Saskatchewan is a long way from Germany and though it was daunting for center Leon Draisaitl to make that trek last season, at least he knew he was coming. Think about the pins and needles Prince Albert Raiders GM Bruno Campese was on when he made the trip to reach out to the gifted teen.
“It was a process,” Campese said. “I remember going over to Cologne not knowing if he was going to come over.”
The stakes were high. Prince Albert has developed a decent amount of talent in the past decade, but none from Europe. The Raiders usually don’t lure the same elite imports as, say, Portland or Quebec or London, but Draisaitl already looks different. In fact, he might end up being the highest picked German ever when the 2014 NHL draft rolls into Philadelphia this summer.
“He makes plays equally forehand and backhand, which is usually hit and miss at our level,” Campese said. “High skill, big frame, he protects and shields the puck…and his playmaking is through the roof.
“He’s very mature for his age. His dad was an excellent player and he certainly brought that (pro) attitude over here.”
Peter Draisaitl was indeed a great player back home, though his first career-based journey outside German borders came last year as coach of the Czech team Ceske Budejovice (he’s now with a different team, Hradec Kralove). Adjusting to a new culture can be difficult for any youngster, but Draisaitl had a ball in Prince Albert last season, falling in love with the passion of the local fans and the quesadillas made by his billet mom, while ranking second in team scoring behind Chicago Blackhawks first-rounder Mark McNeill with 21 goals and 58 points in 64 games.
“It was a great year for me,” Draisaitl said. “They really helped me out a lot and I can’t tell you how much I learned. I improved my physical game and I improved as a person.”
Through his first two games of the 2013-14 schedule, Draisaitl is putting his stamp on a team that lost McNeill to the pro ranks, tallying four points and leading the Raiders to No. 3 in the CHL’s Power Rankings. That’s the best in the Western League and not the first accolade involving the 6-foot-1, 209-pound pivot. TSN’s Bob McKenzie ranked him fourth overall in his pre-season draft rankings, ISS Hockey had him 14th and Central Scouting rated him an ‘A’ prospect to watch.
“I am honored,” Draisaitl said. “My goal is to bring a lot of creativity. I want to make things happen. Be a playmaker, but a finisher as well. I want to be unpredictable.”
What would truly be unpredictable is if Draisaitl can lead Germany to an upset or two at the World Junior Championship this winter in Sweden. The Raiders star helped the underdog national team avoid relegation with six points in six games, but saved his most important work for last. Four of his points came in the final game against Latvia in a 5-2 win that kept Germany up with the big boys for this year’s installment in Malmo, while the plucky Latvians were jettisoned to the lower tier. Draisaitl can’t wait to put on his nation’s colors again.
“It’s huge,” he said. “I think it’s the first time since 1998 that we didn’t go back to Division B. It’s always good to see the best players your age. You learn so much. You probably won’t win, but you see how they work.”
The Germans have drawn Canada and the United States in pool play and despite the availability of players such as Draisaitl, Shawinigan goalie Marvin Cupper and Western Michigan freshman Frederik Tiffels, it will definitely be an education. Games against Slovakia and the Czech Republic provide a slightly better glimmer of hope and with Draisaitl already looking like a big-game player, you never know.
What is certain is that Marcel Goc’s German high watermark of going 20th overall in the draft is in real danger of being wiped out.