Leon Draisaitl (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Leon Draisaitl will almost certainly burn a year on his entry-level contract when he plays in his 10th game of the season Wednesday night. There seems to be no reason to send him back to junior hockey at this point, since the Oilers are actually beginning to show some promise.
After seeing what the Edmonton Oilers accomplished in their past four games, it’s tough to argue that the Oilers aren’t actually built better to compete in the Eastern Conference than the West. Their 3-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens Monday night was their fourth straight, all against eastern teams, squads against which their skill and speed comes to the fore without the tight checking and physical play that seems to make them shrink.
This four-game stretch could not have come at a better time for the Oilers, who desperately needed to string some wins together to calm a very, very nervous fan base. And the wins could not have come at a better time for Leon Draisaitl, who will almost certainly appear in his 10th game this season when the Oilers host the Nashville Predators Wednesday night.
Truth be told, a little too much is made of this nine-game audition for major junior eligible players. Yes, Draisaitl will burn a year off his entry-level contract with the Oilers when he suits up Wednesday night. But in the grand scheme of things, that’s not all that big a deal. The far more important milestone is 40 games on the roster, at which time Draisaitl will accrue a full season of NHL experience for the purposes of unrestricted free agency.
And if the Oilers can at least not be a steaming pile of refuse from this point on, the decision to keep Draisaitl on this team will be an easy one, regardless of the long-term consequences. By winning their past four, the Oilers have not only put themselves in the playoff race in the Western Conference, they’ve breathed new life into their season.
That Draisaitl can play at this level is pretty evident. He gets an inordinate number of offensive zone starts, which helps him in a couple of ways. First, it lessens the impact if he doesn’t win the faceoff and it helps him start play in a place where he’s more comfortable. This kind of thing will help him build confidence and learn the game at this level with fewer of his mistakes ending up resulting in goals against.
But with Draisaitl, the Oilers record and his future with the team were likely inexorably linked. Had the Oilers been floundering near the bottom of the NHL standings at this point, it would have been much easier for them to justify sending him back to the Western League. After all, why blow a year on the contract and on free agency if he’s going to be part of a disaster and simply learn how to lose in his rookie season?
So if the Oilers can remain at least relatively competitive, it will be a boon to Draisaitl. He’ll be able to continue to hone his NHL game both in games and practices and not have the downside of being part of a team that’s swirling around the drain. And if the Oilers can somehow stay within striking distance of the playoffs, playing in meaningful games against the best players in the world will foster his development much better than playing for a bad Prince Albert Raiders team.
This is not the same situation as Darnell Nurse, who clearly still has trouble navigating his own end of the ice. Nurse needed to go back to junior hockey and while playing with the Soo Greyhounds, he will be a vital part of a team that could very well end up playing for a Memorial Cup this season.
And we’re not talking about a player who is not physically ready to play in the NHL. At 6-foot-4 and 204 pounds, it’s not as though Draisaitl is the kind of player who needs to go back to junior hockey to gain more size and strength. If he were to get injured at the NHL level, it probably wouldn’t be because he was overpowered by an opponent. Draisaitl has accomplished almost everything he can at the junior level, and as long as he continues to improve on an NHL team that is making progress, it’s worth the Oilers while to keep him around.
In their first five games, all against Western Conference opponents, the Oilers went 0-4-1 and were outscored 25-11. In the four games against the east, which also included wins over eastern powers Tampa Bay and Washington, the Oilers outscored their opponents 15-7. The Oilers have two more games against western opponents before going on the road for four more games against the east.
But the Oilers are going to have to find a way to keep up with the big boys in the Western Conference if they have any hope of contending for a playoff spot. And Draisaitl has a chance to do more than just be along for the ride.