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IN DEPTH: The Deutschland Dangler

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

If Leon Draisaitl had as much of an aptitude for the sport of soccer as he has for hockey, he may not be putting on the Oilers jersey today.

“It’s actually funny, I quit hockey when I was about seven for a year,” he said.

Draisaitl decided to trade skates for cleats and ice for grass, but the experiment was short-lived.

“I started playing soccer, but soccer wasn’t really my thing so I went back to hockey. I’m pretty happy I did that.”

You’re not the only one, Leon.

Had Draisaitl’s skates collected a little more dust in his parents’ garage, he may never have developed into the hockey player he is today. He may have never journeyed from Germany to North America to pursue his selected sport. He may not have risen up the pre-draft rankings or been selected third overall in 2014. He may never have joined the Oilers and he may never have become the talk of the NHL he is today.

But then again, this could all be hyperbole. He might have always found his way back to hockey. After all, it’s in his blood.

GROWING UP GERMAN

The ice rinks in Germany when Draisaitl was growing up were old, cold and few and far between.

On the sports spectrum in Germany, there is soccer (football) and then everything else files in below it. When it comes to hockey, with Germany’s youth there just isn’t the same support as in North America. It’s something Draisaitl knows all too well.

“There are so many rinks here (in Canada), which we absolutely do not have in Germany,” said Draisaitl. “It’s hard to turn into a really good player in Germany because you know the development is not there and the money is not there either. Obviously, hockey is not the biggest thing there.”

But even so, Draisaitl found a way around that.

“I was very fortunate to have good coaches, even back home in Germany and especially in Mannheim where I had two really good coaches and that helped a lot.”

Even in Germany, and even with taking a year off to play soccer, there was no hiding from hockey for young Leon. It would have been something he grew up immersed in. With his father being a figure in German hockey, Draisaitl was surrounded by the sport from day one.

“Obviously, my dad had a big influence on that because he’s played over 25 years of professional hockey. It’s definitely in the family,” said Draisaitl.

Peter Draisaitl, hailing from Karvine, Czech Republic, spent a lengthy career in German professional hockey. His playing career spanned from 1983, the year when the Oilers played in their first Stanley Cup Final, all the way to 2001.

He is 25th overall in scoring in Germany’s top league with 422 points (177-245-422) in 389 career games. Draisaitl’s father represented Germany at World Championships, the World Cup and Winter Olympics.

Peter jumped into the European coaching ranks immediately following his playing career and has worked there ever since. He is currently in his third season with HK Hradec Kralove in the Czech Republic.

Peter was, obviously, a big help to Leon early on in his youth hockey career. However, he wasn’t the only Draisaitl responsible for cultivating Leon’s passion for the sport.

“My dad was my biggest influence and my mentor,” said Draisaitl. “Whenever I needed to know something, little tips or little plays, he was always there for me, always supporting me but it’s not only my dad. It was my mom, my sister and those kinds of people. My mom, the hours she’d spend at six in the morning in ice-cold hockey rinks, you can’t forget about that either. I’m very fortunate to have supportive parents like that.”

His parents were supportive of his choice in sport, but Draisaitl never needed convincing to play.

“It was all me,” he said. “My parents would never push me into something like that. It was my choice and I wanted to do it. When I was real young, I was always in the dressing room with my dad and I always wanted to be at the rink. It just kept going that way.”

Draisaitl would tell his friends at a young age that he was going to play in the National Hockey League when he was older, but they’d laugh it off. It was something that just didn’t happen often in Germany.

“I always wanted to be in the NHL,” he said. “I think every kid who plays hockey wants to get to the NHL, but I think it’s easier said than done. It takes a lot of work and you have to put in a lot of hours to get to that point I guess. I think once I started to get into those international games, where you go to U18 World Championships or World Juniors or whatever it is, you start to realize you might have a chance or you might have to put in more work to be wherever you want to be.”

Draisaitl had an idea, however, that he had a chance.

Leon's father, Peter Draisaitl (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images)

In his final season (2010-11) of U16 play in Germany with Mannheimer ERC, Draisaitl potted an insane 97 goals and recorded 95 assists for a whopping 192 points in just 29 games. In five post-season games, he had 16 goals and 31 total points.

What may be even more amazing is that he finished second on his team in scoring that season, with Dominik Kahun recording 206 points in 30 games.

“It was a lot of fun,” Draisaitl laughed. “I obviously had really good linemates and that always helps, but it was a lot of fun. Scoring and getting points is always fun and that especially helped me to get my confidence up for the next year where I went to play with the higher league and older guys. It was a very fun year.”

