KENNEWICK -- The wonderful thing about junior hockey is that it affords fans a glimpse of young players before they become full-fledged stars.
The Western Hockey League is a feeding ground for the NHL, and this year's draft crop includes Red Deer's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a talented 17-year-old center from Burnaby, British Columbia.
The Rebels took Nugent-Hopkins with the first overall pick in the 2008 WHL bantam draft, and he's been turning the heads of fans and scouts throughout the hockey world since the first moment he stepped on the ice.
"In my view, he is magic," said NHL Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire from the NHL offices in Toronto. "He sees the ice well. He's only got three goals this year, but that attests to his vision as a set-up man. He's a power-play quarterback and has the potential of being a star player. He's a top-five pick -- maybe top three."
Nugent-Hopkins, the reigning WHL Rookie of the Year, has three goals and 22 assists in 17 games this season to lead Red Deer in scoring. Last year, he had 24 goals and 41 assists in 67 games for the Rebels, who lost in the first round of the playoffs to Saskatoon in four games.
"I definitely think I'm a play-maker," Nugent-Hopkins said. "In bantam and midget, I scored a lot more than I am now. Goals are a little harder for me this year, so getting an assist is just as good for me. A goal for the team is the same whether I get it or someone else does."
In the preseason rankings for the 2011 NHL draft, the 6-foot, 165-pound Nugent-Hopkins was rated sixth overall and second in the WHL behind Vancouver Giants defenseman David Musil.
"It's exciting," Nugent-Hopkins said of his preseason ranking. "I don't let it affect my game; I try to use it as motivation to go as high as I can in the draft. It's kind of surreal, to be honest."
The Rebels are in the midst of their swing through the U.S. Division, having beaten Spokane 4-2 and suffering a 4-1 loss to the Seattle Thunderbirds on Tuesday.
Red Deer will play at Portland on Friday, and Tri-City fans will get their only look at Nugent-Hopkins this season when the Americans (11-4-1-1, 24 points) play host to the Rebels (11-6-0-0, 22 points) on Saturday.
Red Deer will finish its trip Tuesday at Everett.
While Nugent-Hopkins leads the Rebels in scoring, Andrej Kudrna leads the team with 12 goals and Byron Froese has nine. The trio has helped bring Red Deer back to the forefront of the WHL after finishing at the bottom of the Central Division during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons and making a quick exit from the playoffs last year.
"I knew they were at the bottom for a few years when they drafted me," Nugent-Hopkins said. "But I knew they had a great coaching staff under Brent Sutter. They are a first-class organization, and I was excited to go there."
Nugent-Hopkins added a little fluff to his resume when he represented Team Canada at the Under-18 2010 Ivan Hlinka Memorial in the Czech Republic in August. He scored the game-winner in a 1-0 victory over the United States in the gold-medal game.
"Winning a gold medal was a dream of mine, and playing against the United States in the gold-medal game and beating them was incredible," he said. "I scored early in the game and I didn't really think a whole lot of it then."
Tri-City coach Jim Hiller was an assistant for Team Canada at the tournament.
"He's an offensive coach, and I love it when a coach likes to teach offense," Nugent-Hopkins said. "He wanted to get to know all of us players. It was great playing for him."