Photo Credit: James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports

Edmonton Oilers’ championship hopes for the next decade may rest on Leon Draisaitl

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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

  • Anton CP

    It was true that the problem when the Oilers were dominated by the Ducks largely due to the complete lack of productions from the second line. The Ducks only need to focus on shutting down the top unit and the rest of the Oilers will not be able to produce enough to win. The question now going into next season will be what are you going to do with Nuge and Eberle?

    • Jonathan Willis

      I love how everything in these parts turns into a Russell debate. He has a good game, and the old school comes out laughing and demanding to know what his Corsi is. He has a bad game, and the analytics types can’t wait to deride him.

      I don’t particularly feel like wading into this (yet again) today, so I’ll answer simply: The fact that it remains a fierce debate should make it clear that neither side is yet convinced by the arguments of the other.

  • There’s been a phrase used an infinite number of times to describe Taylor Hall – he can DRIVE a line. He’s a DRIVER. I don’t really subscribe to this wording/mentality myself because I never really saw Draisaitl to be any different than Hall in that regard. When they played together, who was really DRIVING the line? I suppose we could say Hall because he tended to carry the puck up ice more, but he also was a turnover machine prone to making high-risk plays.
    This year, Draisaitl has had success both with McDavid and without him, last nights performance putting the stamp on that, so I really don’t see why we are quick to point to Hall as a DRIVER but yet not Draisaitl… Draisaitl can carry the puck up ice, navigate the neutral zone (arguably better than Hall’s force through with speed approach) and making plays in the offensive zone, regardless of who he is playing with.
    So does that mean Draisaitl is a driver too now? I just hate the word because it doesn’t really have a specific meaning as far as I can tell. I see Draisaitl as a superior player to Hall, he’s younger, bigger and smarter with the puck. It goes without saying he’s a better passer as well. He lacks Hall’s speed and probably his shot, but he has just as much ability to impact the game in the o-zone.
    Long live Dr. Drai!

    • Gravis82

      In my estimation, you need 3 star forwards, 1 star goalie and 1 top pairing D man who can get points to win a cup. We have 2 star forwards, 1 goalie and part of that defense man packaged in two players separately (Klefbom and Larson). Missing the third forward at the moment. Need Lucic, Ebs, Nuge to step up and bet he player they likely are not, just for the next few week here at minimum.

      With Hall instead of Larson, we would be missing that D man, and likely in a similar but different scenario.

      If Chia spends the 10 million hes paying Pouliot and Eberle on say, John Tavares, this summer, look out. Move Nuge to the wing, I think he would be more suited there anyway since he still cant win a faceoff.

      • Ryan68

        Where’s the money going to come from to pay Drai and McDavid ? We aren’t going to be able to keep Nuge in all probability. The Oilers are going to have to find $11M more for Drai and Connor. So where’s the $8M for Tavares? Getting another superstar is NOT in the cards for this team. If we’re lucky McDavid will figure to make more on endorsements on a championship team and curb his ask to 10-11 million a year. I thought Drai would cost about $7M/yr, but with the way these playoffs are going that may be low-balling him. Nurse and Kassian will be looking for new deals too. Poor cap management hasn’t been a problem here because the team was so bad. But honestly, who wouldn’t like to have Eberle’s and Nuge’s deal be different? Can anyone say they’re $6M/yr players? Our best case is that we can get good value back for them despite their contracts. I’m sure Chia is already spinning this in his head. Overpayment and over-long contracts are death in the cap era.

        • Nuge is worth his money. It’s just bad luck that he hasn’t been scoring, but he’s doing everything else. Eberle just looks too small in the playoffs. Some players seem to get bigger, but he looks like he’s shrunk.

      • To win the cup, you need 1 goalie to play lights out for 2 months, 1 forward, 2nd or 3rd line, to put up 16 – 20 goals, and a defenseman who can play 30 minutes a night, and be a + player more often than not, as well as having your top line produce nightly.
        I can’t imagine a situation where the Oilers need John Tavares. that just sounds like you’ve got a little man crush on a player so you’re throwing his name out there, probably while your other hand is down your pants.