In 2011-12, Draisaitl moved up in the German hockey world and still managed 56 points (21-35-56) in 35 games for Jungadler Mannheim U18. Draisaitl finished second on the team in scoring. He’d play for Germany internationally as well, better than a point-per-game pace at the World Junior Championship. He was named the league’s Player of the Year.

That’d be his final season in Germany as he decided his best chance to make his NHL dreams come true was to leave for North America. He was selected second overall in the 2012 CHL Import Draft by the Prince Albert Raiders.

Draisaitl left playing in Germany behind him but it will always be a part of his journey to the NHL. When he looks back on his career years from now, he hopes he makes an impact on the youth of his home country.

“That would be unbelievable,” Draisaitl said. “I want to be a role model to younger guys, no matter what country it is. I think especially Germany, where people are not that into hockey. If I could get more people into hockey or more people enjoying the game then I’d love to do that.”

One day, young hockey players across Germany may be wearing Draisaitl Oilers or Team Germany jerseys. But right here and right now, Draisaitl’s name continues to be spoken more frequently in the North American hockey scene.

FROM ADVERSITY TO PROSPERITY

Draisaitl didn’t take long to adjust to the North American game.

In his first season with Prince Albert, he finished second on the team in scoring with 58 points (21 goals, 37 assists) in 64 games.

Draisaitl says it took some time to get going, but his coaches, teammates and billet family helped make him comfortable and make the transition easier.

In his second season, his draft year, a fully-integrated Draisaitl potted 38 goals and recorded a total of 105 points in 64 games to lead the Raiders in scoring by a wide margin. Josh Morrissey finished second with 73 points.

He was ranked as the fourth-best North American Skater by NHL Central Scouting heading into the 2014 Draft and was selected by the Oilers in the third spot.

Draisaitl spent 37 games in the NHL as a rookie, managing just nine points (2-7-9). As the team struggled in the standings, concern for Draisaitl’s confidence became a priority for then-general manager Craig MacTavish and the club sent their rookie back to the WHL.

Thanks to a trade, the Kelowna Rockets were his destination this time around, giving Draisaitl an opportunity to experience winning. And he did just that.

When a player gets sent down there is often a “reassignment hangover,” which results in maybe a brief period of struggles. However, Draisaitl had a good attitude about the situation and experienced no such thing.

“He had a very mature approach to that whole situation and took it like a pro,” Oilers Sr. Director of Player Development Rick Carriere said in an interview this past summer.

“I think the messaging from the management and the coaches when Leon went back was perfect. Just go there, be a leader, put the team on your back and carry them into the playoffs. I think we saw a lot of that. He took that mature approach.”

Draisaitl was a revelation for the Rockets, recording 53 points (19 goals, 34 assists) in just 32 games to finish out the season. He then led the team in scoring in the playoffs with 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists) in 19 games as the Rockets won the WHL Championship.

He hit his stride with his development during the Rockets’ Memorial Cup run. Though the team fell short, losing in the Final to Oshawa, Draisaitl was named the tournament’s MVP and leading scorer.

“He was a horse,” said Carriere, who watched Draisaitl throughout the tournament.

“At the Memorial Cup, I thought you saw Leon Draisaitl at his finest.”

Dealing with the adversities of his NHL rookie season, and then experiencing winning and success, was beneficial to the young centre.

“It helps me a lot,” he said. “I played in 37 games and it showed me what it takes to be an NHL player. Obviously, we faced a lot of adversity but that makes you stronger as a person.”

The struggles for both Draisaitl and the Oilers last season were frustrating, but his time spent in Kelowna helped him rise above it.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Draisaitl. “Obviously, I wanted to get my confidence back up as well. I think it was a good step in my career and I’m happy I got a chance to play on a winning team and a chance to win a championship.”

With those North American accomplishments added to those he achieved overseas, Draisaitl set his sights on his next goal. The next time he would get an opportunity to play in the NHL, it would be for good.

HEATING UP

Draisaitl’s 2015 training camp didn’t go the way he would have hoped. He was very impressive in rookie camp, especially at the Penticton, B.C. Young Stars Tournament. And despite playing at a high level in main camp, he was sent down to the American Hockey League’s Bakersfield Condors to start the season.

It was a hard hit to a young player who thought he was ready for the big leagues.

“I know he was disappointed, but credit to Leon in that he came to the rink every day with a smile on his face, ready to work, ready to get better,” said Condors Head Coach Gerry Fleming. “There might have been an initial hangover there the first couple of days but he got over it rather quick and understood those were the things he needed to work on. He came down here with the attitude that ‘I’m going to work on these things, I’m going to get better and I’m going to get back to the NHL.’”

