Oilers’ Draisaitl Makes Rocket Richard Race Interesting

At least for the time being, the NHL has a new runner-up in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy. Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl’s recent hat trick against the Los Angeles Kings has put him just three back (46) of Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin (49).

Edmonton Oilers Leon Draisaitl Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Andersen
Draisaitl and Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen – (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Draisaitl vs. Tavares

Maybe more notably though, it put him one ahead of Toronto Maple Leafs forward John Tavares. While Draisaitl’s three goals (and Tavares’ four the night before) are proof of how quickly the goals can come and narrow the gap, there’s little denying Ovechkin’s sniping ability and how he’s the best of his generation.

So, it’s not that Ovechkin’s lead is 100% safe. It’s instead that no one can make a good argument to the effect that Draisaitl, even if he does manage to catch and even pass Ovechkin, is more valuable. As a result, Tavares serves as a much more apt comparison to Draisaitl. Both are centers. Both are stars who still manage to fly under the radar relative to their respective teams’ higher-profile player (Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews).

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs forward John Tavares – (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

Now, there’s no denying Tavares has been money for the Maple Leafs. Few could have predicted he’d be as successful as he has been in the first year of his seven-year, $77 million deal. The problem is, to get him, the Leafs had to make huge sacrifices, including blowing up their internal pay structure, which may come back to bite them in the you-know-where, especially if Boston Bruin Brad Marchand’s trolling on Twitter is anything to go by.

The Maple Leafs vs. the Salary Cap

Even if general manager Kyle Dubas manages to keep the Leafs under the cap without losing anyone, there’s still a big problem with the Tavares signing that few are willing to acknowledge. Many are so focused on the Leafs’ pending restricted free agents (Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson) and were so blinded by getting Tavares under contract in the first place that they are forgetting one critical fact.

Tavares will be under contract with the Leafs until 2025, when he’ll be on the verge of turning 35. There’s a definite possibility he can keep up the pace for a large portion of the deal, in which case it all works out, especially if the cap continues to rise. Compared to Draisatl, whose cheaper eight-year, $68 million contract also runs out in 2025, though, well, there’s no comparison, really. He’ll be on the verge of turning 30 by the time his deal ends.

All-Star Game snubs
Leon Draisaitl – (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

For some perspective, look at Tavares. He’s 28 going on 29. Everyone’s assuming he’ll be able to keep this up for a few more seasons at least, right? That’s the point at which Draisaitl will be up for a new contract and will have presumably given the Oilers good value over the course of his entire, current deal.

Maple Leafs vs. Oilers: Apples and Oranges?

Granted, to a certain degree this is like apples and oranges. The Maple Leafs have a contender on their hands and the Oilers have so many holes in their lineup outside of down the middle that it may as well be like apples and Swiss cheese. And, admittedly, no one can predict the future.

Draisaitl’s production may inexplicably fall off a cliff, but the point is this: A decade into Tavares’ career, everyone should have a good idea of his ceiling, seeing as his new career-high in goals hasn’t exactly come just as he’s hitting his prime. This may be as good as it gets for him and that’s perfectly fine. He’s a great player having a great season.

Draisaitl is conversely just entering his prime in sharp contrast and is on the verge of passing the 100-point plateau. Sure, he plays on the same team as McDavid, but remember those ridiculous debates from early this season as to who’s better: Matthews or McDavid? Right. Plus, contrary to popular belief, Draisaitl also produces without the latter.

Draisaitl and Edmonton Oilers teammate Connor McDavid (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Add it all up and it becomes clear that the team is in good shape to rebuild sooner rather than later and potentially surpass the Leafs in terms of expectations. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the Tavares deal, but, because Draisaitl is reaching these heights so early in his career and his hit is lower, his deal is just better.

Call it Peter Chiarelli’s parting gift. It turns out even bad GMs can make good moves once in a while, even if they were controversial at the time. Chiarelli may have squandered McDavid’s entry-level deal, but the organization at least has the time to make up for it, and, believe it or not, some semblance of a decent core, with the two Oiler superstars on the verge of making history.

Draisaitl likely won’t win the Richard Trophy, but he does have the talent to… and again in the future. He may not be Ovechkin, but being Draisaitl is pretty great.