Entering this season, Leon Draisaitl was a player with an
odd mix of positives and negatives on his NHL resume. At his best, he brought
to mind Anze Kopitar—a big forward with a nice mix of power, speed, and both
offensive and defensive ability. Yet he was also prone to long offensive
slumps, particularly when away from Taylor Hall.
In the first half of 2016-17, Draisaitl has done everything
possible to allay concerns about his game.
Writing for the Edmonton
summer, I broke down what I saw as warning signs this way:
[Draisaitl] had two phenomenal months and a 50-point season
is nothing to sneeze at. But he did fade badly down the stretch, and that
combined with a lousy rookie performance should absolutely inject some caution
into the discussion. So too should the fact that without Hall this year he
scored at Lauri Korpikoski levels. While we’re at it, it’s probably not a bad
idea to mention Draisaitl’s 14.3 shooting percentage (up from 4.1 percent a
year ago) or that he had two points and a minus-five rating during his six-game
We can’t really address the ‘slumping down the stretch’ bit
until we see how he performs in the back half of this year, but we can talk
about the other areas identified in that paragraph.
The first item on the list above is Taylor Hall. Draisaitl
and Hall clicked marvelously (sometimes with Teddy Purcell, sometimes with Ryan
Nugent-Hopkins) last season, and given Hall’s offensive history it was
debatable which player was driving the line.
This season, Draisaitl has played entirely without Hall. He’s
spent some time at centre, mostly between Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrick Maroon,
and he’s spent more time at right wing on the Connor McDavid line. McDavid is
an elite talent, so it’s worth isolating Draisaitl’s performance with
and without the superstar forward at 5-on-5:
- with McDavid: 202 minutes, seven points, 2.08 points/60
- without McDavid: 424 minutes, 13 points, 1.84 points/60
That’s the smallest drop-off of any of McDavid’s regular
linemates, and in a year where the Oilers have struggled to generate secondary
scoring Draisaitl has been the exception. He’s been productive, and he’s been
productive anchoring his own line, which is the sign of a player who can drive
results in his own right.
Draisaitl’s big shooting percentage spike last season is
interesting, too. At 5-on-5, his shooting percentage has fallen off
considerably—from over 14 percent last year to under 10 percent this season. A
9.8 shooting percentage is still quite strong, though, and reinforces the idea
that his rookie year was the aberration.
Additionally, Draisaitl’s overall shooting percentage has
actually increased thanks to an increased role on the power play (his eight
goals on the man advantage are already a career high). One of the advantages of
having him play on the McDavid line rather than anchoring a second unit is that
it keeps the power play units harmonious with the even-strength lines, something
which makes a coach’s life much easier. As long as he’s on that top unit, a
high power play shooting percentage seems entirely sustainable.
This additional confirmation that Draisaitl’s offensive game
is for real just adds one more facet to a player who was already strong in
other areas. Draisaitl’s shot metrics (Corsi/Fenwick) have been excellent all
down the line. His size and speed make him a good fit for a variety of
linemates—he can play a cycling game with big forwards and a rush game with the
speedsters. His addition to the penalty kill isn’t a big surprise given his
junior history, but is yet another indication of a player who gets the job done
in his own end of the rink.
This should give the Oilers the confidence to extend
Draisaitl long-term, but it’s possible that the team pursues a bridge deal
anyway. Draisaitl is still five seasons away from unrestricted free agency, so
a two- or three-year deal at a relatively modest cap hit could give Edmonton maximum
financial flexibility in the short term while still allowing the club to lock
him up to a long-term pact later on.
All down the line there has been reason to scrutinize
Draisaitl’s place on the Oilers. On draft day, there was fierce online debate
over whether Draisaitl or Sam Bennett was the superior pick. His disappointing
rookie campaign only increased doubts. Even last year, it was fair to debate
his play both away from Hall and down the stretch, to question his overall offensive upside.
Draisaitl’s work this season has done a superb job of silencing such concerns. Looking back at the list I put together this summer, I find myself marveling at how each point has been checked off during a brilliant first half. Obviously he needs to keep playing well, but if I’d scripted a perfect breakthrough season for the player the first 46 games would look a whole lot like what Draisaitl’s done so far.