Leon Draisaitl wanted to make a good first impression.
On the Portland Winterhawks, and also on the Edmonton Oilers’ new management team — his future bosses, who flew into Kelowna to watch Draisaitl star for the Rockets as their first act of business after introducing Peter Chiarelli as the team’s president of hockey operations and general manager earlier Friday. Bob Nicholson, a Penticton native recently promoted to chief executive officer of the Oilers Entertainment Group, overseeing the entire organization, was also in attendance at Prospera Place to get a closer look at one of Edmonton’s top prospects in Draisaitl, who was selected third overall in last year’s NHL draft and spent the first half of this season (37 games) with the Oilers.
“It’s definitely nice. That tells me that they care about me and that’s always a good feeling as a player,” Draisaitl said prior to Kelowna’s series opener against Portland in the Western Conference final. “Obviously I’m going to be aware of it, that they’re in the stands, but it’s not about showing myself. It’s about winning as a team.”
Win they did, with the Rockets rallying from a 2-0 deficit after 20 minutes to defeat the Winterhawks 3-2 in front of a near capacity crowd of 5,871 fans, including those two prominent Edmonton figures.
Perhaps feeling the pressure of their presence, Draisaitl had a relatively quiet night by his standards — limited to a primary assist on Justin Kirkland’s equalizer, a subtle drop-pass just inside Portland’s blue-line that Kirkland turned into a highlight-reel goal thanks to a great individual effort. Draisaitl had been a dominant force in Kelowna’s second-round win over the Victoria Royals, putting up 11 points in the five games.
“I got my legs under me in the last series, and I’m just trying to keep that going,” Draisaitl said. “I’m happy that I’m still playing hockey right now. It’s exciting to start the conference finals here and we’re all looking forward to it.”
Friday wasn’t as impressive, in his first game against Portland as a member of the Rockets and his first taste of a playoff rivalry that has witnessed the Winterhawks eliminate Kelowna in three of the previous four years, including a five-game triumph in last year’s West final.
The Rockets acquired Draisaitl in a blockbuster deal Jan. 6 from the Prince Albert Raiders as soon as the Oilers returned him to junior. It marked the first time that Kelowna traded its first-round bantam draft pick, but the big German forward has been worth it thus far. He paced himself somewhat in the regular season — paced meaning 53 points, including 19 goals, in just 32 games with Kelowna — but Draisaitl upped his intensity against Victoria.
“Yeah, definitely. I want to be a player that, when the game’s on the line, I want to step it up,” he said. “I want to be a big-time player. That’s something I’ve always wanted to be, and it’s playoff time, it’s the best time of the year.”
That has to be music to the ears of Chiarelli and Nicholson, taking over control of a franchise that has missed the playoffs for nine straight seasons and last weekend won the right to pick first overall for the fourth time in six years. It is believed they have the winning pedigrees to right Edmonton’s ship, and Draisaitl wants to be on board for that process, beginning in the fall.
“It’s important. I think everybody knows the Oilers have been struggling the last couple years, and I think they want to change it,” Draisaitl said of the overhaul in Edmonton, with former president Kevin Lowe and general manager Craig MacTavish now reduced to advisor-type roles and a new coach also expected to be hired over the next couple months. “That’s the right attitude, and I’m sure that Peter and Bob and if Craig stays, or whatever happens, they’re going to do a good job of rebuilding and getting back to the top.”
Draisaitl could play a key role in that revival. As could fellow top prospect Darnell Nurse, the seventh overall selection in 2013 and a big two-way defenceman for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who are facing off against projected No. 1 pick Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters in their conference final. McDavid is considered a generational talent and might have helped Edmonton’s hiring of Chiarelli, who was recently fired by the Boston Bruins after constructing a Stanley Cup-champion roster there in 2011.
“It’s great for the organization, and probably for Connor too,” said Draisaitl, who shared in the excitement of Edmonton winning the draft lottery. “It should be a lot of fun moving forward. He’s a game-changing player, and it’s nice to most likely have him in your lineup.
“I know what he’s capable of. I’ve played against him a couple of times (at international competitions), but the stats and the hype, that kind of speaks for itself. He’s a player that doesn’t come along very often, so it’s very exciting.”
Yet, there is some speculation that Draisaitl could be deemed expendable by the Oilers now that they have won the McDavid sweepstakes, and with Chiarelli having no attachment to him as a draft pick of the previous regime.
McDavid is a centre, like Draisaitl and 2011 first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Edmonton has obvious holes both on defence and in goal. So, in a bid to fill those, Draisaitl would be an attractive asset to other teams in need of depth down the middle.
“It definitely has crossed my mind, but right now, I’m not focused about that,” Draisaitl said of potentially becoming a trade chip. “That’s the way the hockey business runs. If it were to happen, that’s just the way it is. . . .
“My main focus is with the Rockets winning a championship.”
Teams have won Stanley Cups by going three deep at centre. The most obvious comparison being the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, who had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal as their top pivots and point-producers. Likewise, the Los Angeles Kings had Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards for their 2012 and 2014 titles.
Another option would be to shift Draisaitl to the wing, alongside McDavid or Nugent-Hopkins among Edmonton’s top-six forwards. He’s open to that possibility too.
“I know how to play the wing and it wouldn’t be that big of a change for me,” Draisaitl said. “I’ve played the wing for a number of years, and I’m comfortable in both positions.
“At the end of the day, my mindset will be whatever it takes to be on that team, I will do. If they play me as a goalie, then I’d play as a goalie.”