On Sunday, the Edmonton Oilers finally did something they should have done in October and sent 2014 third overall pick Leon Draisaitl back to junior. The late move means that the centre will hit free agency one year later than he would have if he’d spent the entire season in Edmonton, but it comes too late to preserve the first year of Draisaitl’s entry-level contract.
General manager Craig MacTavish laid out the Oilers’ development plan for Draisaitl in September during an interview with TSN’s Bob McKenzie:
We’ll make that decision [to keep him in the NHL or not] 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.
In other words, the team would not keep Draisaitl for the sake of keeping him. The plan called for Draisaitl’s long-term developmental needs to be elevated above the team’s positional requirements. He’d have to clearly demonstrate that he was NHL-ready.
It is impossible to reconcile MacTavish’s words to McKenzie with his actions as Edmonton’s general manager.
Draisaitl was not overwhelming in the preseason. In six games against NHL (and fringe NHL) opposition he managed two assists and went minus-two; if he’d been a second round pick he almost certainly would have been shipped out before Game 1 of the regular season.
Nor was Draisaitl especially brilliant during the nine-game trial permitted by the CBA. He managed three points and a minus-four rating over that stretch, along with 16 shots; he was just slightly in the black in terms of on-ice shot metrics (Corsi/Fenwick) but was playing exceptionally weak competition and starting more than four shifts in the offensive zone for every one he started in the defensive zone. In other words, he was treading water possession-wise in sheltered minutes but not producing offence. Despite this, Edmonton opted to hang on to him.
Nothing much has changed since. Prior to his demotion, Draisaitl still drew weak opposition and lots of time in the offensive zone. He stayed just barely on the positive side of the possession metrics, while his scoring touch actually decreased over the course of the year.
Draisaitl was mediocre in the preseason, mediocre during his nine-game consequence-free trial, and mediocre afterward. At no point did he demonstrate he was ready for NHL action. The Oilers kept him, and kept on keeping him, anyway.
Fool Me An Infinite Number of Times
This is straight out of the Oilers’ development playbook. Edmonton has long used “baptism by fire” as its approach to dealing with young players, in particular young forwards.
In this case, they kept Draisaitl when he should have been back in junior and kept him when he should have been starring for Germany at the World Under-20 tourney. He’s now played under two (three if you count MacTavish) different coaches as an NHL rookie; when he comes back next year he may see another one.
Maybe he’s a good enough player that it doesn’t matter. He plays a mature, intelligent game and his physical tools aren’t going away anytime soon; perhaps that’s enough to overcome a total fiasco of a rookie NHL season.
But in a wasted year in terms of the NHL standings, it absolutely should not be forgotten that the Oilers have done their best to sabotage Draisaitl’s development. They had a decent plan, they presented it to the public, and then they went and did precisely the opposite of what they said they were going to do.