About 2 years ago, I made a post on reddit suggesting that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could become the next Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, respectively. I thought I raised some pretty good points. But, despite the post not getting that much attention, I pretty much got laughed out of the room.
As you might suspect I made that post not to discuss McDavid, at the time already arguably as good as or better than Crosby, but to open a dialogue about Draisaitl. I made that post knowing full well I would get lit up. But I made that post with a feeling. The same feeling Craig MacTavish had when he stepped up to the podium and selected the best player in the 2014 NHL entry draft. I knew that Draisaitl had the potential. Am I biased because I’m German? Maybe. But, now, years after the draft, and a few seasons after my reddit post we have the luxury of hindsight to show very clearly that I told you so. So, let’s talk about exactly why Leon Draisaitl has the ability on any given night to be the best player on the ice.
Now, we all watched Draisaitl drop 50 goals like it was no big deal. But his ability to pass is second to no player in the NHL today. I don’t say that lightly, with Connor McDavid in earshot. He’s mastered every conceivable way to get the puck to a teammate, with pinpoint accuracy, the right amount of power, and the patience of a saint.
Draisaitl especially excels at making passes from his backhand at any distance, allowing him to create plays from any location on the ice with deadly consistency.
Because Draisaitl has proven his ability to anchor his own line without McDavid, they only play together on the powerplay, or in three-on-three overtime. Despite this, these two perfectly complementary players can create goals on nearly any chance given. What makes Draisaitl so effective is his vision, allowing him to dish pucks to where his teammates are going rather than just where they are.
Draisaitl translates so often onto the scoresheet because of his patience to wait for the best opportunity to score. He will draw the coverage of defenders and then dish the puck to a teammate for a chance. He rarely wastes a possession, having topped 12 statistical categories for this abbreviated season. He excels in maneuvering the puck in tight and close to his body, using his large frame to box out opponents’ attempts to force turnovers. Even in passing to a teammate, he will at the same time be positioning himself to give his teammate another passing option, adding the give-and-go to the long list of things goalies need to be aware of when Draisaitl is on the ice. Now for a quick break.
Generally, when asked who their favorite player was growing up, or who their idol was, an athlete’s answer will parallel their own playing style. When you consider Pavel Datsyuk, what is it about his game that stands out? His hands? Two way play? His playmaking? Whatever the hallmark is that you think defines the career of Datsyuk, there’s one glaring difference between these two players. Datsyuk never put up more than 31 goals in a season. Draisaitl, as we know, is capable of potting 50 in back to back years. Draisaitl finished this season on pace for 50 goals. Now, obviously, the scoring talent in a player like Draisaitl is a rare gift and puts him in elite company. But his answer to that question leads me to wonder if and when he consciously made an effort to contribute goals at an accelerated rate, much more than Datsyuk ever was able to. At some point, Leon hadto have recognized that he was becoming much more than the responsible but creative playmaking centre that Datsyuk was at his peak. Well, if you look at his advanced stats, there would appear to be a point at which Draisaitl flipped the switch. To understand this shift in mentality, you’ll need to know a little bit about possession statistics.
You can paint a picture of how a player’s team controls the puck while he is on the ice by looking at a quantity called Corsi, or, the total number of shots on net, shots that would have been on net had they not been blocked, and misses, recorded at even strength. A corsi-for percentage of over 50% would indicate that the player’s team was controlling the puck more often than not while the player was on the ice. During the 2017-18 season, Draisaitl recorded a corsi-for percentage of 53.3, the highest season total of his career. The 2018-19 season, his first 50 goal season, things took a turn. His corsi-for percentage dipped to 49.1, and this year, even lower, to 48.1. It can be logically inferred that Draisaitl has been sacrificing defensive responsibility to produce more offensively.
It’s hard to put Draisaitl into a box or accurately compare him to an individual player when it comes to both how he plays the game, and how he makes an impact on the statsheet. Through his first few seasons, he did fit into the mold of the defensively responsible, puck moving centre. But recently, as he’s found his scoring touch, I find myself kind of at a loss to compare him to an individual player, past or present. The way he carries the puck and dangles in tight despite his size, with the ability to finish, reminds me a lot of prime Jaromir Jagr. However, despite his declining possession numbers, he’s still an elite two-way talent at centre, and his toolbox of creative passing, soft hands, and defensive responsibility points to a more mobile version of Aleksander Barkov. His speed and strength put him in the dirty areas of the ice, from which he can distribute the puck to pretty much anywhere.
