It may not seem like much of a shock that Leon Draisaitl, 19, had NHL aspirations from such a young age. There was plenty of pre-draft hype about the German-born centre and everyone expected him to be off the board quickly. But as a kid, his peers never quite believed him.
“My mom once told me that every time I was playing with my friends or anyone, I was the only guy that said, ‘I want to be in the NHL,’” said Draisaitl.
“A lot of times guys just wouldn’t believe it or kind of laugh about it because back home the NHL is just so far away from where we were. My entire life I wanted to play in the NHL and I think when I was starting to know I might have the potential, if I put the work in, to maybe get there one day it was just a dream for me. That’s when I realized I wanted to play overseas.”
Hockey doesn’t have the same following in Germany that it does in North America. Draisaitl knew he had a better chance of
|Courtesy: Edmonton Oilers |
adjusting to the North American game, being drafted and achieving his NHL dream if he left his home country for the hockey-crazed land that is Canada.
Draisaitl played two years in the Western Hockey League (WHL) with the Prince Albert Raiders. After being the second player taken in the 2012 CHL Import Draft, he finished his first season second on the team in scoring with 58 points (21-37-58) in 64 games.
It was a quick transition for Draisaitl - just the way he wanted it.
“I didn’t put too much pressure on myself, that’s what my goal was. I came in and had some really good linemates in Prince Albert. They made the transition really easy for me. It’s the same as here. I came in and everyone is really nice. They help me out, they know I’m a young guy and need help and it was the same there. I had a great time in P.A. and I just tried to get better each and every day, work on my weaknesses and stuff like that. It was really helpful there for sure.”
His transition was also easy due in part to his family and their support. Just like when he was a young kid chatting about his NHL dreams as his mother listened supportively, his father was there for him when he chose to leave the nest. Peter Draisaitl was a long-time German National Team player.
“My dad was a huge help,” Draisaitl said. “He told me that it’s going to be different going to North America. It’s a different game, a different style of hockey. He really helped me in that regard. My whole family was really supportive. They’ve supported me along the way and they’re a huge part of what I am right now.”
With one major hockey career move done, another was on its way.
After his successful first season in the WHL, Draisaitl posted elite- level numbers in year two. Last season, he scored 105 points, which tied him for fourth in the League and was 32 more than he next skater on his team. He was well on his way to achieving his NHL dream.
The Oilers selected Draisaitl with the third-overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. It was the realization of years of hard work and seeing the benefits of the decisions made to lead him there.
“It was one of the best moments of my life,” he said of the memorable Friday night in Philadelphia. “It was pretty exciting. It’s a kid’s dream to get drafted then walk up that stage so it was a really special feeling for sure.”
But just because you’ve been drafted doesn’t mean you’ll get your chance to play in the NHL right away. After competing in Oilers training camp this September and showing the coaches and management that he was ready, Draisaitl did earn that opportunity. On opening night, October 9, against the Calgary Flames at Rexall Place, he made his NHL debut.
“I’ve never played in front of a crowd like that,” Draisaitl said, remembering the scene. “That was a little bit nerve-racking and I was a little bit nervous for sure. The fans are awesome here and it was a lot of fun and one of the greatest games I’ve been a part of.”
It took Draisaitl until October 24, his eighth game, to score his first NHL goal.
|Courtesy: Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers |
David Perron set up the rookie with a great scoring chance in front of the Carolina Hurricanes net. Draisaitl’s initial shot was stopped acrobatically by Anton Khudobin, but the goaltender gave him a second chance, one he was sure not to miss.
“I was a little bit shocked that he robbed me there because I pretty much had half of the net,” Draisaitl said. “David made an unbelievable play and gave it to me with pretty much an open net and I couldn’t bury the first one. It was like, ‘Oh man, how did I miss that?’ Then the rebound just popped out and I kind of stayed with it and just batted it in. It was a greasy one but even still it was a very special thing.”
The young Oiler buried the backhand for a moment he will never forget. Full of excitement, Draisaitl tackled Captain Andrew Ference in celebration.
“It was unbelievable and one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had,” he said. “Scoring a goal in the NHL is something really special. It’s something every kid dreams of and so did I when I was little. It was a really, really special and exciting moment.”
After a quick transition similar to the one he made to the WHL, it appeared as though Draisaitl was once again elevating himself to another level in the hockey chain. Quite early into his first season, he could already feel the confidence building as he began to realize he belonged.
“For me personally, when I have the puck I still feel I can make the plays,” Draisaitl said. “I can still find guys in open spots and make those plays that I did in junior. It’s not as much anymore but I think that’s normal. I think definitely the play with the puck was the easiest transition even though it’s still a huge difference.”
But he’s still a work in progress, as are all rookies. Draisaitl embraces that the transition to the NHL game is not always going to be easy.
“The whole game is just a completely different game than juniors or what I’ve played before. The speed, the decision making and pretty much the entire game is just different. It takes a little time. It’s normal for a 19-year-old kid to have a learning curve. It took me a little while but it’s getting better.”
|Courtesy: Andy Devlin |
His head coach has been impressed with his dedication to getting better. Draisaitl’s improvement during the start of the season gave the Oilers a reason to keep him on the roster past his first nine games, rather than send him back to junior.
“He continues to improve,” Head Coach Dallas Eakins said. “If he had fallen off of a cliff somewhere along the way that would have been the easy decision. It’s been a very easy discussion. He’s earned his right, he continues to get better and those are positive signs for us.”
Draisaitl has realized one dream, but is still working to secure his spot as a full-time NHL player. When he looks back on his rookie season, the one thing he says he wants to take from it is having learned a lot.
“That’s the most important thing for me to take as a young kid,” Draisaitl said. “There’s a learning curve and I think for any 19-year-old kid who comes into the League it takes a while to get going, get used to everything and get up to speed. I think so far I have learned a lot about the game and how to play the game the right way.”
Time will tell exactly what Draisaitl has learned in his rookie season or how far his NHL career will go, but for now, one thing is clear - those kids who doubted Draisaitl’s dreams so many years ago are not laughing anymore.