Oilers’ Draisaitl Earning Keep at Memorial Cup

(Marissa Baecker/Shoot The Breeze) Kelowna Rockets forward Leon Draisaitl is interviewed by Sportsnet's Gene Principe after being named the WHL's playoff MVP.
(Marissa Baecker/Shoot The Breeze)
Kelowna Rockets forward Leon Draisaitl is interviewed by Sportsnet’s Gene Principe after being named the WHL’s playoff MVP with 28 points, including 10 goals, in 19 games.

When Bill Daly revealed that golden card that gave the Edmonton Oilers the right to select Connor McDavid, many fans and media members started packing Leon Draisaitl’s bags. They were ready to ship out the big German centre for help in other areas — be it on defence or in goal.

There was no need for Draisaitl, they insisted — not with McDavid coming in as a can’t-miss generational talent and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins already in the fold as an established top-six centre and former No. 1 overall pick. It was time to shop Draisaitl to fill those aforementioned voids, they declared.

Hold those thoughts. Stop the presses!

Draisaitl’s performance in the WHL playoffs and thus far at the Memorial Cup has everybody backpedalling on the prospect of moving the third overall pick in 2014. Sure, his trade value has never been higher since getting sent back to junior to further develop with the Kelowna Rockets after spending the first half of this season with the Oilers — suiting up for 37 NHL games and tallying 9 points (2 goals, 7 assists) in 2014. But when the calendar flipped to 2015, Draisaitl took that demotion in stride and has taken his game to another level in the post-season this spring — showing off both his skill and his character. He’s really risen to the occasion for Kelowna, especially for a guy who had never before won a playoff game in his junior career. He came from a losing environment in Edmonton after leaving a similar culture with the Prince Albert Raiders and even his native Germany isn’t known for international success. Granted, it didn’t help that Draisaitl wasn’t part of his nation’s world-junior team when they were relegated this winter — a decision he recently admitted was out of his hands.

“That wasn’t really my decision, to be honest. It was the Oilers’ decision. I don’t want to comment too much on it. It’s their decision and I’m happy with whatever would have happened. . . . It’s never fun to see your country go down, especially your age-group. It’s kind of funny, all my best friends are on that team. I’ve played with all those guys for a number of years. It’s not easy to see something like that, so, obviously it’s disappointing. I would have loved to help them out a little bit at least. But at the same time, I played in the NHL, and that’s a kid’s dream. There’s nothing bad I have to say about that.” — Draisaitl on missing the world juniors.

That is all water under the bridge now that there’s a new regime running the show in Edmonton, and one that Draisaitl is excited about going forward.

“I think they’ve done a great job so far, hiring (Peter) Chiarelli (as president of hockey operations and GM) and (Todd) McLellan (as head coach). They’re two very well-known people and they’re very experienced. I think it’ll help the organization a lot.”

That excitement should be mutual, with the Oilers possessing another special talent in Draisaitl, who is shining on the biggest stage in junior hockey — well, second-biggest behind the world juniors.

For the rest of this week, Draisaitl’s focus is on winning a Memorial Cup with the Rockets, but they are facing an uphill battle at the national championship tournament after losing 2 of their first 3 games, including a 2-1 decision to the OHL’s Oshawa Generals on Tuesday night.

Draisaitl has 3 goals and 4 points after 3 games but was kept off the scoresheet against Oshawa, suffering a similar fate to McDavid throughout the OHL championship series when the Generals limited the projected first overall pick in next month’s NHL draft to just 1 assist in three road games en route to eliminating the Erie Otters in five games.

Edmonton’s top two forward prospects now have that in common, getting shut down by the defence pairing of Josh Brown and Dakota Mermis. Those aren’t household names — Brown being the Generals’ captain and a sixth-round pick of the Florida Panthers and Mermis an undrafted over-ager — but together they are a force and have combined to accomplish what Darnell Nurse and Sam Morin, among others, have failed to do.

