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Nugent-Hopkins plays for the Stanley Cup 13 years to the day since being drafted by the Oilers

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SUNRISE, Fla. -

When the Edmonton Oilers selected Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the first pick in the 2011 NHL draft, they had missed the playoffs five consecutive seasons. They did not qualify for seven of his eight first seasons, either.

Now, 13 years to the day since hearing his name called in one of the most memorable moments of his career, Nugent-Hopkins is playing for the Stanley Cup in Game 7 of the final against the Florida Panthers. He is the longest-tenured player in the storied organization, a building-block piece long before Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl arrived and a major reason the Oilers got here.

“He’s gone through some dark days (with the Oilers and) come out the other side,” McDavid said Sunday. "He means a lot to our group. He means a lot to the people of the city of Edmonton. Obviously took a massive kind of pay cut to stay there and be a part of the group, and he’s a big part of it.”

Nugent-Hopkins, who turned 31 just before the playoffs started, was making $6 million a season from 2014-21 on a contract signed two years before McDavid's debut. He signed a new contract just after that pays him a little over $5 million annually, a deal that made room for general manager Ken Holland to bring in players like Zach Hyman who have been critical to this run.

It's not like Nugent-Hopkins has taken a back seat in any way. Only three players— McDavid, Draisaitl and defenseman Evan Bouchard, all Oilers teammates — have more points this NHL postseason.

“You think of Leon and Connor being the central points of our team because of the two stars, but Ryan has a lot to do with the team also, not only with his play on the ice, big part of our penalty kill, big part of our power play, usually playing on our top line or our second line,” coach Kris Knoblauch, reciting from memory Game 7 being the 13-year anniversary of Nugent-Hopkins' draft day.

“A lot of players have a lot of respect for him because he’s seen it all, seen a lot of down years, not making the playoffs, playoff disappointments. Now to have the opportunity to win that last game of the season, I think everyone’s very happy for him.”

Nugent-Hopkins, once a hope for the future, has become a beacon in the Oilers locker room for young players hoping to stay in the league as long as he has.

“He’s been with the organization the longest, so he knows where the team was and how far the team’s come,” winger Dylan Holloway said. “He’s just a great example of a leader and someone that I’m sure everybody would want on their team.”

Nugent-Hopkins' only team in the NHL has been the Oilers, and he considers himself lucky. He almost considers himself fortunate for going through so much losing early on as a way to learn the toughest parts before experiencing some playoff exits that only added to the pain.

“As an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kid, you’re getting your feet into it a little bit,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “You’re getting a feel for being a pro and I think it’s almost better to go through that when you’re that age and that young and definitely gives you a hunger to make the playoffs and be on a good team.”

Acknowledging plenty of players go through hardships before being on the cusp of winning the Stanley Cup, Nugent-Hopkins never abandoned Edmonton and is an example of the franchise going from some dark days back to being a contender.

“We’ve taken that step,” he said. “It’s not easy to just be on a good team every single season if you’re going to play a long career. I kind of went through it my first few years, but I always believed in the core and who we bring around can find a way out of it.”

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