The future of the Oilers down the middle looks pretty
fantastic. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Connor McDavid,
Leon Draisaitl, and Anton Lander are all under 25 years of age. The eldest Lander has taken more time
developing but has turned into a smart utility player capable of playing on
the PK or the PP. The question with Draisaitl is whether or not his top-end
talent is going to be wasted on the third line.
Listen, we all want three scoring lines. If that could happen, it
would be wonderful, but we’re talking about unicorns here and with the Oilers
already employing Letestu the logical place for Lander is at 3C. That leaves
Leon Draisaitl out of the middle and onto the wing.
There is a large contingent of Oiler fans who will not be
happy with Draisaitl moving to the wing. He was drafted as a center. He played
pretty much all of his junior career as a center. He has a big frame and protects the puck well. He has vision and passing ability that befits a center. When
the Oilers rushed to the podium to take him in 2014 he was unquestionably going
to be the future 2C of the Edmonton Oilers.
Things change quickly.
When the Oilers won the draft lottery there was pretty much
no way that Draisaitl was going to crack the club’s roster as one of the two
centermen in the top six. Connor McDavid is a franchise player. Actually, that’s
not how he’s described at all. McDavid is a generational player. He’s likely
going to make RNH a 2C in short order.
RNH just finished a campaign where he was in many people’s
eyes Edmonton’s best player from start to finish. He’s a defensively
responsible center with A+ vision, skating, and is just now entering his
physical prime. He finished the year with the second highest average
time on ice out of all the forwards in the NHL. He is going to be a mainstay of
Edmonton’s top six for a long time.
Draisaitl will either be a hyper-talented 3C or a winger.
Those are the only options for him now.
Well, maybe not.
It certainly seems like there are just two options for
Draisaitl. Those options appear to be move to the third line and lose
out on valuable ice time and prime linemates in the hopes that it adds “balance”
to the roster, or move to the wing and have the team give up on having the big
centerman it felt it needed to compete in the West.
That’s actually a false dichotomy and one that Todd McLellan
should be aptly able to avoid. What the McLellan Oilers might want to
do with Leon Draisaitl is what the McLellan Sharks did with Joe Pavelski.
Joe Pavelski was drafted as a center. He
came up with the Sharks as a center. He is not, though, a center, at least not anymore. Pavelski now occupies the LW spot on Joe Thornton’s line.
Big Joe is the center, Little Joe is the left winger. When the Professional
Hockey Writers Association took a public beating after they voted Ovechkin in
as an all-star at both left and right wing, they made changes to their process
where votes cast for players in wrong positions would be spoiled. They were
explicit about using a few players as examples including Joe Pavelski. Voting
for Pavelski as a center would result in a spoiled ballot.
Long story short, Pavelski is not considered a center, he’s
However, despite the fact that Pavelski is not a center
because Joe Thornton is his center and the two play together a significant amount
of the time, Joe Pavelski has lead the Sharks in total faceoffs taken for the last
two years running. He took 1206 in 2013-2014 and 1147 in 2014-2015.
That’s an awful lot of faceoffs for a guy who isn’t actually
a center. For example, last season the highest faceoff total for any Oiler who
played primarily as a winger was Matt Hendricks with 198 faceoffs.
It’s a very interesting, and I think relatively unique,
situation in the NHL. It’s not as if Pavelski was taking the faceoffs for Joe
Thornton whose total faceoffs fell to the bottom of the Sharks either. Thornton
took the second most faceoffs on the Sharks over the last two seasons.
What’s clear is that Todd McLellan may have converted his third
line center, Pavelski, into a top line winger, but he did so without removing
all of the benefits Pavelski brought to the team down the middle. I
believe this could be Leon Draisaitl’s future. The one thing that Little Joe
has over Draisaitl, though, is a history of being dominant in the faceoff
circle. He is 55.5% over the course of his entire NHL career. Draisaitl
struggled on the dot in his rookie campaign as an 18 year old. That
should improve with age/experience/strength, but it has a ways to go before he’s
in Pavelski’s class on the dots.
I don’t think the big German is going to spend
a lot of time in his Oiler career mired away on a third line that
might play between 12-15 minutes a night. Edmonton is going to have two lines that
could play close to 20 minutes a night. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to be split
between lines three and four. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense long term to keep
such a talented player away from the linemates he can complement best.
Having Draisaitl on the wing in the top six (when he earns an
NHL job on full merit) opens the potential to try something with a player that
new head coach Todd McLellan should be very familiar with. He can add an
alternative look to a top six that already features elite talent. Draisaitl
moving to the wing doesn’t have to spell the end of his contributions down the
middle, but those contributions wouldn’t be traditional for a winger or a center. The
Oilers find themselves in the position of potentially having too many high end
centers to naturally fit in the top six and a coach who has already dealt with
that situation before. We should look to what he’s done in the past to predict
what he might do in the future.