TORONTO — After three late-August mornings spent on the business end of Leon Draisaitl’s shot, Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Malcolm Subban can only smile and shake his head.
“It’s scary to think he’s not in game shape yet. He’s lookin’ good out there,” Subban, a Pacific Division rival, says Wednesday at BioSteel Camp. “He’s got a good release. Good decision-making, good offensive IQ. You can see here he’s still getting ready.”
Draisaitl, the Edmonton Oilers’ other otherworldly superstar, made the trek to Toronto and left his cherished family-and-friends time early because he wanted to join teammates Darnell Nurse and a rehabbing Connor McDavid at their annual pre-training-camp ramp-up.
The 23-year-old is hot off the type of breakout campaign that should’ve sent him into the summer bubbling with pride — 50 goals, 105 points, and a trip to his first all-star game — but has instead left him frustrated.
Draisaitl is ratcheting his training up a notch early, craving more pace and competition in his workouts and drills. Sure, he’d like to hang 50 on the league again, but he’s striving to improve his game away from the puck as well.
Hockey, he reminds the gathered media, is a team sport. And the way things have unfolded over the past decade, we’re not sure if the logo emblazoned on his tight dry-fit undershirt features an oil drop or a tear drop.
Twenty-one-year-old prospect Jesse Puljujarvi, and his decision to take his talents back to Finland, is the Oilers’ dilemma of the day, but Draisaitl, sounding like a man exhausted by turmoil and turnover, is reluctant to speak much on his fellow top-five draft pick.
“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,” says Draisaitl, noting that he never got a sense of Puljujarvi’s dissatisfaction.
“You want guys to pan out, and you want guys to help you on your team, but, again, it seems like he doesn’t want to be on our team as of right now. Maybe that changes, but, again, we have people that get paid a lot of money to make those decisions.”
Puljujärvi never really had what it takes to make it in #Oilers. He is a very skilled player but in Edmonton you just need to have something more. Believe me, I know!!
However all the best to Jesse. He makes upcoming #Liiga season very interesting
— Esa Tiki Tikkanen (@tikitalk10) August 27, 2019
Those people are now led by GM Ken Holland, while coach Dave Tippett becomes the latest man charged with answering that eternal question: Is Draisaitl best suited at centre or on McDavid’s flank?
“I’ve answered this question a million times. To me, it doesn’t matter. It’s up to the coach — I’m not the coach,” Draisaitl says. “It’ll switch throughout the season anyway, so that’s not something I’m too worried about.”
Nor is the big German worried about McDavid’s rehabilitation from a brutal PCL injury that is stretching towards its fifth month.
“It was a major injury that needs to be healed fully to get back into contact. He has people around him that know exactly what schedule he’s on and know exactly what he needs,” Draisaitl says. “That’s his decision. I know that he will make the right decision.”
The only real concern in Edmonton is returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, when Draisaitl’s dominant 16-point showing over 13 games served as a coming-out party.
So, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that McDavid and Draisaitl are gracious but not exactly gushy about the changes in Edmonton.
These are elite talents uncomfortable setting up shop in the bottom half of the standings. Now all optimism comes with a complimentary side of caution.
“It’s really frustrating, obviously. It’s a team sport, and we all play the game to make the playoffs and win a Stanley Cup. We don’t play the game to break records,” Draisaitl says.
“You play to be successful as a team, and we haven’t been doing that, so hopefully we can turn things around.”
So, does Draisaitl believe these Oilers — with fresh personnel in the management suite, behind the bench, in the crease and on the wings — can end this miserable 1-for-13 post-season drought and not waste another season of one of the sport’s most electrifying tandems?
“Yeah,” Draisaitl replies. “I think so.”