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Nuge must ‘step up’ for Oilers, who are thin down the middle

Calgary Flames v Edmonton Oilers

EDMONTON, AB - APRIL 01: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins #93 of the Edmonton Oilers skates against the Calgary Flames at Rexall Place on April 1, 2013 in Edmonton, Canada. (Photo by Perry Nelson/Getty Images)

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“We have two NHL centermen right now, and I have no idea who the other ones will be.”

That was Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins on the opening day of training camp, discussing his club’s biggest weakness heading into the upcoming campaign.

The two NHLers Eakins referred to are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Boyd Gordon, with the two remaining spots to be filled by some combination of Anton Lander, Mark Arcobello, Will Acton and ’14 first-rounder Leon Draisaitl.

Translation: The center position in the Western Conference is a gunfight, to which Edmonton’s bringing a knife.

That lack of talent and depth down the middle is part of the reason why Nugent-Hopkins -- the first overall pick at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft -- feels the pressure to ratchet up his performance.

“I definitely want to make that next step this year,” Nugent-Hopkins said, per the Oilers’ Twitter feed. “It’s my fourth year in the league now, I have to step up.”

That quote sounds pretty odd coming from a kid that turned 21 in April, but Nugent-Hopkins isn’t your average 21-year-old. He made his NHL debut at 18 and, despite suffering a pair of significant shoulder injuries, has already logged a whopping 182 career games (comparatively speaking, the center taken four spots after Nuge, Ryan Strome, has just 37 games under his belt.)

That experience, plus the aforementioned lack of depth, has put Nugent-Hopkins in a situation where the pressure’s on to carry Edmonton’s load. It’s a tall order, to say the least; the Oilers play in a nightmarish division with regards to center depth (featuring Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, Anze Kopitar and Henrik Sedin), somethting reflected in last year’s standings as they went a pitiful 8-17-4 against Pacific foes.

As for the rest of the center ice sure sounds like Draisaitl will be in the mix come October. While there’s concern about rushing the 18-year-old -- like there was with Nugent-Hopkins four years ago -- GM Craig MacTavish suggests Draisaitl is NHL-ready.

“I love the character,” MacTavish told ESPN. “Sure, the size and the skill, but the character, as well. The fact that he committed to being here throughout the summer is going to give him every chance to make it. He’s a really driven guy, with the high skill level, that’s a pretty good combination.

“But it’s a league not all that friendly to youth. He’s going to have to prove that he’s capable of handling it. All signs point to him being given great opportunity.”