Edmonton has life against Anaheim because of Leon Draisaitl and the match-up problems he gives the Ducks. And he and Connor McDavid give the Oilers an impressive one-two punch.
About two-thirds of the way through the 2013-14 season, I asked an NHL exec which player he would pick first overall amongst that year’s draft class.
“Actually,” he said. “I’d go with the German kid.”
That German kid of course, was Leon Draisaitl. His competition to go first overall included Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett. When it came time to make the selections, Edmonton snagged Draisaitl third overall – behind Ekblad and Reinhart, but before my source’s team had a chance to pick.
And while Ekblad had the strongest case to go first overall, I can guarantee Oilers fans are more than happy to have Draisaitl patrolling the ice in Edmonton, particularly after his hat trick and five-point night sent the Oilers cruising past Anaheim in Game 6 on Sunday.
Edmonton has life because of Draisaitl and the match-up problems he gives the Ducks. His sturdy frame and ability to protect the puck make him difficult to contain on the rush, plus his parting from Connor McDavid’s line means Anaheim has two dangerous units to contend with now. While McDavid and Draisaitl originally looked like Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri for the “13 Reasons Why” set, perhaps a more accurate analogy now would be Gretzky and Mark Messier; two fantastic players who largely did damage on different lines (plus Draisaitl’s size is more akin to Messier than Kurri). And obviously McDavid and Draisaitl have a long ways to go before they can literally be considered in the same rarified air as those Hall of Famers, but it’s fun to see their impact in such meaningful contests already.
After all, Draisaitl is older than McDavid, but the German kid is still just 21 years old. He’s coming off a 77-point season, the first in which he played all 82 games in the NHL. Edmonton’s original handling of the youngster seemed a little shaky, when then-GM Craig MacTavish and his regime decided not to send Draisaitl to the world juniors in 2015, only to send him from Edmonton back to the WHL right after the tournament finished (Germany suffered the most there, getting relegated without Draisaitl. They have yet to return to the top level). While the move was frustrating for Draisaitl at the time, it didn’t seem to hurt his development in the long run: he has become the player we expected him to be.
Now, the fun question brings the 2014 draft back into the conversation. With the benefit of hindsight, where does Draisaitl go? Ekblad has been solid in the NHL, just as expected. But he has also been beset by injury woes lately – something that, to be fair, could not have been predicted on draft day.
Reinhart has finished third in scoring for the Buffalo Sabres the past two seasons, though he hasn’t cracked the 50-point barrier yet. We also assumed Buffalo would be better by now thanks to a number of high draft picks like him.
Bennett has been up and down in Calgary, but really suffered through the 2016-17 campaign.
Funny enough, the ‘Big Four’ from that draft class have received stiff competition from kids drafted slightly later in 2014. For example, where do David Pastrnak, William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers or even Viktor Arvidsson fit into the conversation? Sure, it happens every year, but it is interesting to reflect back.
What is relevant to this season is that despite coming from a non-power country, Draisaitl was judged on his merits, not his nationality. That may sound like a given, but Anze Kopitar was infamously passed over by at least one GM because the future Selke winner and two-time Stanley Cup champion came from tiny Slovenia. You can argue that Draisaitl beat that bias by playing in the WHL with Prince Albert for two seasons before he was taken, but Kopitar was playing in Sweden at the time – just like top-five picks such as Victor Hedman, Nicklas Backstrom and the Sedin twins.
This season, we will likely see Nico Hischier become the highest-drafted Swiss player of all time. Will he end up making the same impact in the NHL as Draisaitl already has? Tough to say. But Draisaitl is setting the bar pretty high right now and the Oilers have a shot at the third round because of him.