Beckett Hockey

NOBODY’S SIDEKICK

A YEAR AFTER SCORING 50 GOALS, EDMONTON’S LEON DRAISAITL HAS FULLY EMERGED FROM THE SHADOW OF TEAMMATE CONNOR MCDAVID TO BECOME THE NHL’S PRESUMPTIV­E MVP.

- BY MARK SNYDER

As time was running out in what may have been the final game of the 2019-20 season, the chant began to ring out from all corners of Edmonton’s Rogers Place.

“MVP! MVP! MVP!”

Even as the Oilers were about to drop a 4-2 decision to the visiting Winnipeg Jets, the team’s fans li ed their voices to praise hometown hero Leon Draisaitl and the spectacula­r campaign that has some calling him the best player in hockey.

“Every night, he’s making things happen,” said linemate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “He can take over a game at will.”

“He’s just a beast out there,” added Oilers coach Dave Tippett. “In all situations too. Power play, penalty killing, face-offs. He’s a beast.”

A quick look at Draisaitl’s stats bears out both men’s praise. As the season hit the pause button in March, the 24-year-old sat comfortabl­y atop the NHL scoring race with 110 points, a new career high. His total put him 13 points ahead of teammate Connor McDavid and on pace for 127, which would have been the second-most recorded since Mario Lemieux scored 160 points in 1995-96.

And in reaching the century mark after scoring twice and adding an assist in a 3-2 win over Winnipeg on Feb. 29, Draisaitl became just the 43rd player in NHL history to record back-to-back 100 point seasons.

“Obviously I’m excited about it,” he said. “It’s a special milestone for me.”

His 43 goals were good for fourth in the league and he stood second in power-play markers (26). He was tops in power play points (44) and tied with Boston’s David Pastrnak for the most game-winning goals with 10. And he’s a 19.7 percent shooter, even up with Mika Zibanejad for best among the top-30 scorers.

With those kind of numbers, Draisaitl looks to be the favorite to nab the Hart Trophy, whenever the league gets around to awarding the hardware. If he does, there’ll be nobody happier for his teammate than McDavid.

“I’ve been saying it for five years now, [Draisaitl] is an amazing player,” the 2017 MVP said. “It’s nice that he’s finally getting some credit.”

Draisaitl’s current success is a lesson in patience for both NHL teams and collectors. e third pick in the 2014 dra was a study in frustratio­n his first season as he struggled to adapt his junior success to the NHL.

“You could see there were elements of his game that were NHL-ready,” a pro scout recalled to Beckett Hockey. “He had a man’s body. e size and strength were there. e vision was there. But the game moves a lot faster...you could see his confidence melting away as the mistakes piled up.

“ere was a lot of pressure,” the scout continued. “On a good team, a player like that can lurk in the weeds a litte bit, chip in a bit here or there as he learns. But that was a bad team that was asking him to do too much, and there was nowhere for him to hide.”

Ultimately, Draisaitl scored just two goals and nine points with a minus-17 rating in 37 games in 2014-15 before being sent to the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL to get his developmen­t back on track.

His cards, quick sellers upon release, withered on the vine the rest of the year as collectors turned their attention to the NHL exploits of Aaron Ekblad, Johnny Gaudreau and Filip Forsberg.

Draisaitl’s work ethic served him well. Motivated by the demotion, he helped the Rockets win the league

and earn a berth in the Memorial Cup. After scoring four goals and seven points in five tournament games, he was named Most Valuable Player despite an overtime loss to Oshawa in the final.

His confidence restored, he put his potential on display in years two and three, netting 51 and 79 points, respective­ly, as he teamed up with Taylor Hall. By year five he was on the verge of stardom, ultimately netting 50 goals and 105 points while skating (mostly) alongside McDavid.

His 2019-20 season picked up where last year left off, with the big German routinely riding shotgun with McDavid to form the league’s most dangerous offensive duo. With the two combining for 126 points through 42 games, the perenniall­y rebuilding Oilers moved firmly into playoff contention.

But December was a challengin­g month. The team struggled to a 5-8-1 mark and Draisaitl – even with 14 points in as many games – wasn’t as sharp as he needed to be. Tippett made the move to break them up.

“We needed to spread the offense around a bit...[to] become a little tougher to defend,” he explained.

Tippett slid Draisaitl onto a new-look “second” line alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto, the team’s first pick in the 2017 draft (22nd overall). After a few games for adjustment, the trio began clicking. Nugent-Hopkins put up 15 goals and 41 points over 27 games, powered by 12 multi-point contests. Yamamoto, who was recalled from AHL Bakersfiel­d on Dec. 29, went 11-15-26 in 27.

So much for any criticism that his offensive production was dependent on skating with another superstar. With each passing game, Draisaitl has proven that he can carry his own line and score at an elite rate.

Any criticism that his offensive production was dependent on skating with another superstar was washed away. Draisaitl has proven that he can carry his own line and score at an elite rate. He put up 27 points in his final 14 games, including 12 in the six games that McDavid lost to injury/illness.

“When one’s out, the other one gets a little more attention,” Tippett said. “It’s a big challenge for Leon...he wants this challenge. He knows he’s a big part of [our success].”

Much like Mark Messier skating with Wayne Gretzky during Edmonton’s glory days, Draisaitl will always be measured, fairly or not, alongside McDavid.

After this season, Connor may still be regarded as the best player in the world. But Draisaitl has proven he’s the best player in the NHL this season.

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