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Oilers banking on Draisaitl’s big potential with eight-year, $68-million deal

Leon Draisaitl cashed in on his breakout year, signing an eight-year, $68-million deal with the Oilers, and Edmonton is banking on the 21-year-old to prove he's worth every penny.

When the dust finally settled on the Edmonton’s massive eight-year, $100-million contract extension with Connor McDavid, the question on everyone’s mind was what McDavid’s deal meant for the Oilers and Leon Draisaitl.

The 21-year-old, a restricted free agent this summer, was coming off of his breakout season. He scored 29 goals and 77 points. He skated top-line minutes, contributed on the power play and was the perfect complement on McDavid’s wing, skating nearly 675 minutes at 5-on-5 with the Oilers captain. In the post-season, Draisaitl continued to prove his worth, leading Edmonton in scoring with six goals and 16 points in 13 games, which included an awe-inspiring performance against the Anaheim Ducks that saw him rack up seven goals and 13 points in seven games. He averaged more than 21 minutes of ice time in the series and ended up taking command of his own line.

None of this — the playing with McDavid, the post-season stats or the near 30-goal season — takes into consideration that Draisaitl had a rather productive sophomore season the year prior, too, notching 19 goals and 51 points in 72 games.

But everyone found out exactly what McDavid’s contract, and Draisaitl’s performance, meant for the Oilers’ pivot on Wednesday as Edmonton announced they’ve inked Draisaitl to an eight-year, $68-million pact.

Rest assured, there will be no shortage of debate about the contract. At $8.5 million per season, Draisaitl not only becomes the highest paid Oiler — he’ll have the honor only until McDavid’s $12.5 million-per-season deal kicks in next season — but he also becomes one of the highest paid forwards in the entire league, at least in terms of annual average value. His $8.5-million cap hit is the 10th-highest in the NHL, as much as Steven Stamkos signed for in June 2016, and more than that of Phil Kessel, Ryan Johansen, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko. It’s only $200,000 smaller than Sidney Crosby’s AAV, $1 million lower than Evgeni Malkin’s and $1 million-and-change less than Alex Ovechkin’s cap hit.

By those comparisons, it will be said that the Oilers overpaid, and others yet will say Draisaitl has only proven his ability to put up near point-per-game numbers for one year and he did most of that alongside McDavid. All valid arguments, to be sure. 

But it seems what the Oilers are ready to pay for right now, for better or worse, is potential, and Draisaitl has a whole lot of that. What the Oilers are banking on, figuratively and literally, is that Draisaitl’s post-season performance is the type of play they can come to expect from him in the future. That’s to say the idea is to have Draisaitl centering his own line, away from McDavid, come next season and the hope is he produces at a rate that gives Edmonton its own version of Pittsburgh’s Crosby and Malkin. And if the cost of having a Malkin to McDavid’s Crosby is $8.5 million, it’s not all that bad. The difficulty, though, is in knowing whether Draisaitl will be capable of managing such a feat.

To say one way or another right now would be premature. The Draisaitl-as-an-elite-center sample size is awfully small. Draisaitl was playing primarily between Milan Lucic and Anton Slepyshev in the post-season when he was racking up points left, right and center, and that was only at the tail end of the Oilers’ playoff run. He no doubt showed the ability to put up big numbers as a center in that series, though, and it could mean he’s capable of doing it again this coming season. However, he could also fall short and turn into a 25-goal, 60-point player when centering his own line. That wouldn’t be awful, but it might not make him worth the money he’s paid.

Over, under or perfectly paid, though, the Oilers also have to take into account what Draisaitl’s contract means for the future. 

With Draisaitl signed, Edmonton is projected to have more than $8.3 million in available cap space this season, per CapFriendly, but a cap crunch will set in come the 2017-18 season when McDavid’s extension kicks in. Between McDavid and Draisaitl, the Oilers will have $21 million in salary commitments, which, at present, leaves Edmonton with a projected $14.2 million in cap space. 

That might seem like more than enough to get by, but take a quick look at the Oilers’ cap considerations for next July. Slepyshev, Ryan Strome, Drake Caggiula, Iiro Pakarinen, Matt Benning, Darnell Nurse and Laurent Brossoit will all become RFAs, while Mark Letestu, Patrick Maroon, Jussi Jokinen and Mark Fayne will be unrestricted. And no matter how well Edmonton navigates those waters next summer, there still has to be thought given to extensions for Jesse Puljujarvi and Cam Talbot come July 2019. That leaves 13 potential contract signings in the next two off-seasons, and Edmonton is currently projected to have $20.8 million in cap space in the summer ahead of the 2019-20 campaign. 

Even if the cap continues to rise by about $2 million per off-season, that only gives Edmonton $24.8 million in space two off-seasons from now. That’s less than $2 million per upcoming free agent over the next two summers. No matter how slick Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli might be, someone is going to have to go for the math to work out.

That said, Chiarelli and Co. will be more than willing to make cuts where necessary should the Draisaitl gamble pay off, and $8.5 million per season almost certainly comes with the expectation that it will. If he fits into the No. 2 center role — because he, nor any other center in the world not named Sidney Crosby, is going to be a No. 1 on these Oilers — then Edmonton could be set up for the next seven seasons with a one-two punch that’s better than almost any other in the league. That could allow Chiarelli to use cheap additions to bulk up a roster that has Stanley Cup contention plastered all over it, making the cap concerns, while still difficult to manage, far less worrisome.

And no matter how much debate there is about the contract today or the cap concerns tomorrow, the majority of it will subside should the Oilers, on the backs of McDavid and Draisaitl, return to their former championship glory.

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