Leon Draisaitl is a superb prospect. Big, smart and skilled, it’s easy to see why Edmonton keyed in on him at the 2014 Draft.
It’s equally clear that right now that he’s really struggling in the NHL.
Draisaitl is a “centre” but he’s not doing the things an NHL centre is expected to do. Yes, he’s taking faceoffs. But when the Oilers pressure in the offensive zone, Draisaitl is (virtually every time) in on the forecheck while one of his wingers peels back to play the role of high forward. When a defenceman pinched last night, it was David Perron or Teddy Purcell peeling back to cover, not Draisaitl. In previous games, it’s been Nail Yakupov or Benoit Pouliot doing that job.
Head coach Dallas Eakins, when asked earlier this year about whether the combination of Draisaitl and Yakupov was too risky defensively, emphasized that Yakupov was going to be counted on to help Draisaitl out. He wasn’t just saying that to say it; it was an honest reflection of a game plan that would see Draisaitl’s wingers play the high forward role.
It’s a defensible position – Draisaitl is still getting defensive zone positioning down (watching Tampa Bay’s goals from last night, including the disallowed one, reflect this nicely) so he’s not a guy the team wants defending and he’s also not up to NHL speed yet so having him cover for a pinching defenceman injects risk into the equation. But it’s also a problem, because Draisaitl’s not a north/south winger with wheels; he’s a cerebral centre whose best gift is his brain rather than his feet. Not only that, but guys like Yakupov and Perron and Draisatil are built to forecheck; they’re very effective at it (as Yakupov showed on the Oilers’ first goal against the Lightning).
What ends up happening isn’t good. A good forechecker is asked to play a role that perhaps isn’t his strong suit. A playmaking pivot is asked to play a role that certainly isn’t his strong suit. The whole line ends up operating differently than the other three, making mixing and matching more difficult.
And there’s an easy way out of it. Draisaitl isn’t up to handling the responsibilities of an NHL centre at this time. He’ll get there, but he’s not there yet; more development is needed. There are whole leagues devoted to player development – including the WHL where Draisaitl played last year. The NHL is not one of those leagues, and the Oilers tend to get burned when they act like it is.
“He’s Got Nothing Left to Learn in Junior”
I don’t know who started this line of thought, but it’s one that’s been making the rounds in Edmonton for at least a decade. It should die.
I remember the strong arguments that Sam Gagner needed to be given an NHL roster spot at 18 because he couldn’t be put in the AHL and he had done all he could do at the junior level. I remember excitement that Tyler Pitlick, Curtis Hamilton and Ryan Martindale were going to make the jump to the AHL early, where they would be under the team’s control. People are always in a hurry to advance prospects to the next level, where they’ll hone their skills against the highest possible competition.
The problem is that competition can be awfully good. There’s a narrative out there that the Barons sat the trio of aforementioned draft picks to play veterans. There’s some truth in it – like all AHL teams, Oklahoma had some older guys (Ryan Keller, Josh Green) to lead the way up front. But the reality is that some of the nobodies who play (Mark Arcobello was one) become NHL prospects. Further, older prospects a little further along in their development – Magnus Paajarvi, Teemu Hartikainen, Linus Omark, Phil Cornet – got prime minutes because not only were they better players at the time but because they needed to develop too. Advancing a player before he can legitimately hold down minutes against real competition is a disservice to everyone.
And what about the guys who go back to junior? Jordan Eberle had a great training camp in 2009; the pucks didn’t go in for him but by eye he was brilliant. The best thing Pat Quinn ever did for the Oilers was send him down – he went back to the WHL, tore it up and starred for Canada at the World Juniors. He made the team the next year and was ready to play at a high level immediately. More recently, Darnell Nurse made massive strides from age 18 to age 19 in the OHL; he was better in pretty much every facet of the game in training camp this fall than he was last fall.
Draisaitl’s development is the most important thing now. And that development will be best served at a level other than the NHL, where the Oilers should be focused entirely on trying to win games rather than worrying about riding herd for the team’s latest project.
Who Plays Centre?
The Oilers don’t have great options down the middle, but at this point the player’s development should be the priority. For me, that means even a guy like Anton Lander at the centre of one the third scoring line is preferable to keeping Draisaitl in town; Lander’s not a good fit but at least the wingers on his line will be able to play their positions.
A better option is a cheap trade for a warm body. It could be a fill-in player, like Kyle Brodziak out of Minnesota or Chris Kelly out of Boston. It could be a move for a younger player caught in a numbers game elsewhere, like Joakim Andersson in Detroit. Lander’s been given his chances, including in camp this year, and if the Oilers can get a bona fide lower level NHL player instead for not much that’s a better route.
The best option of all is to add a real No. 2/3 centre, a guy who at a minimum falls into the Artem Anisimov or Patrik Berglund mold. That’s doubtless going to be costly and it might not even be possible, but the benefits would be enormous. Mark Arcobello would shift down to centre the third scoring line and would suddenly be the guy getting the offensive zone sheltering; there’s little doubt he can produce in those minutes. Dallas Eakins would have a second line he could count on to do a variety of things. Nail Yakupov, who is doing a lot right, might even really take off when paired with a strong NHL pivot.
All three options beat throwing an 18-year-old into minutes he is not yet ready for.
RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS
- Leon Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse and the return to junior
- What now for the Edmonton Oilers?
- Where does Luke Gazdic fit on this team?
- The Oilers need at least one good left-side defenceman
- Flames’ minor-league thug Trevor Gillies goes crazy
- Nikita Nikitin, the Oilers D and Mr. Right
- Follow Jonathan Willis on Twitter