  • A-Mc

    Question: if Draisaitl’s time at C is technically the 2nd line, would it not be worth your while to compare his performance vs the Nuge line? (The normal 2nd line).

    Any line with McDavid on it is going to get a good boost, and it’s not really fair to compare performance with and without IMO. I’d rather look at how the team’s performance is affected when all lines are bumped down 1 in competition because Draisaitl is moved to Center. So, does Nuge benefit when Drai is playing 2C? Does Letestu cleanup when Nuge is 3C? There may be a scenario where lines 1-2 are a wash when Draisaitl is at Center, but the 3rd and 4th lines are a huge advantageous mismatch for us and thus they produce more.

    More to the Point, what is the team difference when:
    Line 1 – McDavid w/ Drai
    Line 2 – Nuge
    Line 3 – Letestu
    Line 1 – McDavid
    Line 2 – Draisaitl
    Line 3 – Nuge
    Line 4 – Letestu

  • Derian Hatcher

    Even though there is no stat line to measure heart, desire, integrity, character and competitive pride, intelligent fans can see who has it and who does not. For example, I would bet that 97 comes back next year significantly better at faceoffs. Like Crosby did, he has the disire to be better. After his first year, Drai worked very hard on his legs for a quicker and more powerful stride…because he wanted to be better. Conversely, it is easy to pick out the players who seem satisfied with where they are and do not appear to have the heart and desire to be better.

    I love watching Drai and his desire to be better and compete. And he’s only going to get better.

    • Gravis82

      Sure, and they traded hall. Now lets pull up all the articles from people who said they should never trade Hall during his time in Edmonton. Here is a hint, every write said that at some point. Now, what is your point?

    • Ryan68

      This is why the most important result of drafting McDavid is that the team has been taken away from amateurs and given to professionals. This is why we’re in the playoffs and not wondering why we don’t have a right shooting d-man.

    • crabman

      Thanks for sharing the link. I read the article to refresh my memory.
      So you are calling a writer out for an article writen in June, when there is nothing to write about except the draft. He suggests that trading Draisaitl might be the right move because he would be the most valuable forward, besides McDavid, in a trade therefore getting us the best defenseman possible. Draisaitl had half a good season and was one season removed from a disastrous rookie season. Of course they should have explored the option. Every GM should consider every option and make the choices they feel best suit the team. Was Willis wrong absolutely but at the time he wrote that article there were many more question marks about the player. And I doubt he writes that article this summer. Bloggers are in the business of entertainment and speculation. Sometimes they are write sometimes wrong. But calling him out on this one is pretty weak.

    • RJ

      There’s two parts to this equation. There was a lot of doubt from ON bloggers about Drai, even though I would have argued Hall benefitted as much from playing with Drai as Drai benefitted from playing with Hall.

      The other part was a steadfast loyalty by ON bloggers for Nuge. Even though Drai has outperformed Nuge last season, ON bloggers were ready to annoint Nuge the 2C role. Nuge is a very good 3C, but you don’t pay a C $6m/AAV to achieve the stat line 12GP-0G-4A.

      It’s like ON is sponsored by Team Nuge.

  • TKB2677

    I love seeing all these hockey bloggers back tracking now. They all freaked out about the Hall trade and figured Leon would be nothing without Hall even though he was 20 yrs old. Hall a “line driver” goes to New Jersey and the Devils get worse. Leon is second in the NHL in playoff scoring. He’s a big, strong, skilled, good skating, impossible to get off the puck center and he is only going to get better. He’s Crosby has Malkin, McDavid has Leon. He’s the EXACT thing that most teams would die for.

    What is the typical building plan for most successful teams? Strength in goal, strength on the blue line and strength down the middle. You never hear “strength on the wing” EVER over those 3. Thank god the Oilers didn’t trade Leon and traded Hall.

