Baby face Nugent-Hopkins hopes experience pushes Oilers in playoffs

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You’d probably have better luck relocating the Arizona Coyotes back to Phoenix right now than you would picking Ryan Nugent-Hopkins out of a lineup of Edmonton Oilers players in their 30s.

Celebrating his 31st birthday on Friday, the babyface forward barely looks a day older than his rookie card from a 2011-12 season that saw him drafted first overall by the only NHL team he’s ever played for.

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And that makes him the longest-serving member of an Oilers dressing room that houses the most 30-year-old players in the league.

At 38, Corey Perry is the elder statesman of the roster, followed by Derek Ryan (37), Adam Henrique (34), Mattias Ekholm (33), Evander Kane (32) and Sam Carrick (32). Goalie Calvin Pickard will turn 32 when the Oilers play their final home game of the regular season Monday against the San Jose Sharks. Zach Hyman is 31, along with Mattias Janmark.

Troy Stecher celebrated his birthday earlier this week, making him one of four 30-year-olds on the roster alongside Connor Brown, Cody Ceci and Brett Kulak.

Altogether, that’s 14 players in their 30s on Edmonton’s current 23-man roster, which counts as the most of any team in the league.

With an average age of 30-and-a-half, the Oilers are among the three oldest rosters in the NHL, along with the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders

And that’s a big change from the forever-young Oilers squads Nugent-Hopkins cut his teeth on early in his NHL career.

“Yeah, for sure. How much it’s changed is pretty crazy,” he said. “I know I’ve been here a long time, so there’s going to be changes. But for my first few years we were always the young team in the league and now it’s changed. Are we the, average-age, oldest now?

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“So, definitely a big change but we have a lot of guys who know how to get the job done and know what it takes to win, and I think that’s so important at the stage that we’re at right now.”

With age, of course, comes experience. The kind the Oilers hope is enough for them to rely on to push them over the hump in the upcoming playoffs.

And the poster “boy” of the group when it comes to playoff experience is, of course, Perry, who’s shown he’s still not afraid to go to the gritty areas of the ice. Nor has he shied away from saying what he thinks needs to be said on the team, (even if it happens to be broadcast on national television).

“He knows how to win, he knows how to play those tough games. He’s been to the final multiple times,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “To be able to do that, obviously you’re doing something right.

“His competitiveness has been something that I think’s been great for our group. He wants to win but he wants to do it the right way, wants to play the right way every single night and he wants everybody to be on that train. So, he’s been really good for us. He talks when he has to in the room, but I think the way that he carries himself and goes out there and plays every night is huge for some of us to look up to.”

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Friday’s game kicked off a stretch of five in seven days to wrap up the Oilers regular-season schedule.

“Obviously, you don’t hold anything back, you want to push as much as you can,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I don’t know why we’re playing five in seven to finish, but I guess that’s the way it worked out for us this year, for some reason. But it’s definitely a lot before going into the playoffs.

“But I mean, at his point, you’ve played 75, 76 games, so you’re in good shape and can handle it, for sure. But no, you don’t want to hold anything back. We’re still looking to improve our game and push for points here.”

Especially for a team challenging for its first division title since 1986-87, with the Pacific Divsion-leading Vancouver Canucks in town Saturday (8 p.m., Sportsnet, CBC), and the Oilers looking to end the longest drought of its kind in all of North American major professional sports.

But Nugent-Hopkins blew out his proverbial candles with more of a one-game-at-a-time approach heading into the weekend showdown against the Coyotes and Canucks.

“Just a big game, a big win is kind of all you can hope for,” he said. “Obviously a big back-to-back here, but we’re focused on tonight.”

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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