Player comparisons are fraught with peril, especially when teenagers who have yet to see their first NHL shifts are part of the equation. On top of the age gap, there’s also a hype factor because it’s much more fun to say a smaller skilled player is the next Patrick Kane versus the next Steve Sullivan or David Desharnais, no matter which is most accurate. But when scouts saw Leon Draisaitl play for the Western League’s Prince Albert Raiders this past season, names such as Joe Thornton and Anze Kopitar came up. Keep the latter in mind, because there’s more than just one similarity between the stupendous Los Angeles Kings pivot and the growing Raiders teenager. When the Edmonton Oilers tabbed Draisaitl with the third selection overall at the draft, they made him the highest German pick ever. Not that it was a long list, but Germany has produced a decent amount of NHLers, from Marcel Goc (the former record holder, who went 20th in 2001) to Christian Ehrhoff and Jochen Hecht. But none of those players lacerated the
landschaft the way Draisaitl did. As a 15-year-old in Germany, he put up a staggering 97 goals and 192 points in (wait for it) just 29 games. He kept the same six-points-per-game pace up in the playoffs. And keep in mind, that’s not as fun as it sounds when you’re serious about your sport. “It was never easy,” Draisaitl says. “It’s not easy to get ready for those kinds of games when you know you’re going to score a lot of goals. It’s not easy to concentrate when you know it will be a high-scoring game. I just wanted to get better every game and work hard.”
This was the same predicament Kopitar had a decade prior, when he hung 76 points on the competition in 14 games as a 15-year-old for Jesenice while playing against 18-year-olds in Slovenia. Both Kopitar and Draisaitl are the sons of coaches who also played hockey in Europe, and those fathers both lived through political upheaval – Matjaz Kopitar and Slovenia’s war of independence; Peter Draisaitl and the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Anze went to the safety of the mountains during Slovenia’s brief conflict; Leon has only talked to his father about life during the Cold War – and even then, it’s not a topic that comes up often.)
Clearly, finding quality competition was an issue early on for both Kopitar and Draisaitl. And here’s where history ceases to repeat itself. Whereas Kopitar went to Sweden to play for Sodertalje after putting up great numbers in Slovenia, Draisaitl went to Canada after Prince Albert GM Bruno Campese took a recruiting trip to Cologne. Success in the WHL, for Draisaitl, meant a more direct route to the NHL. “I knew quite a bit about the WHL, but to be honest, I didn’t even know there was a city called Prince Albert,” Draisaitl says. “That was something else, for sure.”
Cologne is home to one million people. Mannheim, where Draisaitl put up that 192-point campaign, has a population of 300,000. About 35,000 folks call Prince Albert home. But in two seasons with the Raiders, Draisaitl has been a fan favorite and one of the franchise’s best players. Living in Saskatchewan has taught him about country music and nice, small-town folk, but it also became his springboard to the NHL. With his size, vision and playmaking ability, he’s the big center Edmonton has craved for years now and a perfect contrast to pivot Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “He helps us fill a need,” says Stu MacGregor, Edmonton’s head of amateur scouting. “It gives us an opportunity to have a strong center with some size who can play behind or ahead of ‘The Nuge,’ whichever way it works. We’ll give him that opportunity.” Draisaitl’s experience playing against men is limited. He did suit up for the Germans at the worlds in the spring, which was great for a player who had a mercurial World Junior Championship. At the world juniors in Sweden, Draisaitl helped Germany survive relegation, but he also racked up two major penalties and a suspension in the process. “I definitely would have loved to have performed better,” he says. “I faced some big adversity, but it made me stronger when I came back. I know how to handle it now. The pressure I had at the world juniors was high, people were expecting a lot. Then I put too much pressure on myself and it combined. Everyone knows what happened from there.” Fortunately, as a late 1995 birthday Draisaitl, will be allowed to develop at his own pace. A trip back to Prince Albert would even come with a do-over at the world juniors, where Germany draws a tough pool in Montreal alongside powers such as Team USA, the reigning champs from Finland and host Canada. “He’s still a junior-aged player and may need time,” MacGregor says. “We’ll give him that time to become the player and prospect we would hope he’ll be. Once he gets the opportunity to develop and mature, he’ll be a very good fit for our organization.” And hey, Kopitar didn’t jump straight to the Kings from the draft. He played one more year in Sweden before making the trip across the pond. At the same time, in an era where so many prepared teens have made waves in the NHL (just look at Nathan MacKinnon and Sean Monahan), seeing Draisaitl in an Oilers jersey for the upcoming season wouldn’t be a shock. “I have a lot of respect for the NHL and what the level of hockey is like,” Draisaitl says. “But if I work hard in the summer and get better at things I’m lacking in, then I think I’m going to be ready.” Then Edmonton fans can prepare for an era where the Oilers have an answer for big Western centers such as Ryan Getzlaf, David Backes and, of course, Anze Kopitar.
This feature originally appeared in the August 2014 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.