    • Gravis82

      They probably shouldn’t have traded Hall either. That was a gut wrenching trade. Probably the only player who played here for the decade of darkness, that truly wanted to be here, and still wants to be here if you read any of his interviews. The guy carried the team, and always stood up and faced the media. Maybe he maxes out at the best 2LW in the NHL, or a really good 1LW as part of a team that has other stars. But he is a great player who still should be here feasting on easy competition on the second line. All it took was management to draft and develop and shut down D man with some speed at some point in the last 10 years. Should have been easy. Instead we were forced into making that trade, and it will all work out, but it could have been oh so much better.

      I like Larson, but I don’t think I can ever quite forgive Tambo, MacT and Lowe for not getting their crap together and finding a D man like Larson from within. It had to be done though, because management is so inept that it could not draft and develop a defense. For this reason, I am still disgusted that Lowe and MacT and whoever else was involved in that era get to bask in this glory for the upcoming years. They should be gone.

      • Ryan68

        I disagree. I don’t think Hall would have ever been a player on this Oiler team. He’s not a Chiarelli kind of player or a TMac kind of player. Too soft, didn’t back check, and I think he had a real problem with this being McDavid’s team. I’m actually looking forward to Eberle being gone for the same reasons. To my mind Hall and Eberle played their way off this team last year. I just hope Chia can get as much for Eberle as he did for Hall.

      • slats-west

        Hall did not make any other player other than Hall. Sorry but its sad, but true. He’s a high risk player that exposes a team way too often in a league that feasts on turnovers.

        That attitude and NHL IQ made him disliked by his teammates – night after night his teammate never came to his defence after a hit, cheap shot etc. In what was his “I’m pissed off” determined Year he’s playing on another team out of the playoffs as their #2RW. Oilers are 1 win away from WCF!!!!

      • Tikk Talk

        Given the current make-up of this team and hypothetically having both Hall and Larsson at your disposal, who would you be more upset about missing Wednesdays’ game 7? I would personally lean heavily toward Larsson, given the Oiler’s current stable of forwards and d-men. Given his use when Klef and Sekera went down, I think TMac has tipped his hand on the value of this player.

    • Jonathan Willis

      TKB2677 wrote:

      What is the typical building plan for most successful teams? Strength in goal, strength on the blue line and strength down the middle. You never hear “strength on the wing” EVER over those 3.

      You may have heard of the most successful team in the NHL over the last decade, the Chicago Blackhawks. They’ve been running a thoroughly mediocre collection of second and third line centres over most of that decade because they have Patrick Kane at right wing on their second line.

      • Ryan68

        I disagree. I don’t think Hall would have ever been a player on this Oiler team. He’s not a Chiarelli kind of player or a TMac kind of player. Too soft, didn’t back check, and I think he had a real problem with this being McDavid’s team. I’m actually looking forward to Eberle being gone for the same reasons. To my mind Hall and Eberle played their way off this team last year. I just hope Chia can get as much for Eberle as he did for Hall.

      • Ryan68

        And some might say they got swept in the first round this year because they couldn’t score. And some might say that Kane is in a class by himself and comparing any other winger in the league to him is, at best, problematic. Nobody likes to be condescended to, you may have heard that. You may have also heard that Chicago has never had back to back Cup final appearances. They might also have Kane on their second line for just that reason, that they don’t have another centre.

  • giddy

    I’ve been saying for the last while that the Oilers are going to become essentially the Blackhawks 2.0. They’ll have a core of McDavid, Drai, Lucic, Talbot, Klef, Larsson, Sekera, and the rest will likely be a revolving door of players who come here for cheap because they want to win. I think Sekera may get packaged into a deal when his contract turns into a modified NTC but that’s still a ways down the road.

