1999 Major League Baseball draft, played for the Oklahoma City RedHawks in a conditioning stint during the 2009 campaign. Other #1 overall selections to play with the RedHawks include Adrian Gonzalez (2000 MLB Draft) and Kris Benson (1996 MLB Draft).

Hockey is the only other sport to have a #1 overall selection play with the professional team in Oklahoma City. Barry Gibbs (1966 NHL Draft), Rick Pagnutti (1967 NHL Draft) and Bob Neely (1973 WHA Draft) were #1 overall selections by teams in the highest level of play. Each played for the Oklahoma City Blazers in the early days of the Central Hockey League.