NEW YORK — Wayne Gretzky looks down from the stands at what is evolving at the top of the Edmonton Oilers roster, and sees what he once witnessed from ice level.
"Mark and I never looked at each other like we expected the other guy to do this, or do that," he said of he and Mark Messier. "We just knew our roles and what we brought to the hockey club, and we pushed each other to make it that much more of a contribution to the group."
"You can see that now with the two of them," Gretzky continued, turning his attention to Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. "They’re very unselfish with each other — they have no egos — and as important as Connor is to Leon, Leon is to Connor. A lot like Mark and I were."
What everyone in the hockey world knows is that Leon Draisaitl is one of the Edmonton Oilers’ best players. What people are beginning to realize is, he is also one of the National Hockey League’s best players as well.
On the 4-0 Oilers, Draisaitl is the Messier to Connor McDavid’s Gretzky, the Malkin to his Crosby, the Jaromir Jagr to his Mario Lemieux. Those comparisons may seem presumptuous, because Draisaitl still awaits his 24th birthday on Oct. 27, and he has not won a thing yet at the NHL level. Nor has McDavid.
But consider, since the beginning of the 2017-18 season Draisaitl has as many goals (77) as both Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews, yet he has 40 more points than Matthews and 53 more than Laine. The only 50-goal, 100-point player in the entire NHL last season, since the beginning of 2018-19 Draisaitl is second in goals (52) behind Alex Ovechkin, and fourth in points (113) behind Nikita Kucherov, McDavid and Kane.
And his level of play off the top of this season? He has been, to these eyes, the Oilers’ best player — period.
"He has this ability to analyze the game in his own head," marveled his teammate Darnell Nurse, "and make those little plays that you guys can see from up in the press box that are a little bit harder to see on the ice.
"You could kind of see it when he was younger, that he the ability to make those plays? Now, each and every night he’s making a jaw-dropping pass."
It is still unclear if Draisaitl is a better shooter or passer, but as he sat tied for third in league scoring with 2-6-8 heading into the weekend, any thought that last season’s 105 points was somehow a fluke has disappeared right alongside the theory that Draisaitl is simply riding McDavid’s coat tails.
"They play a completely different game," Gretzky said. "Nobody plays like Connor. Connor has a level of speed that is unlike anybody, maybe, in the history of the game. His game is north-south.
"Leon slows the game down — like Patrick Kane does. But it’s one thing to slow the game down. It’s another thing to get all the other guys around you to slow down too, like Kane does. So Leon spreads his legs apart and slows everyone down, and Connor likes to come in late, like a locomotive going full blast."
Like Gretzky, who was all finesse and skill, and Messier, whose power game was unmatched in the ‘80s, Draisaitl and McDavid are two opposites that attract. Draisaitl is far more effective in the faceoff circle, holding and protecting the puck throughout a shift, and likes to set up for the one-timer.
What do they have in common? Both have lost enough for their liking already in Edmonton and are embracing a new shade of leadership that is not as defined by goals and assists.
"He’s working hard, and he’s working hard away from the puck," said McDavid. "Trying to do the little things right. He’s maturing into that two-way forward that he can really become. Big body. Good in the circle. He can be a real force on both sides of the puck."
"For me, it’s been fun to watch him really dig in when it’s not about the offensive part of the game," said head coach Dave Tippett. "We had a three-on-five against L.A. the other night, and (Draisaitl) was the one forward out there. He’s loving that — it’s a challenge for him. There is more to his game than scoring goals.
"He’s like Connor. He wants to win."
It will be up to general manager Ken Holland to surround them with enough wingers to even consider doing what then-GM Glen Sather did in 1984, when he moved the 1983 First Team left wing all-star to centre. "When people started to really notice, to stand up and take note of Mark, was when Glen moved him from left wing to centre," said Gretzky.
As long as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is in Edmonton, Draisaitl won’t be required as a second-line centre, the way Sather used Messier to beat the likes of Calgary and the New York Islanders. But wherever he lines up, you can get used to seeing his name near the top of NHL scoring.
And maybe, just as Jagr, Crosby, Malkin and Kane can say today, on the side of big Stanley one day as well.