    I assume Nurse will also likely fit into this core, and perhaps Benning and Caggiula will be a part of it as well, but I think if they continue with their trending success, for sure 2 of those 3 be traded or signed to different teams once their ELCs end, simply because the Oilers will not be able to afford them. I really hope Chia can continue his luck of finding fantastic college FAs in the future though, The depth that just Caggiula and Benning have provided down the stretch, especially here in playoffs, is massive. Hopefully other future college FAs see the opportunities the Oil provides, and the good support system provided to fresh faced college rookies, and use it to consider signing here. Imagine if we were to sign a guy like Justin Schultz now. Hoo-boy that could have been spectacular.

  • Kepler62c

    Great article!

    “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.”

    I’d almost say he had a few bullets in his gun with this gamble, counting on Drai or Nuge (or Puljujarvi down the line) to be the guy that steps up to lead a line like this.

    AND while his scoring is way down, Nuge has been a force throughout the playoffs too. Only a matter of time.

  • paul wodehouse

    Jfrickin’W…it matters little that you think 29 is who you think he is and your theory MAY be correct…but you should take that back !!!…anyway a leaf fan at the water cooler says to me today…all in good fun cuz i do have to go along with some of the prattle leaf fans come up with but he said “yur boy [97]…did you know that when he’s held pointless in a game (I assumed these playoffs) you Ollies win (they call us Ollies now leaf fans do) when he scores points they lose” I said HUH!!!… true stat ?

  • Spoils

    In a small bowl, combine salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaf pieces. Sprinkle duck generously with mixture. Place duck legs in a pan in one layer. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
    The next day, heat oven to 325 degrees.Place duck legs, fat side down, in a large ovenproof skillet, with legs fitting snugly in a single layer (you may have to use two skillets or cook them in batches). Heat duck legs over medium-high heat until fat starts to render. When there is about 1/4 inch of rendered fat in pan, about 20 minutes, flip duck legs, cover pan with foil, and place it in oven. If you have used two pans, transfer duck and fat to a roasting pan, cover with foil and place in oven.
    Roast legs for 2 hours, then remove foil and continue roasting until duck is golden brown, about 1 hour more. Remove duck from fat; reserve fat for other uses.
    Serve duck hot or warm, over roasted potatoes or noodles or sturdy salad greens.

  • J.R.

    Is this even a question any more? Draisaitl has proven his ability. The guy is tremendously skilled and strong as an ox. (We watched keep Brent Burns at bay it one arm while stickhandling more than once during the San José series.)

    Make no mistake. Draisaitl is a world class power forward.

    He can drive his own line. No question.

  • Drai…… a current study in the beautiful ruse…. the hot hand fallacy in a small sample size.
    Staples the statistically rigorous meets Buzz Lightyear, never mind regression, to infinity and beyond!!

  • Oilersrule99

    I’m not sure why people lump ebs,nuge and lucic together ,other than the contract amount these are completely different players . For example nuge has 4 years remaining and is 24 years old getting playoff experience adding confidence with the puck and has the most potential to continue to develop into a more complete player throughout his contract. Lucic is most likely not going to get more points than he did this year but adds a net presence and physical element that has value beyond points,he is signed for another 6 years and will be a hard contract to move his last couple years that will surely be overpayed. Ebs is 28 and looks like he will continue to produce less and less as he seems to have peaked and does not seem to have the tenacity required to push himself to get any better in an already highly competitive league,the only positive when it comes to Eberle is his contract is only for another 2 years and he will surely take a pay cut moving forward .

    • Seriously Bored

      Ebs is 26 but at this point I do not think he will fit with the team in the future. I wish we could afford to keep him but luc and nuge will be staying for now so ebs and pouliot gotta go.

  • camdog

    Those that know the game, knew last season that LD was the second best forward on the team. Problem with analytics is you have to wait for the numbers to come and then at the end of a players career you have to wait for them to drop off.

    • herb

      Those that know the game, knew two seasons ago the Leon was the second most valuable asset that the Oilers had. I and a couple others wrote about this on several occasions…