One player’s injury is another’s opportunity.
In this case, Connor McDavid being sidelined for two-to-three weeks gives Leon Draisaitl an opportunity to show the world that he can be the driving force behind a successful team. If Draisaitl can put the Oilers on his back and navigate the team through the captain’s absence, he can finally kill the narrative that he’s a byproduct of McDavid’s success and cement himself as one of the game’s true superstars.
When the Oilers inked McDavid and Draisaitl to their eight-year contract extensions following the team’s playoff run in 2017, the obvious comparison was the dominant duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins are what they are largely because of this duo. Since the two drive their own lines at even strength, the Penguins will have a star on the ice for virtually the entire game. Even when Crosby gets injured, Malkin is there to pick up the slack. With his MVP and Art Ross-winning season, McDavid had already proved that he could be the team’s Crosby. Draisaitl still has something to prove to show he could be the team’s Malkin.
Even after his 50-goal season last year, Draisaitl still had his fair share of doubters. The criticism surrounding Draisaitl was that he was a byproduct of McDavid’s talent and that he wasn’t good enough to drive his own line. Rather than an elite centre, Draisaitl was viewed by many as simply a very good winger who could produce at an elite level alongside the game’s best. So, fair or not, more Jonathan Cheechoo than Evgeni Malkin.
I mean, there was some merit to this narrative, as Draisaitl’s numbers were substantially better with McDavid than they were without, but this thought seldom took into consideration the quality of wingers he was playing with when driving his own line. Were Draisaitl’s numbers as a centre mediocre because he wasn’t good enough to drive a line? Or were they mediocre because he had to drag around Milan Lucic and Tobias Rieder?
This year, it’s been a completely different story. With the team mired in a December slump, the Oilers recalled Kailer Yamamoto from AHL Bakersfield and made a change to their lineup. McDrai was split up and Draisaitl was placed on the second line alongside the rookie Yamamoto and the veteran Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
To say this trio has been great would be an understatement. They’ve been dominant. The Oilers have gone 10-3-2 since the birth of the RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto trio and they’ve outscored opponents 19 to nine at even strength. Draisaitl in that span has a whopping 10 goals and 18 assists, with 17 of those 28 points coming at even strength.
Four of those points came last night in a crucial win at home against Chicago. Shortly after the Oilers announced that McDavid would be sidelined for the next few weeks and everyone wrote the team off, Draisaitl scored a goal and picked up three assists in a 5-3 win over the Blackhawks, another team fighting for their playoff lives.
When Sidney Crosby was sidelined with an injury for over two months with an injury earlier this season, the Penguins didn’t miss a beat. In fact, they went 16-6-4. Over those 26 games, Evgeni Malkin produced 11 goals and 38 points.
Perhaps the most memorable season of Malkin’s career came in 2011-12. This was the one where he truly cemented himself as one of the game’s greats, even though he already had a Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy, and an Art Ross Trophy to his name. With Crosby limited to just 22 games due to a concussion, Malkin stepped up and scored 50 goals and a league-leading 109 points. He was awarded the Hart Trophy for leading the Crosby-less Penguins to a 51-25-6 record.
Now Draisaitl has the same opportunity. He leads the league with 89 points and if he can lead the Oilers through McDavid’s injury without missing much of a beat, he’ll more than likely earn himself not only the Art Ross, but also the Hart.
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