EDMONTON — If it’s October, we must be writing about whether or not the latest Oilers’ 18-year-old should stay up, or go to junior. C’mon down Leon Draisaitl. You’re the next contestant on, “Which Ice Is Right?”
Draisaitl has two more games — Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes and a Monday date with the Montreal Canadiens — before the Oilers brain trust will have to make a decision on whether he stays in the National Hockey League or goes back to junior in Prince Albert.
Yet the not so obvious, but far more pertinent question is: Does anyone making this decision not have skin in the game?
Somehow, the conversation in Edmonton has moved off of what level of hockey is best for the young No. 3 overall draft pick, and shifted towards, “Well, if he goes back, then who plays centre in Edmonton?”
“That’s the balance,” admits head coach Dallas Eakins. “You always want to do what’s right for the player. And you need to do what’s right for the organization.”
“Want” or “need.” In this case, those two words conflict.
Taylor Hall, the original 18-year-old Oiler of this eternal rebuild, has watched himself, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov all tread the NHL waters at age 18. He also watched the career progression of centre Sam Gagner, who the Oilers impatiently kept as an 18-year-old back in 2007. Gagner has yet to have either a 20-goal or 50-point season, and last summer the former No. 6 overall pick was shipped to Arizona, where the Coyotes aren’t even sure he’s a centre iceman anymore.
“It’s been done so many different ways, and different players need different things,” Hall began. “I do know that being in the NHL as an 18-year-old centreman, I can’t imagine how hard that is. It’s a lot harder than an 18-year-old winger.”
Here in Edmonton, the decision becomes clouded by the fact the Oilers are so weak up the middle. Nugent-Hopkins is the No. 1 centre, and Boyd Gordon is No. 4. In between is Mark Arcobello, who in our estimation is an AHL player, and Draisaitl. If you demote Draisaitl, you call up another American Leaguer, and the Oilers are in trouble.
But is that how you groom a valuable young player like Draisaitl? By judging him against your organization’s most glaring weakness? By that standard he is needed in Edmonton right now, no matter his level of readiness.
That’s where we get back to skin in the game.
Dallas Eakins? Of course he wants to keep Draisaitl in Edmonton. The big German kid is clearly the third best centre in the organization at this moment. Coaches want players who can help them win now, and if Eakins doesn’t start winning he might not be here when Draisaitl is ready.
Craig MacTavish? If Draisaitl goes to Prince Albert, it will fully expose the embarrassing void in the GM’s roster. And, it will force a trade, which could be costly.
Draisaitl? What do you think he thinks? “This is where I will get my best development,” he said. “That’s my opinion. Playing here against older guys. Against men.”
Draisaitl plays his eighth game Friday against Carolina. Montreal, is in town on Monday. That’s Game 9, and the end of his try-out. If Draisaitl plays Game 10 Wednesday against Nashville, it means the Oilers have burned Year 1 off of his entry-level contract.
With two assists through seven games, his last game was Draisaitl’s strongest. He played 13:39 and went 50 percent in the faceoff circle. He’s big enough, at 6-foot-1, 210 lbs., that he’s not getting physically dominated the way Nugent-Hopkins or Gagner did at times. But his feet are heavy. He gets there all right, but quickness would be the one area to be improved should he go back to junior.
“I know I have another level to get to,” said Draisaitl, a very mature young man who turns 19 on Monday, the day of Game 9. “At the end of the day it comes down to me. How I play. I want to make the decision, for the guys who make the decision, as hard as possible. I want to stay here.”
Hall played three years of Major Junior with Windsor, won two Memorial Cups and was MVP in both tournaments. It was fair to assess, back in 2010, that Hall had nothing left to prove in junior.
Draisaitl has played just two years with Prince Albert, had one 100-point season, and has a grand total of one goal in eight WHL playoff games. To say he has nothing left to accomplish at that level is simply inaccurate.
“I hope he stays for his sake,” Hall said, “but if he does go back to junior, it’s not the end of the world. He is still going to be a player I am looking forward to playing with, and seeing what kind of player he’s going to be.”
One scout said this week that if Eakins can get Draisaitl up to 15 minutes of ice time per night, they should keep him up. Anything less and his development is hindered. So we conducted an informal poll of our own. Four scouts who have seen Edmonton this season, all asked the same question: Stay or go?
Two said he should stay in Edmonton, while two would demote Draisaitl to junior.
Great. Even those without anything to gain can’t make up their minds.
I’ll break the tie, by asking this question: Do the Oilers make the playoffs with Draisaitl? Do they make them without Draisaitl?
If you answered “no” to both, then you’re with me.
Send him back. They’ve rushed too many kids in this town already.