The final piece of Draisaitl’s game we need to cover is his scoring. That’s goals and assists. Before we talk about his actual skills, you should first understand how Draisaitl scores. As of now, Leon Draisaitl is officially the 2019-2020 Art Ross trophy winner, scoring 110 points in 71 games. Despite this, he finished the season with a rating of -7. The only other time an Art Ross winner finished with a minus rating was 25 years ago. By Wayne Gretzky. In his age 33 season with Los Angeles. That seems nuts. Until you remember that plus/minus is a measure of even strength on ice goal differential. This season, 44 of Draisaitl’s 110 points came on the powerplay, or 40% When you look at his percentage of goals on the powerplay,16 out of his 43 goals came with the man advantage. That’s 37.2% of his goals. You have to go back nine years to find an Art Ross winner who scored points or goals at a higher rate on the powerplay than Draisaitl, and that honor belongs to Daniel Sedin, just edging out Draisaitl with a 40.4 power play point percentage, and 43.9% of his goals. And that Gretzky season? In ‘93 Wayne scored 46.9% of his points on the powerplay. With this raw data in front of me, I feel comfortable designating Draisaitl as a powerplay specialist. Make no mistake, I’m not telling you that Leon is better at making goals happen on the man advantage, because that would contradict our data. I’m telling you he’s the best at making goals happen on the man advantage. The best since Sidney Crosby’s 120 point Art Ross season at age 19, 61 of which, or 51%, came on the powerplay.
Now, allow me to address some of the concerns some of you may have with Draisaitl. Firstly, to the folks who might be thinking, ‘hey, it’s way easier to score on the power play than it is at even strength. I even counted on my fingers! Five is bigger than four! Why do you like him?’
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‘cause he puts up points. An even strength point is a powerplay point is a shorthanded point. Unless you’re me making this article, you probably had no clue that such a sizable chunk of his points came a man up. But I bet at least a handful of you might think that you can downplay his point totals or Draisaitl himself just because he rakes on the powerplay. You might say, “He won the Art Ross, however-” No. No ‘however,’ just be wrong. Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it. Because not only is it not easy to put up Art Ross numbers while splitting your points almost evenly between even strength and powerplay, I would say that it’s even harder to do than to score fewer points on the power play. Or at the very least, it takes a different type of player. It takes patience. Having the temperament to wait for an option can turn a low danger chance to a high danger chance. It takes quick, precise passes. Well placed enough to prevent turnovers and fast enough to get the other team stumbling and moving out of position. It takes trust. A powerplay quarterback needs to believe 100% in his coach’s system, for one. He also needs to trust his linemates. That they’ll be at the right place at the right time and ready to finish. It takes creativity. When you have room to skate, you can get pretty adventurous with where you want to set up, such that you have an option to pass to as many of your teammates at once as possible. This keeps the other team guessing and obviously maximizes your chance of scoring. It takes the ability to know when to utilize your teammates, and when to just go for it. The glass ceiling that the average player hits can be due to potential being fully reached. But it also could be attributed to an inability or unwillingness to adapt their game to find an optimal balance between passing off to teammates and just taking it to the hole. And while Draisaitl is a wizard when it comes to dishing the puck, man can he take it to the hole. Among active players, Draisaitl is second to Steven Stamkos in shooting percentage by four hundredths of a percent. Draisaitl is the complete package. It takes a special type of player to dominate on the ice in all situations. With or without a star linemate. Which brings me to my final point.
Yes, it’s finally time to debunk the age old “Draisaitl is a product of McDavid” meme.
Not only is it apparent that anyone who says this hasn’t watched an Oilers game, they’ve probably never even sat down to watch Draisaitl play. Just be wrong. Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it. McDavid, with all due respect, is a one-man show. The most dangerous thing about Connor McDavid. his legs. He’ll make his move, and then he will torch you. Draisaitl, however, wasn’t blessed with the jets that Connor has. So, he has to take his time. He waits until you make a mistake and then he takes advantage of it. He puts distance between himself and opponents not with speed, but intelligent body positioning and a large frame. He has to do the little things that someone without mach speed wheels doesn’t have to worry about. Moreover, he’s proven he can do it all without McDavid. A 6-game stretch late in the season gave us the opportunity to see peak Leon operate without McDavid. Strong, cerebral hockey played with German efficiency. Commanding the attention he deserves as the best player on the ice. It’s always interesting to see players given a larger role due to the injury of a key player. After McDavid’s quad injury, Draisaitl’s average time on ice per game jumped from 22 minutes to 25 minutes And in that six game absence, he scored 12 points. His production speaks for itself. But when they do play together… Well, you don’t want to be on the ice.
We could be very quickly entering into what I would describe as an era of terror in the Pacific division. Gone are the days of all three California teams perennially cruising to the postseason on the backs of Getzlaf, Couture, and Kopitar. The Doctor is in.