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Year in Review: Leon Draisaitl still needs to prove he can carry his own line

This is one part of a player-by-player Year in Review series we’ll be doing over the next couple months as we look back on the 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers season. 

2017-18 Edmonton Oilers No. 29: Leon Draisaitl

GP: 75, G: 25, A: 45, PTS: 70

After a breakout season and incredible playoff performance, Leon Draisaitl was awarded a massive eight-year contract worth $68 million. It was a big chunk of cash to hand out, but, at the time, it was expected Draisaitl was going to help form a Crosby-Malkin calibre down the middle behind Connor McDavid.

Right or wrong, fair or unfair, that contract will now shape how we view Draisaitl moving forward. In his first season after signing the deal, Draisaitl didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations of his $8.5 million cap hit.

At a quick glance, Draisaitl had a good season in 2017-18. He scored 70 points in 75 games, good for 34th in the league in scoring, his .90 points-per-game was just slightly below his total from 2016-17, and he had some of the best underlying shot metrics on the team. So, yeah, at a quick glance, that’s a good season.

But the discussion around Draisaitl can’t simply end there. Prior to signing his big contract, it had been pointed out that Draisaitl had never produced offence at a high level away from another elite, play-driving forward. In 2015-16, he spent a good chunk of time with Taylor Hall and enjoyed a successful season. In 2016-17, he and Connor McDavid found chemistry and formed one of the best lines in the NHL.

The only time that Draisaitl showed an ability to carry his own line was during the 2017 playoffs. Draisaitl, during that playoff run, was undoubtedly Edmonton’s best player. Of course, a lot of this has to do with Connor McDavid being shadowed by Joe Pavelski and Ryan Kesler, two very good veteran defensive centres, but Draisaitl was an absolute force, putting up 16 points in 13 playoff games.

He wasn’t that same force for the Oilers in 2017-18, though, which is why I say he didn’t live up to that $8.5 million cap hit. When Peter Chiarelli gave Driasaitl that big contract, he was doing so based on the thought that the player Draisaitl was in the playoffs was the Draisaitl of the future. He was paid like a top-line centre, one who could drive a line, and, like I said earlier, form that Pittsburgh-esque one-two punch with McDavid.

Photo Credit: James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports

As impressive and successful as 70 points in 75 games appears on the surface, unfortunately, Draisaitl was largely a product of McDavid.

McDavid and Draisaitl spent 498:33 together at even strength this season. During that time, the duo posted an extremely good 57.4 Goals For percentage, meaning they heavily outscored their opponents. In the time they spent apart? McDavid was still excellent, posting a 57.8 GF% while Draisaitl wasn’t on the ice with him. Draisaitl, in the 628:15 he played with McDavid on the bench, managed just a 42.4 GF%. That isn’t very good. It was the same deal during the 2016-17 season. In 2016-17, McDavid and Draisaitl posted a 59.4 GF% together and Draisaitl posted a 44.2 GF% by himself.

I’ll give Draisaitl the benefit of the doubt here, though, because Edmonton’s wingers were terrible last season. While Draisaitl’s on-ice goal numbers away from McDavid were thoroughly unspectacular, his shot and scoring chance numbers were solid. Draisaitl’s even strength shot attempt differential away from McDavid was a respectable 50.4% and his scoring chance differential was a decent 49.7%. After McDavid, Draisaitl’s most frequent winger linemates last year were Patrick Maroon, who was good, and Milan Lucic, Drake Caggiula, and Mike Cammalleri who, uh, weren’t. So, to be fair to Draisaitl, he didn’t get much help from the wings when he was the team’s second centre last year.

Was it a disaster of a season for Draisaitl? No, absolutely not. Not even close. He’s still a very good player and, at the very least, is an elite winger playing alongside McDavid. The issue is, though, is that Edmonton needs him to be a good centre behind McDavid in order for the team to reach its full potential.

The Oilers were a trainwreck without McDavid on the ice last season. If they’re going to contend for a Stanley Cup, Leon Draisaitl will need to play a bigger role than McDavid’s very good wingman. Instead, Leon Draisaitl needs to be the guy who dominates when McDavid is off the ice like he did back during the team’s 2017 playoff run. He’s only 22 years old, so I think it’s fair to say that the best of Draisaitl is yet to come.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    I swear to god, if you guys start in on Leon, I’m gonna corn on the cob you. How long have we waited for a skilled centre with size? Leon has sublime hands, great passing ability, a heavy release and he’s strong as an ox – remember that OT goal last year where he one-armed the defender to the ice without even missing a stride? An improved PP next season could put him in the 80 point range, so let’s see what happens.

    • ed from edmonton

      I believe that LD can become a “elite” center, whatever that means. But he hasn’t done that consistently yet in his career. In the Anaheim series he was the best player on the ice and we all hope he can approach this level again. But it is fair to say he didn’t get back to that level in the 17/18 season. I think it fair to say LD will be under greater scrutiny this year than in previous, it just come with the contract.

      It will be interesting to see how fans react if LD plateaus at a PPGish player with break even metrics as a 2nd line center. Would that be good enough? I hope LD can be more than this, but until he does it there will be questions and concerns.

    • CMG30

      Yes LD is a skilled center with size but the problem that has now been set up is that he’s being paid like an ELITE first line center. If he starts to produce prolifically then great but if he isn’t then… Right now I have faith that with better wingers (or if this Lucic debacle resolves itself) he can grow into his contract and become who we all want him to be.

      • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

        I think the numbers will even out a bit over the next couple seasons as the cap goes up. People said similar things about Nuge when he signed his $6 million deal IIRC. Plus, as others have said, Leon didn’t exactly have worldbeaters on his wings last year. I want to see what he can do with a bit more skill on his flank.

      • Glencontrolurstik

        leave the contract business to the professionals & the stakeholders.
        Just enjoy the team & the games… What they make is really non of our business…