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Draisaitl embraces expectations as Oilers turn corner to full-on contender

Inside the stoic, schnitzel-loving, big-city German side of Leon Draisaitl lives a small-town, Canadianized kid just hanging with his hockey buddies. Except his crew is no ordinary bunch. They’re millionaires with mile-high expectations upon them. Pressure? Draisaitl says bring it on.

Hollywood hasn’t been kind to Germans in recent history. The typical character from that nation is either cold and unfeeling or a vessel for accent comedy and weird jokes about sausages. And while Leon Draisaitl may be an absolute killer on the ice, he is no James Bond villain when he’s chillin’ with his buddies on the Edmonton Oilers.

Draisaitl’s usual crew is made up of Connor McDavid, Adam Larsson and Darnell Nurse. That this foursome is close is a good sign for fans, because they hold a great deal of the franchise’s fate in their hands, and friends want to win for one another. Larsson helped stabilize the D-corps that Nurse is working his way up on, while Draisaitl and McDavid have quickly become one of the deadliest 1-2 punches in the NHL. Being part of this integral group, both on and off the ice, is quite the feat for the German kid, considering he wasn’t sure how he’d fit in when he came to North America five years ago.

In a country mad for soccer, Draisaitl comes from a hockey family. Sure, as a kid he played soccer (he likes Bayern Munich but also follows the hometown side from Cologne) and tennis, but he was practically destined for the ice. His father, Peter, was a longtime pro in Germany. He was a top scorer and even played for Germany at the 1992 Olympics. That team took Eric Lindros and Canada to a shootout in the quarterfinal, only to fall in the end. Peter’s second attempt dribbled through the legs of Canadian netminder Sean Burke, but cruelly wobbled on the goal line before harmlessly falling flat. Draisaitl’s father went into coaching after his playing days were done, and throughout his career, little Leon was there, immersing himself in the culture. “I was at the rink a lot,” Leon said. “I was always a hockey guy, and I loved being in the dressing room, or just running around with a ball and a stick. He never pushed me, but he helped me out a lot when I asked.”

Draisaitl dominated his German peers early on. As a 14-year-old, he put up 103 points in 26 games for Mannheim’s under-16 squad. The following season, he upped his production to 192 points in 29 games on the same team. But it was difficult for Draisaitl to judge his development when he was so far ahead of the competition. It’s a problem that has bedeviled other phenoms from smaller hockey nations, with Slovenia’s Anze Kopitar being another classic example.

The goal, the dream, was to one day play in the NHL. So to get on that path, Draisaitl decided to come to North America in search of tougher competition in major junior. He was coming from big-city Cologne, home to more than one million people, so Quebec City would have been a nice landing place, given how it’s often cited as the most European city over here. A metropolis like Vancouver would have been convenient, too.

But it was small-town Prince Albert that wound up being the destination. The Raiders, representing about 35,000 folks in the northern tier of Saskatchewan, needed Draisaitl and took him second overall in the 2012 CHL important draft (St. Louis’ Ivan Barbashev went first to Moncton). Draisaitl made the most of his time in town, helping the team make the playoffs his first two years and being named fan favorite on both occasions. The community loved him and he was happy to be there.

As it turned out, Draisaitl never left Western Canada. The Oilers drafted him third overall in 2014 and kept him on the roster the next season until after New Year’s. He was eventually sent back down to junior after his WHL rights were traded to the powerhouse Kelowna Rockets, and Draisaitl helped that team win the league title and make it all the way to the Memorial Cup final before losing in OT to the Oshawa Generals.

While Edmonton isn’t Cologne, Draisaitl already thinks of it as his second home. “I’m used to it by now,” he said. “At the beginning there was concern for sure, coming from a big city. But I like it a lot. I’m very comfortable out here.”

Those early Prince Albert days paved the way, but now things are kicking into overdrive. In 2015-16, his second pro season, Draisaitl spent a little bit of time in the AHL with the Bakersfield Condors but then came up and flirted with 20 goals in Edmonton. With McDavid losing a big chunk of his rookie season due to injury, Draisaitl’s progress was at least one positive for the organization.

