Oilers’ Draisaitl riding versatility to become one of game’s top snipers

Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl is becoming a natural goalscorer, and Oilers head coach Ken Hitchcock had some nice things to say about the 23-year-old German.

EDMONTON — When Tobias Rieder’s path first crossed with Leon Draisaitl’s, on Team Germany at the 2013 World Juniors in Ufa, Russia, Rieder thought of Draisaitl what we all would, eventually.

“I thought he was more of a passer, a set-up guy,” Rieder said on Wednesday.

That’s who the Oilers picked with the third pick in the 2014 Draft, a lanky centreman who, like most pass-first players, had two junior seasons with Prince Albert where he posted roughly twice the amount of assists as he had goals.

But something happened this season in Edmonton. Something not many saw coming, and a topic that Draisaitl would rather not talk about.

The 23-year-old has 41 goals with 16 games to play, and is on pace to be the first 50-goal Oiler since Wayne Gretzky (62) and Jari Kurri (54) turned the trick in 1986-87.

He’ll have to hustle to hit 50, but with 17 goals in his past 18 games, suddenly Draisaitl is just four goals back of Alex Ovechkin as the top goal scorer in the NHL.

“Scoring 50, it’s pretty much unbelievable these days, and he consistently does that every year, year in and year out,” Draisaitl said of Ovechkin.

As for himself?

“I’m not going to think about that.”

It must be nice to be in the same conversation as Alex The Great though?

“It’s nice to be in the same category for one year, yes,” he said. “That’s good enough for me.”

Draisaitl has become a guy who shoots when he’s playing with Connor McDavid, and passes when he’s running his own line. Almost all the top point-getters have always been guys who score one goal for every two assists, while the top goal scorers are usually like Ovechkin, who has only had more assists than goals in four of his 14 seasons.

The 100-point, 50-goal man has become a rarity, with only Evgeni Malkin turning the trick since 2010. This century it’s been done a dozen times, by Hall of Fame names like Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby, Joe Sakic and Ovechkin.

Draisaitl isn’t in with those players yet, to be sure. But he’s only 23, so in theory, this shouldn’t be his best season.

“Every player has one of those years, right?” he said. “I hope I can maintain that, or at least get close to that and keep scoring in the future. I try and bear down on my chances. It’s the one thing I take pride in: When I get a chance, I want to make it count.

“I always knew that I had a decent shot, I try to use it a little more, shoot it a little more. Try to get it off my stick a quickly as possible. Try and use my one-timer as much as I can.”

There might not be a better overtime three-on-three duo in the game than McDavid and Draisaitl. Or on a two-on-one, for that matter, where the two centremen are money.

But what’s changing here is that Drasiaitl has been productive without McDavid as well, more so this season than in the past. Some stats:

• McDavid has assisted on 23 of Draisaitl’s 41 goals, while Draisaitl has assisted on 17 of McDavid’s 33 goals this season.

• Among Draisaitl’s 41 goals, he has 16 on the power play, two short-handed and 23 at even strength. He does not have a hat trick, and perhaps the most impressive stats of all is the fact that Draisaitl has scored in 33 of 66 Edmonton games.

Draisaitl possesses a one-timer that he executes from further below the dot than, say, Ovechkin. He hits the net from a sharp angle down low, and has also has become a lethal finisher off the rush for McDavid. There really isn’t one signature goal for the big German, which makes him harder to defend.

“To me the one thing that’s common with the top guys is, they know how to hide outside coverage,” said head coach Ken Hitchcock. “He knows how to hide, then he comes into the scoring area when the puck’s coming.”

Hitchcock had Brett Hull in Dallas, who found that soft spot in the defence and could unleash a hard shot on goal no matter where the pass was in relation to his feet and stick.

“I try to learn from everyone,” said Draisaitl, whose father Peter was a long-time German pro and coach. “My Dad was always a guy who told me to get my shots off quick. Be ready for when the puck gets to you, and get it off as quick as you can.”

So he can score off an offensive-zone possession, and he can keep up to the fastest player in the game to score off the rush. Does that make Draisaitl a player who will become one of the top goal scorers of his generation?

We’re not there yet, but its worth keeping an eye on.

“To me, natural goal scorers score off the rush,” Hitchcock said. “Guys that have career years (score) once in a while, they go from a 30- or 35-goal season and then they’re down to 15; They score in-zone. He scores off the rush.”

He’s had three 25-goal seasons before his 24th birthday, on a team that is tragically short of wingers and has made the playoffs just once since his arrival.

At $8.5 million per season for the next six seasons, is anyone talking about Draisaitl being overpaid anymore?

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