SAN JOSE — Matching the energy of an ethereal talent isn’t something every player can do. That is why playing on Connor McDavid‘s wing is a daunting task.
“It’s the time and space you have to give him, to get him the puck in full flight. I think that’s maybe what some guys struggle with,” Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl, a frequent McDavid linemate, told ESPN on Monday. “The window for getting him the puck, because he’s so fast, is probably a lot smaller than every other guy in the league. On the other hand, that makes him very dangerous. If you do get him the puck in that spot, there’s a very good chance he’ll create something out of it.”
Draisaitl, 24, leads the Oilers in goals, with 14 through 19 games. He leads the Oilers in points, with 34. Ask those around the Edmonton orbit, and they’ll tell you he has been a smidge better — and more valuable — than McDavid so far this season.
But with the Oilers off to a torrid start, leading the Pacific Division with a 12-5-2 record, McDavid gets the lion’s share of the credit.
This is understandable: At 22 years old, McDavid has three 100-point seasons and a career 1.31 points per game average. He does things with the puck the likes of which the NHL has never seen. It’s his highlight-reel goals that get passed around like hors d’oeuvres on social media. He’s the franchise. It’s his team. It’s McDavid and Draisaitl — not the other way around.
This is just the way it works in the NHL. Mark Messier and Jaromir Jagr didn’t write their legends until they were out of the shadows of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, respectively. To put it in modern NHL terms, McDavid is the Sidney Crosby, and Draisaitl is the Evgeni Malkin. Crosby has gotten MVP votes the past seven seasons. After winning his only Hart Trophy in 2012, Malkin hasn’t received one in six of seven seasons. He won that Hart in a season when Crosby was limited to 22 games.
That Sid and Geno comparison draws a laugh from Draisaitl.
“You know … I don’t know,” he said, smiling. “I’d be stupid to say that I don’t want to win the [individual] trophies. Of course I do. Every player wants to win that. But me and him are not competitive in any way. We’re competitive in a way where we want to make each other better, where we expect the most and the best out of each other. But if he scores three goals, I’m happy for him. If I score two goals, he’s happy for me. It’s a healthy competition, and we love playing with each other.”
So far, Draisaitl is winning the competition with McDavid on the score sheet. Through 19 games, he’s the top scorer in the NHL, with 1.79 points per game, ahead of Boston Bruins winger David Pastrnak‘s 1.76 in second place. Draisaitl is second in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy through Tuesday, one goal behind Pastrnak. His 50-goal, 105-point campaign last season moved him from the category of very good to among the elite goal-scoring wingers in the league.
What caused the 21-goal improvement on his previous career high?
“I worked on my shot. I worked on things in practice. I had some success with it,” he said. “Different positions, different game situations where the puck might not be in your wheelhouse but you still have to get it off. Little things like that.”
He said that as a young player, it’s something you have to learn. “Just sticking with it and trying to find your own way of putting the puck in the net,” he said. “I watch every player out there and take cues from every player in the league. They’re world-class. Better than anyone else. So I just try [to] mix those into my game while staying my own player.”
Does he check the scoring leaderboard?
“I read about it,” he said. “It’s cool, of course. But we’ve played 20 games. That’s a long way from playing in the playoffs. That’s the key. It’s a team sport. I’m just trying to help the team win.”
Draisaitl and McDavid have done more than help: 72.8% of the Oilers’ goals this season have been scored with at least one of them on the ice. But Draisaitl balks at the idea that they’re dragging the Oilers up the standings.
“I don’t know if we’re carrying the team. We’ve won games this year when me and him haven’t been at our best. Other teams have stepped up, so we have other guys stepping up every night,” he said. “Our job is to produce, put goals on the board for us. But we have other guys that contribute a lot.”
Coach Dave Tippett said breaking up the duo and putting them on different lines — which hasn’t happened much in his first season as Edmonton’s head coach — is on his mind.
“There’s always a temptation. You go into every game, and you look at how you’re going to win. So in some games, they’re going to play apart in certain spots. They’ll play on the power play, 4-on-4, 3-on-3 … they’ll get plenty of time together,” he said. “But they understand that if they do play apart, it’s to try and help us win.”
They’ve played more than 1,552 minutes together in all situations the past two seasons; Draisaitl has played more than 741 minutes without McDavid. Together, they earn 59.0% of the shot attempts, 60.9% of the scoring chances and 65.6% of the goals scored. They are as dominant a duo as the NHL currently offers.
“My job is to find him in that right spot. Get him the puck when he wants it, on the tape, hard and flat. Try to find him at full speed,” Draisaitl said. “We’ve built some chemistry over the last couple of years. We read off each other really well.”
Tippett thinks it’s because Draisaitl has the perfect build to be McDavid’s wingman.
“His ability to play a big man’s game with that skill is pretty unique,” he said.
“When I coached Connor at the World Cup [of Hockey in 2016], we were looking for a winger to play with him. Auston Matthews was our 13th forward. Big, strong guy. Moves the puck well. Shoots the puck well. We tried a few different guys, but Auston clicked right away. When I watched video of Leon, he reminded me a little bit of that Matthews mold. Connor can play give-and-go a little bit, but Leon’s a great shooter when he gets opportunities to score. He plays a unique game.”
Before McDavid ascended to the level of hockey deity, he used to be compared to Matthews. But Draisaitl vs. Matthews analysis has arrived in waves, in particular since the Leafs star signed his new contract earlier this year and his output was compared to that of the Oilers’ other standout.
Contracts are an interesting topic for Draisaitl. In 2017, he signed an eight-year deal worth $68 million. Critics jumped on then-GM Peter Chiarelli for what was perceived as an overpayment for the 21-year-old; consider that the only second contracts that eclipsed it at the time were signed by McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin. It was seen as too much too soon. Some pundits wondered if it was a harbinger of Draisaitl’s eventually being traded by Edmonton, for both the cap space and the bountiful return.
What a difference two seasons make. Draisaitl is now a 50-goal scorer with an $8.5 million cap hit, a number since eclipsed by second contracts for Matthews (five years, $11.634 million average annual value), Mitch Marner (six years, $10.893 million AAV), Jack Eichel (eight years, $10 million AAV) and Mikko Rantanen (six years, $9.25 million AAV). Yesterday’s overpayment can rapidly become today’s bargain in professional sports — until they aren’t anymore, as Draisaitl is quick to note.
“I mean, give me one bad month, and you guys will all say that I’m overpaid,” he said. “It is what it is. You obviously try to live up to your contract and make the most of it. But I know how it is, and I don’t try to read too much into it.”
Reading too much into a good stretch from the Oilers has led to disappointment through Draisaitl’s six seasons in the NHL. He understands that because he has made an effort to understand the fans and the city in which he plays.
For example: Draisaitl has pledged $1.2 million in charitable donations to Edmonton and Alberta causes over an eight-year span.
“It’s about being committed to a community,” he said. “It’s my home for a good part of my life. I want to build a relationship with the city, build something special. Not just leave without having given anything back because they give us a lot.
“The people that support us spend a lot of money to watch us — and to watch us be not very good for a lot of years. Obviously, it’s nice to give them that back. They want our team’s success more than anything in this world. We’re working toward that.”
Right now, Draisaitl and McDavid are doing the heavy lifting.