Photo Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Leon: Full Flight

Whether it’s a matter of buying into all the nagging coach Ken Hitchcock has done since taking over behind the bench of the Edmonton Oilers and getting into his ear or simply doing whatever it takes to shut him up — maybe both — there’s no doubt that Leon Draisaitl is playing the best hockey of his NHL career.

It wasn’t that long ago that we were hearing whispers that there was friction between Hitchcock and some of his players because of his constant demands and sometimes caustic approach, which isn’t news to anybody who has seen him work. There’s not much doubt some of that ill-will was between Hitchcock and Draisaitl.

That friction came to a head after a 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on a night Draisaitl was far from at his best — he allowed Evander Kane to wheel past him uncontested and score and he later made a lazy line change after a giveaway. “The coaches can’t want it more than the players,” Hitchcock said, uttering a quote that got tons of play and didn’t go over well in the room. Mark Spector of Sportsnet wrote about it here.

Hitchcock made his comment Feb. 9, and it coincides with the start of the seven-game points streak Draisaitl is on now, a stretch in which he has produced 6-4-10, including a power-play goal and a shorthanded goal in Sunday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Nashville Predators. Draisaitl now sits at 38-38-76, just one point off the career-high 77 points he amassed in 2016-17. He’ll easily blow by that with 20 games left to play. Simply put, Draisaitl has never been better than he is right now.

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Oct 23, 2018; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl (29) celebrates a second period goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

“He’s taken his game to another level,” Hitchcock said. “He’s embraced the details of being a really good player. He’s bought into what the coaches want and it’s made him more effective on a daily basis. He’s in the right positions. His spacing on the ice is proper now. He’s not waiting to hit home runs. He’s a helluva hockey player.”

Asked about the team as a whole, Hitchcock said: “It doesn’t happen overnight . . . you don’t get people to play for each other overnight. It takes time and it takes a lot of pushing and pulling. I’ve said this before. Coaches get players to places they can’t get to themselves. The tug-of-war that goes on until they get to that place is hard. You’ve got to be able to coach through conflict, and the players have to be able to play through conflict. And there was some conflict, to get to this level, but we’re here now.

“Whether it’s too late or whatever, we’re here now, and we’re competing like hell. My hope is, we continue down this path because this is the path that you can be competitive for years in. If this is the way they’re going to compete and support each other, you can be really proud of what you’re putting out on the ice every night.” For context, the full interview is here.

Coaching a team, like raising children or being the boss at work, isn’t always pretty. If everybody likes and agrees with what you’re saying, chances are you’re doing it wrong. The message isn’t always what people it’s directed at want to hear. In talks I’ve had with players over the years, the consensus is coaches who are best at getting their message across, whatever it is, are balanced and consistent in delivering it. Expectations are clear, even if that can be a grind, as is often the case with Hitchcock.

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The bottom line, no matter what the coach says or draws up on the white board or points out in video sessions, is that the results, good and bad, depend on the player more than anyone else. I don’t doubt Hitchcock has had a hand in what we’re seeing from Draisaitl right now, but none of the tough love or grinding about details means a damn thing if the player doesn’t turn those words into action. It’s just hot air without that.

Even with this heater he’s on as the Oilers cling to the outside hope of pushing for a playoff spot, I’m not sure we’ve seen the best that Draisaitl has to offer yet. At 23, is this the top-end of the guy who plays second banana to Connor McDavid or is there more? I’m not sure we’ll know the answer to that for another year or two.

If that’s the case, Hitchcock, 67, won’t be around to see it, at least not from behind the Oilers’ bench because he’s on a one-year deal and changes, starting with a new GM, are coming. If nothing else, nagging and nudging Draisaitl to be the player we’re seeing now for the next eight or 10 years with the team he’s always wanted to coach wouldn’t be a bad way for Hitchcock to go out.

  • Farmteam

    8.5 will look like a bargain, sooner rather than later. He’s not going to be Wendel Clark or Cam Neely and it’s unfair to expect that. It isn’t unfair though to expect the effort we’ve seen from him lately on a consistent basis.

  • Rama Lama

    I agree that if Leon can play sound defensively, than we truly have a great hockey player to work with. The fact that he can produce with Connor is even more telling.

    Not sure if others agree but I have noticed that the defenceman (especially Larsson) are way more active in the offensive zone than before……..I like this look as it keeps the play in the offensive zone a little longer.

    I know it’s a short sample size but the team is trending in the right direction. On the trade front its better to make no trade than a bad trade, so this looks good on Keith Gretzky.

  • That's My Point

    Draisaitl’s on pace for 50 goals, definitely worth 8.5.
    Also on pace for 123 points (76 in 62 games so far)
    In playoffs: 16 points in 13 games vs 9 points for McDavid a couple of yrs ago.

  • Oiler Al

    Dria gets a lot of flak for his defensive game.Today he is the only forward on the Oilers that is a + player[barely].Successful, high scoring teams like Tampa dont have a Minus player on the team.Same with Calgary and Leafs, also high scoring. I think it more of a team concept of play.

