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Photo Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

MVP

Leon Draisaitl is feeling it. While he’s been carrying the Edmonton Oilers on his back in the stretch drive and tightening his grip on the NHL scoring title, he’s been chirping opponents. He’s chirping critics who not long ago doubted him capable of playing the way he has without Connor McDavid for four games now.

The truth is, Draisaitl has been playing like the best player on the planet for months — not just in the four games McDavid has missed with a quad injury. It’s a stretch in which he has produced 10 points (3-7-10) with No. 97 on the shelf, including a goal and two assists in a 4-3 OT win over the Carolina Hurricanes Sunday.

Along the way, Draisaitl has shut a lot of people the hell up. That’s a case that was closed a long time ago. It’s these last four games, though, that the idea Draisaitl has a real shot at the Hart Memorial Trophy as MVP has grown from a buzz to a dull roar with the fan base here in Edmonton. While that’s not yet the case around the league, people are taking notice.

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The way I see it, Draisaitl isn’t just in the conversation for the Hart Trophy, with 34-61-95 and a 13-point lead atop the scoring race without McDavid to lean on, he is the conversation. Not bad for a player many doubted could play the kind of hockey and produce the kind of numbers we’ve seen without the great No. 97.

WHAT HE SAID

Feb 8, 2020; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl (29) celebrates after scoring the game winning goal against the Nashville Predators in the third period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

According to a lot of people out there, I can’t play on my own. I can only play with Connor,” Draisaitl told Mark Spector of Sportsnet after beating Carolina, allowing himself a little rub at the doubters.

“It’s no secret Connor is a huge part of our team. But this is us showing the hockey world, not so much ourselves, that we’re not a one-man team. We can win games with good team structure. Obviously, our team is a lot better when Connor is on it. That’s no secret. But it’s nice we’re able to grind out a few wins with him being away from the team.”

While Draisaitl has been magnificent, this hasn’t been a one-man show with McDavid, not to mention James Neal, Zack Kassian and Kris Russell out of the line-up. Kailer Yamamoto has 18 points in 18 games since being recalled. Linemate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been on a heater second only to Draisaitl’s. Goaltenders Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen are stopping pucks.

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There’s no doubt, though, Draisaitl has been leading the parade with pretty much everyone else marching in step to get the Oilers to 32-21-6 for 70 points atop the Pacific Division after two straight wins to end the last road trip. The Oilers are 3-1 without McDavid. By the way, in the 45 career games Draisaitl has played without McDavid in the line-up, he has 46 points.

THE WAY I SEE IT

Edmonton Oilers Leon Draisaitl
Jan 11, 2020; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers center Leon Draisaitl (29) reacts during the warmup period against the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The growing MVP buzz is secondary to Draisaitl of course — he’ll be the first to tell you that winning games, getting back into the playoffs and making some noise with McDavid back in the lineup is what matters most. Still, it’s got to be beyond sweet to have so soundly proven the doubters as wrong as wrong can be.

“That’s people who don’t see him very often who have that perspective,” Darnell Nurse said. “But if you watch him, he goes out there and he dominates. It’s just showing even more. You can play him heavy, and he likes that game. You play him fast, he’ll outsmart you. He just finds a way to beat defenders.”

Draisaitl has just found a way, period. That’s MVP stuff.

Previously by Robin Brownlee