PENTICTON, B.C. — They’ve pushed them through too quickly in Edmonton, one after the next, for far too long. If it weren’t for the lockout, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Justin Schultz may never have played a game in the American Hockey League, and how has that impatience worked out for the Oilers thus far?
Now, it is Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse’s time to turn pro, two first-rounders with pedigree who, traditionally, have been handed jobs in the National Hockey League simply because the Oilers roster was so weak it was impossible to cut them.
To these eyes, Nurse is clearly not ready to be an NHL defenceman. He’s going to be a stud one day, and could play 1,000 games. But that career should be preceded by mastering the game at the AHL level, and here in Penticton Nurse hasn’t shown any evidence that his game is NHL ready.
As for Draisaitl, who deftly set up the tying goal and scored the winner on a penalty shot in a 6-3 win over the Calgary Flames rookies on Saturday night, there is so much more to the equation.
For one, does his future lie at centre ice? Or with Connor McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins ahead of him in the middle, do the Oilers turn Draisaitl into a winger so he can eventually be included in their top six forward group?
Clearly, the experiment is just beginning in Edmonton.
“We’re going to try him at both positions, and we’re going to see where he ends up this year,” said Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, who has been through this before in his former gig in Boston.
Both Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin arrived in Boston as centres, but because of a logjam in that organization they were moved to the wing. While Kessel has evolved into an All-Star winger, Seguin was moved to Dallas, where he has become one of the NHL’s premier centres under the age of 24.
“Maybe Leon is not as suited for the wing as they were, but he does some things that are suited for the wing better than they do. He protects the puck, and he can make plays in small spaces,” assessed Chiarelli. “It may be we find out Leon is a better centre than he is a winger. Is that fair to him? It was fair to Kessel. It was fair to Seguin. Guys can adapt.
“Those guys were shooters,” Chiarelli said. “Leon, he’s got a good shot but I don’t think he’s a shooter. He makes good plays on a regular basis.”
When the Oilers drafted the 6-foot-2 German out of the Prince Albert Raiders third overall in 2014, they figured to be set at centre with Nugent-Hopkins as a No. 1 and Draisaitl right behind him. Then the Oilers won the lottery and got McDavid.
Now, Chiarelli wonders if the best way to fit Draisaitl into his top six one day is as a winger. Or do you grow a team with three high-pedigree centreman? He’s playing centre here in Penticton, and was dominant Friday against Calgary’s rookies.
“At the end of the day it’s not up to me,” said Draisaitl, a smart, well-spoken young man who turns 20 on Oct. 27. “It’s up to the management and the coaches to put me where they want me. I can play both. I have no problem playing wing or centre. But it’s not up to me.”
Look Chiarelli in the eye, and you get the feeling he sees Draisaitl as a centreman. Remember, Pittsburgh drafted centre Evgeni Malkin in 2004, centre Sidney Crosby in 2005, and picked Jordan Staal in 2006. They won a Stanley Cup together in 2009 before Staal was eventually dealt away in the summer of 2012.
“To have a big strong player like (Draisaitl), who is probably a natural centre, is a pretty good position to be in,” admits Chiarelli.
Adds Draisaitl, “It really doesn’t matter to me. If that’s what the plan is, that I am going to play the wing, it’s going to take me maybe a week or two to get used to it.”
A week or two? He’ll get more time than that, wherever he plays.