Things look grim for the Edmonton Oilers’ season after Connor McDavid’s injury, but could Leon Draisaitl step into McDavid’s No. 2 center slot and save the day?
What an emotional roller coaster we’ve endured since the second period of Edmonton’s victory over the Philadelphia Flyers last night.
Connor McDavid is seriously injured. Connor McDavid has his arm in a sling. Connor McDavid likely has a broken collarbone. The Edmonton Oilers’ season is finished. They have a shot to land Auston Matthews and pick first overall for the fifth time in seven years.
All those thoughts may be valid, sure. It’s not like McDavid’s injury derails the Stanley Cup hopes of a powerhouse team running away with the Pacific Division. Edmonton improved to 5-8-0 with its win last night. It ranks 12th in goals per game, 27th in goals allowed per game, 10th in power play efficiency and 16th in penalty killing. The Oilers are 24th in shots per game and 16th in shots against. They rank 26th in 5-on-5 score adjusted Corsi percentage, a.k.a. puck possession. This team was already trending toward mediocrity at best, so it’s not hyperbole to suggest McDavid’s injury will destroy the Oilers’ playoff hopes, especially if he misses most or all of the season.
But Edmonton still has 69 games to play, and it has shown some positive trends under new coach Todd McLellan. Right winger Jordan Eberle will return from his own injury in a few days. To me, though, what the Oilers do the rest of the year comes down to one young man:
The big center gets overshadowed at times by McDavid and the Oilers’ other first overall picks, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. After all, Draisaitl “only” went third overall at the 2014 draft. But we can’t underestimate his talent. Draisaitl was a dominant scorer in the WHL with the Prince Albert Raiders and Kelowna Rockets. Scouts likened his all-round game to Anze Kopitar’s. If it weren’t for all Edmonton’s other mega-prospects, Draisaitl, who just turned 20, would be hyped as a singular player a franchise builds around, a kid who could challenge for scoring titles some day. He’s that talented.
Draisaitl’s rookie year was a disaster. The Oilers horribly mismanaged him, keeping him in the NHL for 37 games, burning a year of his entry-level deal, withholding him from representing Germany at the 2015 world juniors and then sending him back to junior. None of that was his fault, and it’s nowhere near too late for him to capitalize on his mammoth potential. Draisaitl has sizzled since his call-up, racking up three goals and seven points in three games. He’s clicked beautifully playing the right side on a line with Hall and Nugent-Hopkins.
But Eberle’s imminent return creates an opportunity. He’s always had good chemistry playing with Hall and ‘The Nuge,’ and he’s a natural right winger. Draisaitl has excelled at right wing early on but is a natural center. One of the most promising things about the 2015-16 Oilers was that they were, for a change, a two-line team, as McDavid formed a dynamite trio with Yakupov and Benoit Pouliot. With McDavid out, Draisaitl is the only player on the team with the right skill set to keep that momentum going on the second unit. Sorry, Anton Lander and Mark Letestu.
It’s not ideal to kill the fantastic momentum Draisaitl has built on the top line, but McLellan must look at the big picture. Edmonton doesn’t stand a chance at staying in the playoff hunt if it remains a one-line team. McDavid brought that new element to opposing defenses, who could no longer key on one trio, and Draisaitl is the only other Oiler who can replicate that effect.
The Oilers should experiment with Draisaitl as their No. 2 center. It’s their best hope.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin