It’s way too early into our introduction to Leon Draisaitl to arrive at any conclusions as to what he’ll be as a finished product, but with what we’ve seen of him so far at training camp with the Edmonton Oilers, it’s probably safe to say he comes as advertised. This is a good thing.
So far, when I’ve watched Draisaitl, I’ve seen a lot of what the pundits were talking about heading into the 2014 Entry Draft, where the Oilers took the German-born pivot from the Prince Albert Raiders third overall. Here are some of those takes:
Craig Button, TSN: “Leon is a big centre who is smart, can make plays and can impact the game in multiple ways. He’s the type of centre who is coveted by many NHL clubs because of his combination of size and skill.”
Last Word on Sports: “Leon Draisaitl is a big centre with excellent reach and stickhandling ability. He protects the puck very well, especially in the cycle game. He also has the vision and the passing skill to finds an open teammate with a quick and accurate pass.”
Ryan Kennedy, THN: “. . . a complete player with great awareness, he makes players around him better and has great anticipation. Makes plays equally strong on both his forehand and backhand.”
We’ve seen a whole lot of all the above in our look at Draisaitl through last night’s split-squad game against Calgary at Rexall Place – the play in which he set-up David Perron in the slot being a prime example. He’s shown vision, patience and an ability to change the pace and distribute the puck.
While Draisaitl doesn’t possess, and likely never will, the kind of flash and dash that pulls fans out of their seats, what he does have is what I call a big-league brain. Players with that quality, that hockey IQ, have a chance to be something special in the NHL.
Fast feet and fast hands without a brain capable of keeping up are often wasted attributes. We’ve seen that a time or two, no? That’s particularly true when we’re talking about centres, a position where the ability to anticipate where a teammate is going to be and to find a way to get the puck there is what separates the elite from the also-rans.
While Draisaitl is hardly a plodder and actually has decent speed once he’s going, he needs to work on his first couple of steps to get quicker. I don’t doubt he will. What Draisaitl does is save steps by using his head. He can draw defenders to him or create separation when needed with his ability to anticipate, to protect the puck, to change the pace.
Taylor Hall shows speed in his headlong rushes to the net Draisaitl will never possess. Jordan Eberle is the kind of dead-eye shooter Draisaitl can’t match. Justin Schultz is more of a risk-reward guy with his forays up ice than Draisaitl will ever be. These things Draisaitl is not. What he can do is get every one of them the puck – forehand or backhand. Vision. Smarts.
MORE TO COME
Draisaitl, who turns 19 October 27, is early into his first NHL camp, so, like I said off the top, we don’t know what he’s going to be three or four or five years from now. What we’re seeing is a teenager auditioning for a roster spot in the middle behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, ready or not.
He hasn’t faced an actual NHL roster yet. Before Draisaitl sees a regular season game with the Oilers, his opponents will get more seasoned, faster, smarter, tougher. The time and space he creates with that hockey brain of his will diminish. He’ll have to adjust on the fly. He’ll have to be better.
I’ve seen too many players over the years look like world-beaters in the short-term, flashes in the pan, only to fade when they’ve been around the block a time or two. When the competition gets better, when opponents adjust and Draisaitl’s name gets circled on the white board in the other dressing room, we’ll see what happens.
The Deutschland Dangler isn’t there, yet, of course. That said, I like what I’ve seen so far from Draisaitl. I like that hockey brain. I like it a lot.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.