EDMONTON — When everyone else is nervous, Leon Draisaitl is patient.
When Connor McDavid’s Porche-like speed forces skittish mistakes from opponents playing at a level that is faster than they are able, like a Range Rover Draisaitl slows the game down, allowing them to make their mistake at the speed of his choosing.
And when everyone focuses on the great McDavid as the best player the game has seen since the prime years of Gretzky or Lemieux, like Mark Messier and Jaromir Jagr, Draisaitl steps out of the shadows to make the night’s most impactful play with a luscious dish or an Ovechkin-like one-timer.
“He is,” pronounced Zach Hyman this week, hockey’s only “pass-first 50-goal scorer.”
That is a line we’ve not heard in 30-plus years around the game, as perfectly descriptive as it is oxymoronic.
Draisaitl is the German Jean Beliveau — Der Große Leon — Montreal’s pass-first 40-goal man whose graceful game left a legacy of 1,125 games dotted near equally with 507 goals and 712 assists.
Today, with the most NHL points of any player not named McDavid since the beginning of the 2015-16 season, Draisaitl annually wins the NHL’s Mere Mortals Scoring Race.
Yet only a couple of months ago, interviewing prior to the All-Star Game after a quick Caribbean vacay with No. 97, Draisaitl assessed his game with the same critical edge that many Oilers fans were expressing.
“It’s been a funny year for me personally, to be honest. I haven’t really been happy with the way I’ve been playing,” said Draisaitl, whose 76 points would have led 31 other NHL clubs in scoring at the time.
“Obviously, the statistics would probably tell you otherwise,” he added, “(but) I think there’s another level to the way that I just want to play. Not about statistics or goals, assists, or whatever it is.”
When your game is as multi-faceted as Draisaitl’s, it can take time for all the parts to arrive at the same destination. But he has collected them all now, and since that All-Star weekend Draisaitl has fashioned perhaps the best two-month stretch of regular season hockey we’ve ever seen him play.
Sure, he’s got his totals up to 47 goals and a career-high 116 points — with still seven games to play — but his 200-foot game is exquisite.
Draisaitl’s faceoff work is as dependable as an old farm dog, third among NHL regulars at 58.5 per cent and tops with 72.2 per cent while shorthanded since the All-Star break.
Why is Edmonton’s power play soaring along at 32.7 per cent success? It starts with Draisaitl, who beats the other team’s best defensive centreman a league-high 70.9 per cent of the time (tied with Bo Horvat).
Finally, he is skating uninhibited by the high-ankle sprain he dragged through last spring’s playoffs and, we suspect, the opening half of this season.
“Sometimes things get in the way, and maybe get in your head a little bit at times,” Draisaitl said Tuesday night. “You know, that happens to me as well, just like any other player.”
He has hit a level, drafting McDavid and pushed by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, that we simply have not seen from the player who has laid claim to the right faceoff circle, the way Ovechkin has to the left.
“I know how good I can be when I decide to. When I want to,” Draisaitl said. “I get down on myself pretty hard if I don’t play to that potential. I’ve got high expectations for myself. So, yeah, it’s just a little bit of a turning point for me.”
Rob Brown spent some time on Lemieux’s wing in Pittsburgh back in the day, and now watches Draisaitl as a radio analyst in Edmonton. He sees what we all see, a player who may not walk out from McDavid’s shadow until the day he walks into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“He is the Ernie Els to McDavid’s Tiger Woods. He is judged against Connor every day,” Brown observes, taking on the voice of the fan. “Did you see the play that Draisaitl made? Ya, but did you see what McDavid did tonight?
“I don’t think we celebrate Leon as much as we should.”
Or, as Florida head coach Paul Maurice said on Wednesday: “Poor Leon can’t get his name in the paper. Got 100 points, and he’s anonymous.”
That is, if arguably the second-best player in the world — a former Hart Trophy and Art Ross winner — can be anonymous.
Think about it:
Draisaitl is destined to log his third 50-goal season in the past five years. So when the playoffs begin, it is very realistic that the only man with three 50-goal campaigns in the past five seasons will also be the man voted by his peers in the NHLPA as hockey’s… wait for it… best passer.
He had 17 points (two goals, 15 assists) in a five-game series win over Calgary last season — on one leg.
“In the big games, the big guys show up,” Brown said. “In the small games, they play good enough. But the best players play their best hockey in the biggest games, at the biggest moments.”
With the offence that Edmonton has, and a relentless power play that went three-for-three in a 7-4 thrashing of the Vegas Golden Knights Tuesday, it is quite possible for the Oilers to dictate the flow of play when the inevitable playoff squeeze occurs.
To force even the most defensive opponent to score four times to beat Edmonton, because three might not be enough.
“They’re the best offensive team in the league,” said Vegas head coach Bruce Cassidy after that one-sided rout. “We’re not the Edmonton Oilers on offence. We’re good offensively, but we’re not them. We can’t get into that type of game and expect to beat them.”
And if the Golden Knights get Edmonton in the playoffs in a few weeks time?
“If we play like we did tonight, we’ll be out. We’ll be out in a hurry.”