Fleming says the Condors staff wanted to focus on Draisaitl’s play without the puck and putting in the hard work when it’s not on his stick. Draisaitl went to work in those areas, not content to sit around and wait for an opportunity. His disappointment turned to motivation.

“Obviously, it was frustrating getting sent down,” he said. “I wanted to be here. I wanted to start the year here. It didn’t go that way. It wasn’t easy to get over that, but after I did I got back to work and worked on the things I needed to work on. I just wanted to make sure that when I’m up here, I impress and don’t go back down.”

Injuries to the Oilers on the wing provided Draisaitl with an opportunity. The natural centre experienced time on the wing in camp and was eager to help. It was his chance to come back to the NHL.

Then Connor McDavid broke his clavicle on November 3, in a game against Philadelphia. The rookie first-overall pick had been a catalyst for the Oilers in his first 13 games and now he would be sidelined long term.

The Oilers needed somebody, or multiple somebodies, to step up and Draisaitl has been that somebody.

Even before McDavid went down, Draisaitl was showing he could contribute. In his first game after being recalled on October 29, Draisaitl potted two goals against Montreal (matching his rookie season total). The next game, Draisaitl went 1-2-3 against Calgary. Then McDavid went down.

There was a lull in production from the entire team as they attempted to deal with yet another injury. Then, something clicked.

Draisaitl and his linemate Taylor Hall have lit up the scoresheet. Draisaitl has went off, recording four goals and six assists in his last five games. He has 17 points in 10 games this season, becoming the first Oilers player to start his season with that many points in 10 games since Mark Messier during the 1989-90 season.

Leon Draisaitl celebrates after scoring a late third period goal to give the Oilers the lead (photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club)

Where did this come from? The Oilers knew he was a good hockey player when they took him at the top of the draft, but the level of production is night and day.

“I can’t tell you the answer,” said McLellan. “He had a good training camp. We played him out of position, which was a real good thing for us to experiment with. We started the season a certain way. He got to go down and it didn’t go real well for him right off the bat and maybe that was a healthy thing for him. He got a lot more determined and when he got his chance here he’s made good on it. Credit to him.”

“I’ve always thought he’s a very good player,” said Hall. “I thought he had some tough luck last year with not much going in. You can tell he’s a lot more poised now and he just goes out and plays. It’s a lot of fun to play with him. Great kid. You can tell he’s going to be a monster on faceoffs one day. Really promising for our team.”

His strides in a year’s time have been noticed in the locker room.

“I think he’s not as much of a passenger on the ice. He wants to go out and grab the game,” said Hall. “With his skill set and his size, that’s the way he should play.”

Hall leaned over to Draisaitl during his first game of the season against Montreal and told him to relax and just go out and play. That advice sparked something in Draisaitl and he’s taken it to heart.

“I think getting advice from guys like Hallsy and guys that have played a lot of years in this league, that always helps, especially when you don’t know how to handle all that,” said Draisaitl. “It was very helpful and I’m thankful that he gave me that advice and he cared that much.”

Since that conversation on October 29, Draisaitl has been on fire and he’s teaming up with Hall to create havoc upon NHL opponents. The two have combined for seven goals and a total of 18 points in their last five games together.

Everything Draisaitl touches turns to gold.

Not literally, like King Midas, but King Leon is playing at such a high level he’s left media members, fans and teammates thoroughly awed.

“I’m impressed with just about everything Leon does right now. It is impressive,” said McLellan. “There’s been times when we’ve poked and prodded him to get going and now he needs a hug because he’s doing a lot of good things. His speed, his tenacity on the puck, his back check and stripping players and going the other way, his playmaking ability, his release, his battle in the faceoff circle against one of the top faceoff guys in the National Hockey League and to come out ahead of that, his ability on the power play to either create or settle things down. There’s a long list of things Leon is doing exceptionally well right now. His linemates are helping him out a lot but he’s also helping his linemates. Credit to him. He’s fun to watch right now.”

In overtime of the Oilers game against Chicago on November 18, Draisaitl bested two of the elite players in the NHL on one rush and set up Hall with a superb pass. If not for an incredible glove save by Corey Crawford, the Oilers would have won the game and even more people would be talking about Draisaitl’s play.

He skated past Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, something that just doesn’t normally happen.

That moment was the one in which Hall said, “whoa, this kid is legit.”

“When he blew past Toews in overtime,” said Hall. “He was at a standstill and we all know how good of a player Toews is. I’m starting to anticipate those kinds of plays and I think we still have room for him to get better.”

Draisaitl not only continues to produce, he continues to improve.