  • ScottV

    A few years back i used to post about wanting Hitch or Hitch like as a Coach to be installed for a couple of years, to establish a solid base of systems and the proper way to play as a team. When that was done to then install the right kind of Coach to take it to the next level with the benefit of and the appreciation for – a solid Hitch foundation in place.

    When Hitch was hired I was worried that his deal is not really the kind of deal that you go with in a short term pinch.

    100 per cent agree that you don’t achieve this over night and when you’re forced to short cut it – it’s gonna cause more friction that can be easily absorbed and re-directed towards growing positive results.

    Hopefully Hitch can still leave enough of a mark to be of benefit for the future coach. In a normal scenario, it wouldn’t hurt to keep him on for next year but the OEG have dug themselves a deep hole and the Hitch boat sailed by a few or really several years ago.

    The only thing that keeps Hitch afloat is continued progress and some luck with other teams that fall flat to open the door to the playoffs.

    Unfortunately – I doubt that happens.

  • Justino

    Draisaitl has been my favorite player since he broke out in 2015 and I’m really happy with his play this year. He may be lazy on the back check at times but the kid has hockey IQ and a great shot. Not to mention he’s only 23 and pretty much already the best German player to ever play the game.

  • D

    The whole process RB described with Hitchcock and Draisaitl reminds me of the scene in the movie Deadpool, where Wade Wilson had to go through all kinds of pain and misery to have his superpowers unlocked.

    • Dallas Eakins Hair

      I cant recall what ex Dallas Star said that there was times he hated Hitch because Hitch was always at him always after him to do better, but he said it made him a better player and while he hated Hitch at times for it, it made him a way way better hockey player and he has a hell of a lot of respect for Hitch as a Coach and Mentor

      • ed from edmonton

        There were questions as far back as Tom Renney that the “young core” thought the coach was too hard on them. Renney was let go and the inmates kept running the asylum.

        Brownlee’s take is interesting but in contrast to others who have stayed that millennial hockey players must be coddled or else you will hurt their feelings.

      • I’d bet there are players here now who have already had enough of Hitchcock because he is very demanding and is perceived at times to be too negative. Here and now, the grinding gets old really fast, but down the road there’ll be more of an appreciation for the message. That’s a pretty common theme when it comes to life in general.

  • From everything we’ve heard and read Hitch put Leon through absolute hell and it’s paid off. This tough love is the type of extra push that makes young stars into superstars. A 23 year old’s development doesn’t stop just because he’s a PPG player and locked up long term, I can respect Hitch for acknowledging that. When you consider that Leon has a history of sloppy play effort from time to time it’s awesome to see his “give a damn” meter to the max right now.

  • Ratt McNuge

    Drai is earning his paycheque this season in terms of stats along with Nuge and McDavey. Gotta find a way to get some other players in here who are the worth the money they are being paid too.

  • Dallas Eakins Hair

    People rag on Leon and say he isn’t worth the money and bla bla bla, but I will admit there are times Drai does drive me nuts, but the guys has been very consistent in his point production and people say that is only because of McDavid, yes they have great chemistry together, but Drai can put up points without McJesus

    Remembe When the Drai Reide Chaisson line was putting up points at a pretty good clip there for a while, McD wasnt on that line, If the Oiles can get Dai some steady line mates and McJesus and a capable third line this team could be a whole lot better, Nuge is on pace for a career year, CXhiasson I hope resigns, because the Oilers need scoring and the guy I think will get out of a funk and even if the Oil doubled his salary he’d still be cheap and easy to move

  • Randomfan

    Yaaay…great job Leon and Connor! Now what? Back the the basement where we belong. As great as these 2 are to watch i am afraid we will be limited to celebrate personal records for years to come under current management. It would be nice to have a real hockey TEAM in edmonton for once.

  • ---schadenfreude—

    Everyone talks about wasting a year of McDavids career
    We must all remember that the oilers are also wasting the career of this exceptional player

  • Let Leon center his own line and have McD see if he can drive a line on his own, then maybe the Oilers would have 2 lines instead of one. Wishful thinking as Leon will be put back on McD’s line to keep Connor happy.

    • The Whispererer

      Keep Connor happy? I suspect being a perennial contender would make Connor happy. If he and Leon were each getting 100 points a year by playing on the same line but having their seasons end in the 1st week of April i’m quite sure neither would be happy. I’m also quite sure that they are mature enough to reject selfishness in favour of team success.

  • Harry2

    Weve got 2 elite centers and some promising dmen ( Nurse, Klef, Bouchard). All is not doom and gloom. However, we absolutely have to have a COMPETENT GM running things from here on out.

  • nicolas10

    So Drai is up to 1,42 ppg when he was at 1,2 ppg prior. And journalists use such a small sample size to assume Hitchcock made Drai 2.0 a greater player just based on a 7 game stretch (errr sample size).

    Talk about hot air, seriously.