It doesn’t take long for a junior-age player’s nine-game audition to come to an end. Leon Draisaitl is a touch short of halfway there, having played four of those contests. Darnell Nurse has sat out two, so he’s only played a pair, but there’s a bit of a logjam in terms of space on the back end and nobody wants to see him sitting in the press box.
In short, it’s soon enough to start wondering whether the duo will stay in the NHL for the duration of the 2014-15 season.
Draisaitl’s great edge comes from the lack of strength in the centre ice position for the Oilers. Unfortunately for him, the general manager has already said that doesn’t matter. Craig MacTavish, from a September 14 conversation with TSN’s Bob McKenzie:
We’ll make that decision on whatever’s best for Leon. We don’t want to put him in a situation that’s not best for his development. That’s really what we’ll be basing that decision on. We think he’s got lots of game, lots of size, lots of strength; he has lots of NHL-ready attributes but we don’t know that they’ll all mesh to the point that he can play this year and we’ll make that decision based on what’s best for him.
At this point, there are some strong arguments to send him back to junior.
First, it’s debatable whether he’s ready or not. There’s still time for Draisaitl to show something, but through four games he has a lone assist (off a funny play against Arizona) and hasn’t stood out in a sheltered role. He needs to do more with those minutes.
Second, he’s hurting his linemates. Dallas Eakins is doing his best to help the player – a lot of times, Draisaitl is one of the pressuring forwards in the offensive zone while either Nail Yakupov or Benoit Pouliot play the role of high forward. That’s an understandable way to limit Draisaitl’s defensive responsibilities, but it’s a bad fit for skill – having the slow, cerebral guy in on the forecheck while the fast, physical guy hangs back ends up limiting the effectiveness of both players. Not only that, but having Draisaitl as a centre limits the roles that Yakupov and Pouliot can play – with a legitimate NHL centre between them that line could handle much tougher assignments, taking on more minutes in the process.
Third, if this season goes off the rails there’s no sense exposing Draisaitl to it at his age. Let him have success in junior (or Europe, if that’s where he ends up going) and enjoy the World Juniors.
The big argument against is that the obvious replacement for Draisaitl in the system is Will Acton or Anton Lander or Bogdan Yakimov, each of which poses his own problems. Sending him out practically requires that a trade be made simultaneously.
It’s easy to see why the Oilers like him, and he’s come leaps and bounds over the last calendar year. The physical tools are all there, and he has an attitude to match. He makes the physical play every chance he gets, he doesn’t hesitate to move or skate the puck; he’s a guy who clearly wants to be a difference-maker at both ends of the ice.
But he’s still raw, still a guy that could use some polish. The progression in his game year-over-year is obvious; there’s no reason not to think he’ll continue to grow if he returns to the OHL and development has to be the primary focus here. The argument for Draisaitl above – that playing for the Oilers could well end up not being a positive experience in 2014-15 and that there’s a chance to play in the World Juniors (co-hosted by Toronto and Montreal) – apply equally well to Nurse.
The other thing working against Nurse is the number of players available on the left side of the Oilers’ defence. While the team lacks a legitimate top-pairing option, Nikita Nikitin and Andrew Ference are going to be in the lineup every night and Edmonton really needs Martin Marincin to join them. Because Nurse isn’t clearly head-and-shoulders above the pack, he can’t possibly be expected to solve the problem; he’s just part of the logjam of bottom-four defenders on the team.
Technically, there’s no rush on either player – the Oilers have until the nine-game mark to make a decision. But there is a pretty decent argument that the time to make a choice is now.
In Draisaitl’s case, it’s the state of the team that matters. A veteran NHL centre might help a lot, and if one’s available there’s no sense holding off to find out whether Draisaitl can fill the role. This isn’t a team that is in any position to take those chances, so if a trade’s available sending Draisaitl to junior and adding the new guy is pretty close to a no-brainer.
In Nurse’s case, the team has to decide whether he plays or a guy like Marincin plays. A year ago, Marincin was shockingly good in a shutdown role, and the Oilers need ‘good in a shutdown role’ yesterday. It would be nice to take a longer look at the player, but unless they’re willing to scratch the captain or stick Nikitin on IR for a bit (I’m not at all convinced he’s fully recovered from that nasty incident in the preseason) there’s no place for Nurse and they can’t afford to leave Marincin outside the top-six.
It’s not a given either sticks around for a full nine-game trial.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) October 17, 2014