“Maybe he’d want to force a puck to me or force a play to me when it wasn’t there,” said Hall. “I think we’re seeing this year that he’s taken the game on his own. He’s such a rangy player. We saw against the Blackhawks that he has some gallop to his game. He has some speed too. It’s a ton of fun playing with him.”

“Right now, I’m feeling comfortable,” said Draisaitl. “I’m confident and I think that helps a lot. Guys just have that where they’re feeling it. If you want to put it that way then you can put it that way. I’m feeling good about myself right now and I just want to keep that going.”

Draisaitl’s skill is one thing. His confidence is another.

The 20-year-old centre is hot right now and he’s feeling it.

“You always want to do the best you can to be successful and help the team,” he said. “I don’t know if you could put it that way that you expect to put up that many points because you never know what can happen. I think I’m very happy to be able to produce like that but I’m also pretty happy to play a lot of minutes in a lot of different situations and get put with good linemates as well. That helps myself succeed.”

Jordan Eberle played with Draisaitl a bit last season and sees the second-year player exuding confidence.

“Every time he has the puck he’s poised, he’s patient, he’s making plays,” said Eberle. “He’s a good kid. He had kind of a tough time last year and to come back and rebound and play as well as he is right now is awesome, especially with McDavid being out, he’s filled in really well.”

NO SMOKE AND MIRRORS
The question has been asked a lot recently: “Is Draisaitl for real?”

“I think it’s for real,” said McLellan. “I don’t see him lacking any confidence or failing at all at this point. Can we expect him to produce at the rate he is? I think that’s a little unrealistic but I do think he’s for real.

“I think he’s learned a lot. I think he’s proud that he is back in the league and wants to stay here. He’s doing everything he can nightly to not only remain a National Hockey League player, but to elevate himself in the lineup. I think that’s powerful, not just to get here but work your way up and demand more based on your play.”

When night after night there is some highlight, some goal or some pass that Draisaitl executes, it just reinforces the way the organization feels about one of their top young players.

“I wouldn’t call it smoke and mirrors now,” said McLellan. “Smoke and mirrors is you do it once every four or five games. He’s consistently doing it.”

When Draisaitl came out for the 2014 Draft, he was a part of the “Fantastic Four” group of prospects along with Aaron Ekblad (Florida), Sam Reinhart (Buffalo) and Sam Bennett (Calgary). He was, like every prospect, compared to established NHLers.

Leon Draisaitl takes instruction from Oilers head coach Todd McLellan during training camp (photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club)
His puck-handling skills were likened to those of Pavel Datsyuk. A big centre like Anze Kopitar was also in the conversation.

“That’s a great example,” said McLellan. “If we could get Leon to be Anze Kopitar over time, that’s a powerful thing. But when you do that you tend to paint a picture and he takes that mould on. I want Leon to be Leon.”

Leon wants to be Leon too.

“I want to play my game,” said Draisaitl. “I want to be my own player eventually, but there are always things you can learn from the high-end guys in the league. Kopitar, Thornton, Datsyuk and those guys: you want to take stuff out of their game and put it into your game. That’s definitely something I’m doing.”

“I see some of Joe Thornton’s passing abilities and skills. I see some of Joe Pavelski’s puck possession. Just to say Anze Kopitar isn’t fair,” said McLellan, who of course coached “Big Joe” and “Little Joe” in San Jose.

A hybrid Datsyuk-Kopitar-Pavelski-Thornton player that is all Leon Draisaitl. A powerful thing, but also a lot of pressure.

Some day down the road, perhaps a decade from now, there may be a team with a young player in their organization who draws comparisons to Leon Draisaitl.

McLellan ponders those possibilities.

“I hope, if Leon gets done what Leon can get done, I hope 10 years there is a team somewhere in the National Hockey League with a young kid coming up and saying ‘can you be Leon Draisaitl?’ Then he’s done what he can hopefully do,” the coach said.

One thing great players do is win, and you can ask Draisaitl all you want about personal achievements. You can ask him about his current production or goals for the season. You can ask him about his career numbers. You can ask him all those questions, but what really drives Draisaitl to be great is winning. It’s something he did as a young boy in Germany. It’s something he experienced in North American junior hockey. It’s something he wants to be remembered for when he hangs up the skates, and not just for a year to try soccer.

“That’s what we all play for,” he said. “Obviously, individual success is important as well but at the end of the day we all want to be winners and we all want to win a Stanley Cup. I think that’s what we’re here for and hopefully we can accomplish that some day.”

Until then, Draisaitl is just having fun, and his teammates and fans are having fun watching him do just that.

By Chris Wescott/edmontonoilers.com

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