Leon Draisaitl faced a mini scrum of reporters at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Arena, following his workout at BioSteel Camp, and looked like a young man ready to build on his first 50-goal, 100-point campaign in the NHL. Physically, he seemed fresh. The expression on his face, however, belonged to someone who just lost 6-1 on a cold February evening with his team sitting in the basement of the NHL standings. The body language was in mid-season form.
It wasn’t Draisaitl’s fault. The questions were tough, such as those asking him to speculate on the state of Connor McDavid’s knee – or the smattering of queries regarding the news Draisaitl’s Edmonton Oilers teammate, Jesse Puljujarvi, had signed in Finland with Karpat of the Liiga. There was no comfortable way to tackle a teammate’s decision to walk out and wait for a trade.
“He’s a young guy that obviously doesn’t feel like he wants to play for us anymore, but I’ll leave it at that,” Draisaitl said. “…You want guys to pan out, and you want guys to help on your team, but it seems like he doesn’t want to be on our team as of right now."
The opportunity was there to defend Puljujarvi, to wish him well, to express positivity, but Draisaitl didn’t take it. We can’t read between the lines too much, but Draisaitl’s answer did give the impression Puljujarvi had alienated himself from his teammates.
Asked about GM Ken Holland’s first off-season, Draisaitl commended the “good depth players” joining the team. That includes the additions of forwards Markus Granlund and James Neal, the latter of whom joins the Oilers as a reclamation project after a disastrous season with the Calgary Flames.
“Hopefully he can get back to producing the way that he has been,” Draisaitl said. “He had a little bit of a down year last year, but guys always bounce back, and we hope he can do the same for us.”
When Draisaitl’s outstanding individual numbers came up in conversation, he repeated his refrain from last season about the stats not being a priority.
“It’s really frustrating – It’s a team sport, and we all play the game to make the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “We don’t play games to break records or something. That comes along with it, but you play the game to be successful as a team, and we haven’t been doing that, and hopefully we can turn things around.”
There was little of the upbeat tone so commonly found in off-season interviews, when every player seems to think his team is about to contend for a Stanley Cup. And Draisaitl deserves credit for not trying too hard to sugarcoat what could be another trying season in Edmonton.
Think about it. In the best-case scenario. McDavid’s knee rehabilitation finishes on time for him to start the season, he continues to produce at a generational-talent level, while Draisaitl, whether on McDavid’s wing or at center, is a 50-goal juggernaut again. Yet all that happened last season and wasn’t enough to get Edmonton within even 10 points of a playoff spot. The Oilers iced the league’s 20th-ranked offense, with two players accounting for 39.7 percent of their goals. Hamstrung by fired GM Peter Chiarelli’s bad salary-cap decisions, Holland couldn’t add much this off-season, counting Neal, Granlund and 37-year-old goaltender Mike Smith as the top acquisitions.
New coach Dave Tippett should help the Oilers tighten up defensively, and maybe one of the kids, such as blueliner Evan Bouchard, cracks the roster and makes a meaningful impact. But it’s difficult to envision this team returning to the post-season. Maybe that’s why Draisaitl couldn’t deliver the typical happy off-season bluster Wednesday in Toronto. The Oilers and their fans have to be realistic. It might be another year of developing and learning a new coach’s system, with competing for the playoffs in 2020-21 a more attainable goal. It would hurt to waste another year of all-world McDavid and Draisaitl production but, hey, Mario Lemieux didn’t reach the playoffs at all until his fifth season in the NHL. At least McDavid and Draisaitl have been there once.
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