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Draisaitl says return to juniors helped his game

by Derek Van Diest

EDMONTON -- Being sent back to junior last season was not easy for Edmonton Oilers center Leon Draisaitl.

Draisaitl made the Oilers out of training camp and played 37 games with Edmonton, but finished the season in the Western Hockey League with the Kelowna Rockets.

It took some time for Draisaitl to get over the disappointment of returning to juniors, but he went on to have an excellent second half with the Rockets, leading them to the WHL championship and a berth in the Memorial Cup final.

"It did take a little bit, it's never easy," Draisaitl said at the Oilers' developmental camp. "I was 19 years old and I was living the dream. Playing in the NHL as a 19-year-old, that's very special. Getting sent back, that obviously hurts a little bit. But I took it pretty well; I took it as a sign that I have stuff to work on, and that's what I tried to do in Kelowna."

Draisaitl scored two goals and had seven assists in his 37 games with the Oilers. He started the season as Edmonton's second-line center behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. It proved a tough transition from the previous season with the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL. Draisaitl was often exposed by bigger, faster, more experienced NHL centers.

In late December, the Oilers traded for veteran center Derek Roy, allowing them to send Draisaitl back to junior after his WHL rights were acquired by the Rockets. In 32 regular-season games with Kelowna, Draisaitl scored 19 goals and finished with 53 points. He added 10 goals and 28 points in 19 playoff games to lead the Rockets to the WHL championship.

"I definitely think going back down helped me, I had a lot of confidence down there, I played a lot of minutes and I think that helped me a lot," Draisaitl said. "With the 37 games up here, that gave me experience as well. I know what it takes to play in the NHL and now it's time for me to show that I'm capable of being a full-time NHL player."

Draisaitl was selected by the Oilers with the third pick in the 2014 NHL Draft after he had 38 goals and 105 points in 64 games with Prince Albert. But he struggled offensively with Edmonton under coach Dallas Eakins.

After Eakins was fired in mid-December, a number of players saw their performance improve under interim coach Todd Nelson, particularly right wing Jordan Eberle and center Anton Lander.

Draisaitl believes his game might have improved under Nelson as well.

"I've thought about that, I'm obviously a guy that wanted to be here, but I think it was a good decision for myself to go back to junior," Draisaitl said. "The team played really well under Todd. They won quite a few games, and obviously, they scored more goals on the power play. But I think it was the right decision for me to go back."

The competition for jobs in Edmonton figures to be more intense heading toward the 2015-16 season. The addition of center Connor McDavid, the first player taken in the 2015 draft, has redefined expectations for the Oilers, who also had management and coaching changes.

Draisaitl knew things would be different the moment Edmonton won the NHL Draft Lottery in April.

"I was watching it," he said. "It was very exciting, getting a player like him is very exciting, and obviously, I know he's a centerman and I'm a centerman and there is going to be competition. At the same time, we are both young and we both want to be here, and that doesn't mean we can't be friends or anything like that. It's very exciting for the organization and he's a special player."

Along with McDavid, Draisaitl will also have to compete with Nugent-Hopkins, Lander and Mark Letestu for a spot in the middle. He's looking forward to the challenge.

"I know that. I'm well aware of that and that just makes it more fun," Draisaitl said. "There is going to be big competition for spots and I want to make a case for myself and be on this team. I'm going to battle hard for a spot."

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