FEATURE: Leon's Big Leap
Leon Draisaitl has leveraged a 50-goal season to grow into an all-situations asset and improve even further offensivelyby Jamie Umbach / EdmontonOilers.com
EDMONTON, AB - Leon Draisaitl, standing on the precipice of reaching the 50-goal mark before the final game of the '18-19 season, wouldn't quash the significance of reaching an accolade that's reserved for few in an Oilers uniform.
Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson to be exact.
"I don't need to beat around the bush; it would be pretty special for me," Draisaitl, who sat second in the League for goals with 49 and fourth in League scoring with 104 points, said last April in Calgary.
It was as if his teammates wouldn't let him be denied, leaving one eye open for the German at all times before tension gave way to exuberance at 10:55 of the first period when Andrej Sekera's feed from the half boards led to Leon's elusive #50.
"It just shows how good of a group we have here," Draisaitl said in last season's exit interview. "They tried to find me more than they probably should have the last couple of games, and I'm really thankful they helped me get to this milestone."
Video: EDM@CGY: Draisaitl wires wrister to join 50-goal club
But ask him if it was enough to make up for the Oilers missing the playoffs for the second-straight season, he'd trade as many of the 50 goals and 55 assists he amassed in all 82 games to rectify that.
"No. Not at all," Draisaitl said. "It's a team sport. If I score 20 goals and we make the playoffs, I don't care. I'm happy. I'm happier than I am right now."
It wasn't even the official start of summer when Draisaitl was setting out to make sure the Oilers wouldn't have another repeat season without Stanley Cup Playoffs at the end of it.
"I'm going to come back next year and try to do it again," said Draisaitl.
He ascended the throne as King Leon, finishing one goal off Alex Ovechkin for the League lead and becoming the first Oiler to with 50 goals since Gretzky and Kurri shared the honours in '86-87.
He'd been Leon the Leader for his home nation, hearing his name chanted in his hometown of Cologne during the NHL Global Series before posting eight points in eight games the following spring for an evolving German National Team at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia.
In a quest to become Leon the NHL's Leading Point Producer, in a 'prove it' season for both himself and the Oilers, the maturation of the 24-year-old as one of the League's most elite talents has been on full display during the '19-20 season.
"That's what we do. We try to prove ourselves every year, prove ourselves to people, prove ourselves to the organization," he said.
Treasure troves of offensive ability were known to reside in the gloves and stick of the Deutschland Dangler. But where Draisaitl knew there was improvement room to become a more versatile player for a new Oilers head coach in Dave Tippett was the peripherals of his game.
"I think I can still round out my all-around game, whether it's penalty kill, defensive-zone faceoffs, or faceoffs in general," Draisaitl said. "Whatever it is, I feel there's a lot of room for improvement."
But Draisaitl knew, along with the rest of the NHL now after his remarkable 105-point breakthrough, that his ability to create offence would be his biggest contributor to determining success and failure.
Early out of the gates in October, his '18-19 season was looking less and less like an anomaly.
Video: VAN@EDM: Draisaitl goes top shelf for early lead
Leon lit the lamp with the first goal of the season against the Vancouver Canucks, finishing with a goal and two helpers in a 3-2 win on opening night at Rogers Place to expel any early anxiety towards following up a banner year for the left-shot centre.
Flash forward to October 20 and the Oilers are 7-1-0, with Draisaitl riding an eight-game point streak of six goals and 10 assists that would go down as one of the three eight-game point streaks or higher he owns this campaign. He was also earning more shorthanded opportunities, aided by an improved 52.1 percent faceoff percentage this season that jumped almost two full percentage points over last year's number.
To his new bench boss, Draisaitl's growth into an all-situations asset for the Oilers was put on display in a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in late October by notching a pair of goals and played a pivotal role in killing a crucial 5-on-3.
"Tonight, everybody sees the goals, but that 5-on-3 penalty kill we had was a big part of the game," Tippett said. "Draisaitl did a heck of a job on the 5-on-3."
It's a role close to the heart of the bench boss, and one he enjoys entrusting to Draisaitl when needed after slowly watching his penalty-killing duties seep to a superstar in Mario Lemieux during his playing days with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"Scotty Bowman used to use Mario Lemieux on it," Tippett said. "He would say, 'Mario, you play 5-on-3,' and I'm going, 'Hey, that's my job!' Then Mario would go out there with a long stick and just read all the situations and do a great job at it.
"Since then, I always thought that top players that read plays very well at 5-on-3 are good picks there. Leon's one of those guys. He just figures things out. He reads situations very well that allow him to be a good penalty killer in that situation."
There would be, however, the seemingly unavoidable criticism of his ability to command his own line away from Connor McDavid and the acknowledgement of some of his highs with the lows.
Draisaitl trudged through a 17-game stretch between November 24 and New Year's Eve where he couldn't find himself on the positive side of the plus/minus battle as the Oilers further tinkered with splitting the Dynamic Duo of he and Connor McDavid on separate lines.
Both were getting used to operating as the one-two punch of the Oilers atop the NHL scoring race. But the superstars knew the long-term success of the Oilers and the acceleration of their season would be linked to their separation.
Draisaitl aligned and connected with veteran Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and recall Kailer Yamamoto on New Year's Eve, producing 41 points (17G, 24A) with a +8 plus-minus in 24 games between December 31 to February 29.
A 14-6-4 stretch during that span included six games without McDavid, where the Oilers went 3-2-1 and Draisaitl had 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in that time.
Video: EDM@FLA: Draisaitl deposits Yamamoto rebound into net
The Duo split like an atom, and their ensuing reactions with the right combination of teammates around them accelerated the Oilers season.
"Early on, I think they thought the best way to do that was the two of them together, [that] they can will us to win, and they did in a lot of games early," Tippett said in an interview with NHL.com. "But as we go on here, we find out that the more depth we have, the better chance we have to sustain winning long-term. It makes it much harder for matchups for other teams."
The pair, despite having their skillsets spread over two lines, would continue to connect on the League's best power play. Draisaitl has deposited 16 tallies and 44 points with the man advantage - one point ahead of McDavid for the League lead.
Up a man against the Winnipeg Jets on February 29 is where the 24-year-old eclipsed the century mark for points for the second-straight season, accepting - you guessed it - McDavid's cross-crease pass and one-timing his 100th point past Connor Hellebuyck in only his 65th game of the campaign.
Video: WPG@EDM: Draisaitl buries McDavid's feed for PPG
If there were only any critics left for Leon the Leading Scorer, who's opened up a 13-point lead with his 43 goals and 67 assists in 71 games for the Blue & Orange.
The '19-20 season for Draisaitl has been one of incredible growth; as much as you can anticipate for a proven 50-goal scorer who's getting used to his average ice time of 22:37 at the tender age of 23 years old.
The campaign to Draisaitl can only be measured by Oilers success in the playoffs, regardless if his 110 points this campaign, measured offseason improvements, and League-leading 10 game-winning goals are the determining factors.
He'd accept being a 16-goal scorer if that meant 16 wins in the playoffs.
"We're the ones who didn't make the playoffs again and we're going to have to figure this out and get it right," Draisaitl said.