It seems media-relations folks with the Edmonton Oilers have a sense of humour, and even Leon Draisaitl had to smile.
The NHL club is using Kelowna this weekend for some team building between exhibition games. They arrived Saturday and did some boating before hitting the Prospera Place ice on Sunday morning as training camp winds its way to conclusion.
The only former Rocket with the Oilers is Draisaitl, who Kelowna acquired midway through his rookie season in Edmonton. He helped Kelowna within an overtime goal of the 2014-15 Memorial Cup.
Although the Oshawa Generals were Canadian champs, Draisaitl was named tournament most valuable player. That led the Rockets to add his portrait to their wall of honour inside Prospera Place, and that’s where Draisaitl did his interviews Sunday.
“Looks good, eh?” he said, laughing, as coach Dave Tippett walked past the media scrum.
“It’s great to be back,” Draisaitl added. “Obviously a couple of familiar faces here. I had a great time here. We were obviously pretty successful. We had a good year. I had a blast.”
The Oilers drafted Draisaitl third overall in 2014 after he spent two seasons with the Prince Albert Raiders. He began his rookie NHL campaign in Edmonton, scoring just nine points in 37 games and going minus-17.
That led Edmonton to release him back to Prince Albert, and the Raiders immediately flipped him to Kelowna.
“It was huge for me,” he said. “I played half a year in the NHL, and clearly wasn’t ready to make an impact every night. For me, at that point, it was best to get some confidence. To get to play on the power play, the penalty kill, whatever. … It really helped me. It helped my development. I’m very lucky to spend some time here.”
Still only 23, Draisaitl didn’t make an immediate impact on Kelowna, either – he was moving too fast. But once he adapted to the slower pace of the WHL, the entire Rockets organization ended up gaining speed.
Draisaitl ended his regular season with 19 goals and 53 points in 32 games. He added 28 points in 19 playoff games on the last Kelowna team to win a WHL title.
“It took me a little bit,” he said of the transition. “I think that’s expected, that’s normal. … We had a great coaching staff here. They wanted me to get better and they played me a lot and they trusted me, so it was a great scenario.”
Kelowna was stacked, too, so that must have helped. Coach Dan Lambert’s team went 53-13-0-6. The Rockets also traded for Draisaitl’s P.A. teammate, Josh Morrissey (Winnipeg Jets). Madison Bowey, who won a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, Nick Merkley (Arizona Coyotes) and Dillon Dube (Calgary Flames) were in the prime of their junior careers.
Draisaitl scored seven points in five Memorial Cup games, but admitted he wasn’t sure about the transition from NHL back to junior.
“Initially you’re very disappointed, obviously,” he said. “My goal was to be in the NHL, and I wanted to make an impact. But at that point I just wasn’t ready. After a couple of days, a couple of games of getting over it, I really settled in nicely here and I understood that this was the best place for me.”
That seems pretty clear, now. The Cologne, Germany, native scored 50 goals and 55 assists last season.
ICE CHIPS – The Oilers are scheduled to return to the ice today at Prospera, but the practice is closed to the public. … They return home for a game against Arizona on Tuesday. They’ll also travel to Winnipeg and Calgary to conclude the preseason this week. … Oilers chairman Bob Nicholson has deep Penticton roots and still has a home in the area, as does general manager Ken Holland, who was raised in Vernon.