Last season, the machine took hold. McDavid and Draisaitl became lethal together, with Draisaitl often playing on the phenom’s right wing. The sheer speed and talent of the pair was a load to handle for opponents, and McDavid went on to win his first Art Ross Trophy, with 100 points, and the Hart. Draisaitl finished top-10 in league scoring, with 77 points, and fell just one shy of hitting the 30-goal mark.

Whether the partnership will continue, the famously reserved McDavid won’t speculate – that’s for the coaches to decide, he maintained. But it is a fun debate to have. Together, he and Draisaitl are a powerhouse, but Draisaitl has also proven already he can create offense without No. 97. During Edmonton’s second-round series against Anaheim, for instance, Draisaitl hung five points on the Ducks in a crucial 7-1 beatdown that tied the series 3-3. McDavid didn’t have a point on any of those scores. For his part, Draisaitl sees the benefits in both paths. “I don’t have a preference,” he said. “That versatility gives us a lot of looks down the lineup and that can give other teams a problem.”

What is certain is that Draisaitl doesn’t want to cede all responsibility to McDavid. He’s willing to take on the big boys in the faceoff dot (he’s also better at it right now than McDavid). Although he worshipped Pavel Datsyuk when he was growing up, Draisaitl has long been compared to bigger centers such as Kopitar, Joe Thornton and Ryan Getzlaf – and now he’s staring those dudes down. “For me, I love those challenges – the Getzlafs and those guys,” he said. “I want to be on the ice against those players.”

On top of that self-imposed pressure, Draisaitl will have a new weight on his shoulders as he begins a brand-new eight-year contract that comes with a hefty $8.5 million cap hit. That actually makes him the highest-paid player on the Oilers, since McDavid’s mammoth $12.5 million hit doesn’t kick in until 2018-19. “To be able to play with Leon for the next eight years – he’s a fun guy to play with,” McDavid said. “To have the pieces we do in Edmonton, it’s exciting.”

With $21 million about to be tied up in just two players, Edmonton’s window to win is now. Most of the defense corps is already locked up, and star goalie Cam Talbot is making a reasonable wage for the next two seasons. Getting to the second round last season was huge, and not just because the Oilers had gone a decade without a playoff appearance before that. Now, the kids know what to expect. “That’s pretty cool, to go through the first playoff run together,” Draisaitl said. “You learn from it. It’s up and down, especially as young guys, you get a little nervous. But now we know what it’s like: the fans are louder, the rinks are louder…it’s intense.”

Wait until expectations bust through the ceiling. Edmonton is no longer the lottery team that could never put it together. The Oilers are for real, and they know it.

Luckily, the key pieces are all on the same page. Draisaitl’s crew eat dinner together pretty much every night when they’re not at the rink already, and they partake in many of the low-key pastimes you would expect for hockey players that don’t have the siren songs of Manhattan or Montreal: they go to movies and they play video games like FIFA and the NHL series. Draisaitl said he’s OK at the games, but it’s the ritual that seems to bring them all together.

Nurse has known Draisaitl the longest, and he has happily opened up his palate to bond with his German buddy. “I’ve had schnitzel a couple times, just because of him,” Nurse said. “We lived together for a bit in the summer when he first came here and then in Bakersfield. It’s fun to pick his brain sometimes and see how far he has come in North America.”

He has come far. Sure, Draisaitl misses his friends and family back in Germany. Along with his dad, he has an older sister who works behind the camera on TV productions and his mom is in advertising when she’s not cooking up a mean schnitzel of her own. But stretching back to his days in Prince Albert, Draisaitl has been the sort of kid who makes the locals proud to call him an adopted son. No doubt the fans in Edmonton are happy to have him under contract for as long as the collective bargaining agreement will allow, and the feeling is mutual. “I’m really happy,” Draisaitl said. “A lot of the guys have said it already, but everyone’s excited. I wanted to be here as long as possible. We love playing for each other.”

The core is coming together. Edmonton has weapons up front, stability on defense and a goaltender who has proven he can take on a lot of starts. The team is tight and friendships span the many different cultures in the dressing room. Draisaitl loves his homeland, but he’s no stock character. Except maybe in one way: “Of course,” he said, “I like schnitzel.”



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