The ability of Leon Draisaitl to anchor his own scoring line is going to play a large role in determining whether the Connor McDavid-led Edmonton Oilers are a great team or merely a very good one. In that respect, his five-point performance on Sunday is incredibly encouraging.
The decision by head coach Todd McLellan to move Draisaitl from McDavid’s right wing to the centre of his own line has been the turning point in this series. In a single stroke, it eliminated Anaheim’s ability to run Ryan Kesler and Hampus Lindholm against all of Edmonton’s star players while simultaneously giving the Oilers a counter to Ryan Getzlaf, who up until that point had dominated the Oilers’ second forward unit.
A diversified attack – stars on different lines – is a hallmark of every great team of the salary cap era. From Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh to Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter in Los Angeles, every recent multiple-championship team has had its No. 1 and No. 1A scorers on separate units.
A failure to take a diversified approach is also a common thread through teams that failed to live up to their potential.
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been largely welded together in Washington. Joe Thornton with first Patrick Marleau and later Joe Pavelski in San Jose fit the bill, too; it probably isn’t a coincidence that the Sharks tend to fall out early when Logan Couture isn’t scoring or that the team’s greatest season (2015-16) came in a year where Couture led the playoffs in scoring. The Sedin twins in Vancouver meet this criteria, too; the Canucks going to the Stanley Cup Final in 2011 coincided with the finest playoff performance of Ryan Kesler’s career.
This was the great argument against the Taylor Hall trade last year. In a piece I wrote prior to the Hall-for-Larsson swap, I argued that trading Hall “might be necessary, but it’s also exceedingly dangerous” because while moving Hall might be essential to bringing in vital pieces elsewhere it also limited Edmonton’s ability to imitate Chicago:
The presence of both McDavid and Hall will allow the Oilers to create two scoring lines, each built around a game-changing player. Edmonton isn’t close to being the Chicago Blackhawks, but for the last half-decade a very similar mix has been the engine that powers Chicago’s forward group: one line built on Jonathan Toews, a second line built on Patrick Kane. We’ve seen the way that dynamic, in conjunction with other strengths, has worked for the ‘Hawks.
It turns out Edmonton may get to have its cake and eat it, too, if Draisaitl can be that second game-changing presence. This, more than the ability to sign Milan Lucic, was surely the gamble at the heart of Peter Chiarelli’s willingness to make the Hall trade.
Certainly Draisaitl has been that player throughout most of the playoffs. A lousy, pointless, start to the postseason hit its bottom when a frustrated Draisaitl speared Chris Tierney in the groin. He picked up two points in the next game and has been Edmonton’s best skater in the eight contests since.
He’s been especially good since being separated from McDavid, though. He has seven shots and six points in two games back at centre, and the Oilers have been a clearly improved club. As a bonus, it has allowed McLellan to place cheap young talent like Drake Caggiula and Anton Slepyshev into supporting roles on top lines. Right now that’s a nice bonus; in the future as McDavid and Draisatil come off entry-level deals it will be essential.
For some, such as my friend and former colleague David Staples, Draisaitl’s performance has firmly established his suitability to such a role:
All you folks who doubt Leon Draisaitl's ability to drive a line, well, I think you have your answer.
— David Staples (@dstaples) May 7, 2017
@cboddy2727 Oh, I knew long ago Draisaitl could drive a line.
— David Staples (@dstaples) May 8, 2017
I try to look at these things probabilistically. By that I mean acknowledging that there’s always a certain amount of uncertainty about the future. So if the question is “Is Leon Draisaitl capable of being the primary driver a high-end scoring line” the answer isn’t “yes” or “no” but rather “probably” or “probably not”.
And while I definitely fall on the “probably” side of the scale these days, the one thing that makes me cautious is Draisaitl’s regular season performance away from McDavid.
Draisaitl played roughly 11 hours with McDavid, and things were great. In an average hour, that line fired nine more shots than the opposition did and outscored the other team by more than a goal. That’s superb work, and Draisaitl surely deserves a big chunk of the credit.
In eight hours apart from McDavid, though, Draisaitl’s lines were less successful. Again, let’s break it down to an average hour. The opposition fired five more shots at net than the Oilers did. Edmonton also got outscored, by a little more than a single goal every two hours. There were high points (with Patrick Maroon and Jesse Puljujarvi) and low points (ironically, mostly with Milan Lucic) and on balance the Draisaitl-centered lines were outplayed.
What that simple comparison misses is context. Most of those non-McDavid minutes came in drips and drabs; outside of the Maroon/Puljujarvi combination (which was successful) none of those lines were given much time to gel and a lot of those shifts involved Draisaitl moving back to centre for a game or a period after a long look at right wing.
Moreover, Draisaitl played an obvious role in driving the success of the McDavid line. It’s too simple to simply credit those results to McDavid and shrug off Draisaitl’s role in that unit’s success. Determining how much credit each player deserves, and consequently what should be expected from each separately, is a difficult-to-impossible task and ends with a subjective judgment call.
There’s also Draisaitl’s recent playoff work, though it’s easy to place too much emphasis on a few playoff games.
Each individual reader of this piece is going to fall somewhere on a spectrum of confidence in Draisaitl’s ability to be the Kane, Malkin or Carter of the Oilers. Some will agree with Staples’ absolute conviction; others will fall closer to my more tentative belief or perhaps be even more reserved.
What I think most will agree with is the long-term ramifications of Draisaitl being able to fulfill that role. He’s just 21, a little over a year older than McDavid. If those two players can drive the No. 1 and No. 1A lines of a contending Oilers team right now, still outside their prime, Edmonton could be a serious Cup threat every year for the next decade.