Draisaitl may get another shot at Oshawa if Kelowna can beat one of the Quebec-based teams in the semifinal to earn a rematch with the Generals in Sunday’s championship game. Aside from that setback in their initial encounter, all Draisaitl has done since landing in Kelowna in early January is win. He’s been dominant most of the time — a man among boys — and was named the WHL playoff MVP after tying Winnipeg Jets prospect Nic Petan for the scoring lead with 28 points in 19 games.

Since arriving in Quebec City for the Memorial Cup, Draisaitl has been the centre of attention as the highest drafted player there and the only one with significant NHL experience. Had McDavid’s team made the tournament, his presence would have overshadowed Draisaitl and been comparable to the media circus Sidney Crosby faced during the lockout year in 2005. But Draisaitl is providing the star power for this event and he’s been handling it like the pro that he is despite not turning 20 until October. He’s been asked twice as many questions about his time in Edmonton than his time in Kelowna, with reporters eager to uncover some dirt on the Oilers but coming away empty-handed. He enjoyed his time in the big league and has nothing bad to say about the organization. He wants to be part of Edmonton’s future, to be a key cog even if it means transitioning to the wing alongside McDavid or Nugent-Hopkins.

This isn’t the kind of asset a team wants to peddle on the trade market. Draisaitl is eventually going to be an impact player in the NHL, drawing favourable comparisons to Joe Thornton and Anze Kopitar — perhaps a hybrid of the two. Those types don’t grow on trees and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Chiarelli surely realizes that, but he has holes to fill on an unbalanced roster, so Draisaitl’s name is probably going to come up in conversations. Other teams are certainly going to ask about his availability.

Chiarelli can’t really hang up the phone when it happens, he has to hear out any potential offer — nobody is untouchable, right? — but Draisaitl best not be dangled as bait or he’ll get snatched up in a hurry. The vultures will be lurking and have their eyes on this budding forward with a rare combination of size and skill highlighted by incredible vision and playmaking ability.

The rumours are out there. Jeff Marek, a respected hockey mind, has been suggesting New Jersey as a trade partner with Draisaitl getting swapped for one of the Devils young defencemen — Adam Larsson, Jonathan Merrill, Eric Gelinas or Damon Severson. That would be a mistake, even for Larsson, unless Ray Shero is throwing in the 6th overall pick in this year’s draft.

Others have suggested the Toronto Maple Leafs as a good fit, believing the Oilers would entertain the idea of Draisaitl for the 4th overall pick, which could likely be used on American defence prospect Noah Hanifin, who would go top three in most other years. Some are willing to throw in Dion Phaneuf and take back either Andrew Ference or Nikita Nikitin to facilitate that trade, which might then be tempting for Chiarelli. The Leafs have yet to name a general manager, but whoever takes over that role will likely express interest in Draisaitl, with names such as Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner also getting tossed around, though it would take more than those two from Edmonton’s perspective.

Nashville, Anaheim, Ottawa, Detroit, Boston and even San Jose could be among the suitors. The Oilers would probably take Seth Jones straight up for Draisaitl, but Ryan Ellis or Cam Fowler — two former junior teammates of Taylor Hall — could be intriguing options. Especially if the Ducks were willing to part with John Gibson as part of the package. Ellis would have to come with Colin Wilson or Craig Smith and a prospect like Colton Sissons to get Edmonton’s approval. Shea Weber is a pipe-dream on that front. Ottawa has an expendable goalie — be it Craig Anderson or Robin Lehner — but that alone won’t land Draisaitl, not without adding Curtis Lazar to the deal. Detroit has Anthony Mantha, a winger and sniper rather than a passer, who might better fit Edmonton’s top-six, and the Red Wings could include either Brendan Smith or Xavier Ouellet on defence. Chiarelli’s history with the Bruins might make him reach out for Dougie Hamilton — a restricted free agent in need of a raise — offering up the cheaper Draisaitl in return, knowing Boston could use a big centre as well.  San Jose is a long-shot, but with McLellan coming over, it becomes a possibility. Tomas Hertl would fill a similar role to Mantha, while Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun would be defencemen of interest.

So there are options — lots of options — and Chiarelli will be listening to them all, but at the end of the day, the best option might be to keep Draisaitl in Edmonton.

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.