EDMONTON — When Leon Draisaitl arrived on the scene, who did we have to compare him to?
Jochen Hecht? Marco Sturm?
His father Peter, a noted German national from days gone by?
He was lanky, not too fleet of foot, and looked like he’d be able to put on enough muscle to survive as an NHL centreman. But, really. Had a German-born forward ever been considered more than “pretty good” as a National Hockey League player?
Well, four months after wrapping up the Art Ross Trophy, Draisaitl was introduced alongside Nathan MacKinnon and Artemi Panarin as the finalists for the Ted Lindsay Award. The award is voted on by NHL players, going to the “most outstanding player in the NHL.”
Not just the best German player. The best player — period.
“Coming over as a 16-year-old kid and not knowing what to expect, it took me a while to get the hang of everything,” he said, looking back on that rare career that has ascended in a straight, upwards line. “I’ve had some great coaches, some great people around me who have guided me to become the person and player that I am today. I am very fortunate to have great teammates and coaches who saw something in me and pushed me.”
Draisaitl picked up the half-step he required to skate at the NHL level, and added the valuable skill of shielding the puck better than most. Today, he is one of hockey’s best players at fighting the traffic and emerging to make a play.
He protects pucks like they aren’t making them anymore, holding the biscuit while draped in defenders, then coming out of the mix with the puck and a plan.
“I think of a guy like Peter Forsberg, who used to invite that contact and protect the puck. Make it hard for the opponent to check him while he’s on his back,” said Draisaitl’s head coach, Dave Tippett. “Leon is a power forward with high, high skill. Heavy when he has the puck.”
Peter Forsberg? The same Peter Forsberg who operated at a 1.25 points-per-game clip throughout his career?
The Hall of Famer? The best power forward that Sweden ever produced, Peter Forsberg?
Draisaitl laughs when informed of his coach’s quote: “That’s a steep comparison,” he said, quickly seeking out some self-deprecating elements to throw cold water on the idea that he could be hockey’s next Peter Forsberg.
“I know what my limits are, in terms of carrying the play, I know that I’m probably not the best at carrying the puck through three zones,” he said. “I like when I can engage with defenders and hold them off, and then maybe try and find an open guy.”
Draisaitl may win the Ted Lindsay, or perhaps the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. Or maybe he doesn’t win either.
But here in Edmonton, as good as Draisaitl has become, we would wager he wouldn’t win the “Best Player on the Oilers Award,” if there were one. Inside the dressing room however, there is no sense that anyone really cares about the individual trophies, as the hunt for hockey’s ultimate team trophy begins.
The Oilers are a far, far better team with Connor McDavid and Draisaitl running separate lines, coming together on the powerplay, and working to bring the players around them as close to their level as possible.
“Our young core players are starting to mature,” Tippett said. “Both Leon and Connor recognize the responsibility they have to help them come in and, not just become players on our team but strong contributors on our team.”
In a sport where history tends to favour pairs of forwards, the evolution of these Oilers appears to pair Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with McDavid, while Draisaitl has emerged as a mentor to the scrappy young Kailer Yamamoto. They have chemistry, and as such, the Oilers suddenly have a venerable top six.
“We just compliment each other really well,” Draisaitl said of the tiny Yamamoto, a 21-year-old NHL sophomore. “Yamo came up (and showed) no fear. He’s a smaller who guy who doesn’t play to that size. We’ve been helping each other out a lot.”
It’s a chicken and egg thing, as we watch Yamamoto become a legit top six right winger faster than anyone had expected. Is it the Spokane native whose talents facilitate Draisaitl leading the league in scoring? Or is it the big German that has brought the young American along, finding opportunity for Yamamoto that he otherwise may not locate himself?
“You look at his shot, but he might be the only person who can do that shot,” Yamamoto said. “I try to (learn from) his passing — he might be the best passer in the league. His body position around the puck…
“He’s meant a lot. He’s helped me since Day 1, when I was an 18-year-old, talking to me on off days, on the ice… Picking up little things that he does, a play that he sees that I don’t. We talk about things like that.”
The coach likes what he sees, so much so that he could strip Nugent-Hopkins from that line and employ him on McDavid’s left side.
“Yamo and Leon have had that (chemistry) right since Day 1,” Tippett said. “Leon, if he’s giddy about any player on our team it’s Yamo. He likes to play on Yamo and Yamo likes to play with him.”