Editor's Note: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was named NEXT for the Jan. 9, 2012 issue of ESPN The Magazine. You can read more about him here.
How special is this 15-year-old man-child from Ontario? Special enough to become the first defenseman in OHL history to be granted "exceptional player" status, which allowed him to play in the rough-and-tumble Canadian junior league a year before his peers. And special enough that he reminds some of a teenage Bobby Orr. Playing up is nothing new for Ekblad, who already stands 6'3" and weighs 205 pounds. Perhaps for his opponents' benefit as much as his own, he competed above his age group the past two seasons. Still, the decision to do it again wasn't taken lightly. Hockey Canada, the sport's governing body north of the border, spent six weeks earlier this year reviewing Ekblad's case, assessing everything from his schoolwork to his psychological maturity. Only after the league commissioner met with Ekblad and his parents was his application finally (and unanimously) approved. Orr himself has even taken an interest in the kid, as an informal adviser to the prodigy's family. "I think he's ready for the challenge," Orr told the Toronto Star in September. And he would know.
Seth Jones is making a name for himself in that other indoor sport. With a basketball player's build (6'3", 200 pounds) and a love of hockey formed when his dad played for the Toronto Raptors, Seth Jones has turned himself into a two-way defenseman expected to be picked early in the 2013 NHL draft. It helped that he had good advice along the way. When Popeye joined the Denver Nuggets in 1999, Colorado Avalanche legend Joe Sakic recommended a power-skating coach. Then, in Dallas, where the elder Jones worked as an assistant coach after retiring in 2004, Seth got to watch the Stars work out on a regular basis. Today, he continues to draw on his dad's experience. "Sometimes you're not going to be the fastest guy or the strongest," Seth says. "[But] if you know how to think about the game, that's going to help. That's the best advice he gives me." Next season, Seth Jones will have to decide between accepting a college scholarship or playing major junior in Canada. Either way, one former scout thinks he could become 2013's first-overall pick. In other words, he's a slam dunk.
If you're going to chart a path from Nova Scotia to the NHL, Sidney Crosby's is a pretty good model to follow. Nathan MacKinnon grew up down the street from where Crosby did, in a bedroom adorned with posters of the Penguins captain. He dominated the same minor hockey system against much older players, and at 14 left home to attend Shattuck St. Mary's, the same Minnesota prep school Crosby attended. And now that MacKinnon is playing in the same Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the constant comparisons won't stop any time soon. "It's never fun to be compared to the best player in the world," MacKinnon told Canada's Globe and Mail in February. "But I guess I take it as a compliment." Stylistically, though, MacKinnon is no Crosby clone. He's a righthanded shot, for one, and plays a more physical game than his boyhood idol. With 27 points in his first 17 games as a junior league rookie, MacKinnon looks to be charting a path all his own.
If there were any concerns that the 18-year-old, 175-pound Nugent-Hopkins was too slight to endure a full NHL season, the British Columbia native wasted no time allaying those fears with a blistering start to his professional career. In his first seven games, RNH, as he's known, scored five goals and added two assists to lead the Oilers in scoring. The major-league stats landed the former Red Deer Rebel a permanent roster spot with the big club in late October. But that's not to say the sharpshooting pivot will spend the entire season in Edmonton. After being among the final cuts for Canada's national under-20 squad last winter, Nugent-Hopkins could be a key member of the country's entry at the World Junior Championships in late December. Strangely, he'll probably be under more pressure to produce at that tournament than with his rebuilding pro club, with an entire country expecting the Canadians to win gold after consecutive silver medals. If the beginning of his NHL career is any indication, he won't disappoint.
In an era where Russia is able to retain many of its top prospects thanks to the KHL, Nail Yakupov is a throwback. Rather than sign a lucrative pro deal close to home, the then-16-year-old chose to follow his NHL dreams and leave his homeland in the summer of 2010 for an OHL apprenticeship with the Sarnia (Ontario) Sting. The gamble figures to pay off handsomely in the next few years. Yakupov is the consensus first overall pick in next June's draft, and many NHL insiders believe he's good enough to have the sort of impact former No. 1s Crosby and Alex Ovechkin did. During his first season in Canadian juniors, the undersized (5'10", 170 pounds) Yakupov scored 49 goals, leaving some scouts to suggest that had he been eligible for the 2011 draft (he was born three weeks past the cutoff date), Yakupov would have been picked ahead of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. It's no wonder the world's largest country wasn't big enough for him.