Adventures in Development: Leon Draisaitl

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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.

The Plan

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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.

The Actuality

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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

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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.

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  • Stank on it

    Oh how could the evil Oilers do such a thing to Draisaitl!?!?! This poor kid’s life is now ruined because MacT is a bumbling fool, poor poor Leon, the once promising star is now destroyed because he played 37 games in the NHL. How will I ever watch another Oiler game after what they did to that poor child (making him play 37 games and have thus ruined his career) woe, is me!!!

    That’s just dumb.

  • Tikkanese

    Devela-what-now?

    Amidst the goal tending, Kevin Lowe, Drafting, ect, I see development as the biggest weakness for the Oilers. How can a guy like Nelson turn a guy like Lander into one of the AHL’s leading scorers, yet not have that translate to the NHL?

    It is baffling how unprepared these kids are as they come up from the minors. And two big reasons is when they do come up, they are asked to play in roles above their head, and with linemates below their skill.

    Good teams do not ask developing players to shoulder the load until they demonstrate they are ready for it. And when they are ready, their put with players that will help them succeed. Has Yak been put with guys that will help him succeed, and in a role that doesn’t demand he puts the game on his back?

      • Serious Gord

        I agree, and maybe Lander is just one of those guys who can’t do it. But it’s hard to understand how a guy can be so dominant in one league, and so invisible in the next. And to that I have to look at who they put him with. He’s not playing with other dominant players, and if he does get a shot, it’s never for any stretch of time. Hopefully he can find a way to be that third line utility guy ala Cogliano or something. Hmmm, if only we had a Cogliano.

  • nuge2drai

    If you watch Drais exit interview on tsn, he said he couldn’t list off all the positive things he learned in his time here because there were so many…

    He also said he’s afraid to lose some of the good habits he acquired here and that will be his biggest challenge going back to jrs.

    He also said he realizes he needs to work on his foot speed…

    All in all seems like a good experience for the player…

    Looking forward to seeing the Hendricks Gordon Klink line tonight, equally looking forward to seeing the Pouliot Roy Purcell line in action…

    • nuge2drai

      Agreed. Obviously every Oiler fan wanted to come into this season with way more depth at centre. That didn’t happen. Aside from burning a year of ELC (they did avoid a year of UFA) Drasaitl got a half season of NHL experience, experienced long road trips, and tougher schedules, facing the best of the NHL. I don’t see how fans can say this is going to hinder his development. He now knows what is expected at the NHL level and can build towards that.

      Saying that, I hope he isn’t automatically penciled in for next season. They need to bring in veteran depth at centre. Next season Drasaitl should actually have to fight his way onto the roster.

  • Serious Gord

    Drai should have had some NHL competition for center going into camp. Arco too. I think MacT dropped the ball big time here.

    Maybe Drai would have made the team. Maybe not. Maybe he could have played some sheltered minutes on wing.

    Unless it was the Oilers intent to tank.

    Other than that, I tend to agree that his NHL stint shouldn’t affect his development. It was probably good for him.

  • Harry2

    Im thinking LD and the Oilers had issues with him going to Price Albert and the trade to Kelowna took awile to orchestrate.

    Either way I live close to Kelowna and ill be looking for some tickets asap.

    Also, Nurse is a beast!! Absolutely love the way he is coming around

  • Zarny

    @nuge2nail

    I don’t disagree but nothing you replied with addresses the question of why you think a new GM would sit on his hands for 2 years “evaluating talent”.

    Johansen won’t be traded; but O’Reilly’s name is once again churning in the rumor mill. I expect O’Reilly will be traded and I doubt it is to the Oilers.

  • 2004Z06

    You know, I’ve roasted the Oilers for rushing guys, back to Gagner in 2007. (Start of the rebuild); but I can’t hang them for this one because it would have been counter productive to his development to send him back to a worse loser team than the Oilers. (Yeah, hard to believe isn’t it). In this case, all worked out to optimum under the circumstances.