RALEIGH, N.C. — Let’s stop talking about Leon Draisaitl as a Hart Trophy candidate, shall we. I mean, seriously.
He’s not a candidate, OK?
He’s the favourite.
And with 10 points in the four games that Connor McDavid has missed due to injury, the big German is officially extinguishing the final embers of what has been a pretty bad take for some time now.
"According to a lot of people out there, I can’t play on my own. I can only play with Connor," Draisaitl said after setting up Josh Archibald’s OT winner in Raleigh. It was Draisaitl’s third point in a 4-3 victory that launched the Edmonton Oilers into first place in the Pacific Division, and leaves them at 12-4-2 since young Kailer Yamamoto joined the club for a New Year’s Eve game against the Rangers.
A season after being the National Hockey League’s lone 50-goal, 100-point man, Draisaitl has opened up a 13-point lead on second place David Pastrnak. He has also lifted this Oilers team up on his shoulders and carried them to three wins in four games since McDavid went out, producing 3-7-10 to run his totals to 34 goals, 61 assists and 95 points through 59 games.
That’s a 132-point pace.
At the same time as he’s proving he’s a Top 5 player in the world, Draisaitl’s Oilers are showing the rest of the hockey world that they, too, can win sans No. 97.
"Absolutely," said Draisaitl, who comes in as a bargain at $8.5 million for the next five seasons after this one. "It’s no secret — Connor is a huge part of our team. But this is us showing the hockey world, not so much ourselves, that we’re not a one-man team. We can win games with good team structure.
"Obviously our team is a lot better when Connor is on it. That’s no secret. But it’s nice we’re able to grind out a few wins with him being away from the team."
Edmonton accomplished the near impossible, as a Pacific Division team touring through the southwest and after dropping Game 1 of this trip in Tampa. They then won back-to-back afternoon starts in Florida and Carolina, besting a wicked fast Hurricanes team that got two goals from its young superstar, the dynamic Sebastian Aho, who blasted home No. 32 and 33 on the season.
But Edmonton got a pair from nine-goal-man Josh Archibald, another from Yamamoto (18 points in 18 games), and a tidy 30:57 from the NHL’s shot-blocking leader Oscar Klefbom — one night after logging 25:45 in Florida.
"Hey, Connor is the best player in the world, but we’ve all (picked up the slack) as a team," said Draisaitl. "It’s not just me. It’s a team effort."
If you see these Oilers every day, or can harken back to how Draisaitl dominated the Anaheim Ducks in a playoff series in 2017, you’re not overly surprised about this latest tour de force. But there will be Hart Trophy voters who are adjusting their sights this morning, with Draisaitl extending his lead in the Art Ross race nightly.
"That’s people who don’t see him very often who have that perspective. But if you watch him, he goes out there and he dominates. It’s just showing even more," said Darnell Nurse, who wears one of the other ‘A’s on this team. "You can play him heavy, and he likes that game. You play him fast, he’ll outsmart you. He just finds a way to beat defenders."
Draisaitl can park in the corner like a Volkswagen, shielding the puck with his big hind quarters until there is a play to be made. Or he can fly after a loose puck like an Audi coupe the way he did in OT, feeding a charging Archibald who finished on a helpless James Reimer.
"You see what he’s doing out there, the minutes he’s carrying and the effect he has on the game, it’s unbelievable," marveled head coach Dave Tippett. "I was getting a little worried about him — he’s played a lot of hockey here in the last two days."
The Oilers are somehow 6-0 in the second game of back to backs this season, and come home to meet the Bruins and Wild this week as a first-place team. McDavid meets the club at home on Tuesday, and we’re betting he comes on the Trade Deadline road trip that opens with a game at Los Angeles on Sunday, with an eye to play before it’s over.
There’s something good happening with a team that can play this well minus its captain and best player.
It’s not the team that’s been here for the past many years, and Tippett knows it.
"It’s just not McDavid. It’s (James) Neal. It’s (Kris) Russell. It’s (Zack) Kassian. We’ve got some real good veteran players out," he said. "We’re playing hard as a team, competing hard, the guys care about each other, and they care about winning.
"When you have good structure, a little bit of goaltending and some hard work? It’s amazing what you can do."
Finally, Oilers fans are finding out for themselves.