EDMONTON – It was supposed to be the Edmonton Oilers‘ take on the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin model.
Leon Draisaitl, drafted third overall in 2014, fell nicely in behind Connor McDavid at centre when the bingo balls fell Edmonton’s way the following spring. McDavid was going to be McDavid, just the way Crosby is Crosby. Both no-brainer, No. 1 centremen that simply need to be complimented with the commensurate wingers.
At six-foot-one, 215 lbs., the slick-passing, puck-protecting Draisaitl was the perfect alternative for the second line. He was a different look up the middle and, the Oilers hoped, the Malkin to their Crosby. The Mark Messier to their Wayne Gretzky, if you can forgive the hyperbole.
Then, stuff started happening. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, also a centre, was deemed less able to move to the wing this season than Draisaitl. Jordan Eberle never really clicked on McDavid’s right side, and soon enough the big German sidled into that spot.
Today, McDavid leads the NHL in points (27-62-89). Draisaitl is 10th in league scoring (27-44-71). They are the most productive duo in the entire National Hockey League, and those plans about being stacked down the middle?
We’re not sure where they stand.
"I can play wherever the coach puts me. Left, right, centre…," began Draisaitl, who is still just 21 years old and beginning to dominate NHL games. "We like playing with each other. We complement each other well. We understand each other. I want to give him the puck (early), and he wants to get that speed going. It’s just a good mix."
McDavid would be considered the centre on their line, but he has taken 760 faceoffs this season to Draisaitl’s 926. Defensively, they are centre and winger. But once Edmonton gets the puck, the demarcation becomes a tad fuzzy.
"It works well because it doesn’t really matter who ends up down low, or who takes the faceoffs. We’re always switching it up," McDavid said. "Last night (vs. Los Angeles) I was bad on faceoffs and he was good. Some nights it’s the other way around. Some night he ends up playing low more than I do…
"We’re both smart players, along with Patty (left-winger Maroon). Just three guys with no real positions, out there tryin’ to figure it out."
The head coach, it should be noted, has his doctorate in fitting three centremen into his top six forwards. When Todd McLellan was running the San Jose Sharks bench, he made sure to get Joe Pavelski top-six ice time despite the fact that Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were the elder statesmen at centre. Then along came centre Logan Couture, and McLellan made that work, too.
McLellan seems more than willing to do the same in Edmonton, but the thing about coaches is, they think shorter term. Hockey history is dotted with great twosomes up front, and what coach in his right mind would break up the most productive pair in the game — before either of their 22nd birthdays?
The general manager, however, has to look at the roster from 30,000 feet. From that vantage point, Peter Chiarelli sees six-foot-four Finnish right-winger Jesse Puljujarvi on the farm, ready to become a full-time NHLer next season. He projects as a high-pedigree triggerman for either Draisaitl or McDavid.
Chiarelli also sees a big pay raise pending for Draisaitl next season, and a massive jump for McDavid the season after that. So, his cap focus shifts to $6 million veterans Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, neither of whom have had their best season.
In Edmonton’s top six, the left side is set with Maroon and Milan Lucic. The right side has Puljujarvi pencilled in, then Eberle or Draisaitl. At centre it’s McDavid, then Nugent-Hopkins or Draisaitl.
If you keep Draisaitl on the wing, Eberle becomes the expendable asset next summer, as Chiarelli prepares his payroll for McDavid’s second contract. If you move Draisaitl to 2C then Nugent-Hopkins has to move, because you can’t have a $6 million third-line centre with a career faceoff percentage of 43.2.
Now, the Oilers pay structure dictates that trading Eberle or Nugent-Hopkins does not necessarily have to happen until the summer of 2018. That gives both a playoff run and the entire 2017-18 season to show Chiarelli why they should remain as Oilers.
As for Draisaitl, he knows he’s staying, and he’s not particularly bothered about how he is deployed.
"In the end, it’s always about the team," he reasons. "It’s not about us two getting points. It’s about who plays well with who, and what makes the team win. Right now, we’re winning and this is what we have. Our other lines are going."
While McLellan and Chiarelli hash things out, Draisaitl has his own plan.
"Come to Rogers Place, and just play. It’s the best thing to do for a player. Stay in the moment, and play."