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Standout center targeted for top of NHL draft

MINNEAPOLIS — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is widely considered the best available player in this weekend's NHL Entry Draft.

He said he'll be happy wherever he winds up, but all signs point to Edmonton. For the second straight year, the Oilers have the first pick.

They've been struggling, sure, but they also have been accumulating young talent. So perhaps that's not such a bad place for an 18-year-old phenom to go.

"I'd love to join them as a rebuilding team and help the ultimate goal, which is winning a Stanley Cup eventually," Nugent-Hopkins said.

The first round of the draft is tonight at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild. Last summer, the identity of the first pick remained a subject of intrigue right up until Taylor Hall's name was called. Tyler Seguin went to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

One of the many questions posed to Nugent-Hopkins on Thursday was whether he would rather be the first pick — or go second and win the Cup.

"Oh, man. Like, to any team• I'd probably go second and win a Cup," Nugent-Hopkins said.

The Oilers could use a young center to pair with Hall. Nugent-Hopkins led the Western Hockey League with 75 assists last season for the Red Deer Rebels. The native of Burnaby, British Columbia, said he's confident he's ready to enter the NHL.

"Red Deer should have a good team next year, so if I did go first overall and I played another year of juniors, I think it'd be good for me just getting bigger and stronger," he said. "Obviously, my goal is to crack the NHL and make an NHL team, whichever team it is, but if I do go back, I wouldn't be disappointed."

The 6-foot, 164-pounder would be the first WHL player drafted first since 1996, when Ottawa picked defenseman Chris Phillips. Nugent-Hopkins said he has added 10 pounds since the end of the season and expressed confidence he can add five more before the fall.

"I know I'm not the biggest guy obviously, but when I go into the corners with the bigger guys, I try to just get the puck and make the move and get out of there as fast as I can," he said.

The Colorado Avalanche have the second pick, and defenseman Adam Larsson of Sweden, considered the top European prospect, could be their selection. Strong, mobile, puck-moving defenseman have become a premium asset in the NHL, and as many as a half-dozen blue-liners could hear their name called in the top 15 picks.

Dougie Hamilton, of the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League, is another one of those top defensemen. He roomed with Nugent-Hopkins at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament last year for Team Canada and spent some time yesterday walking on the Xcel Energy Center floor.

"Kind of pictured it and imagined it, and it puts a smile on my face," he said. "It's going to be fun."

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