The rich appear to be getting richer in the Western Hockey League.
The month-long rumour that Leon Draisaitl would follow his former junior teammate Josh Morrissey to the WHL-leading Kelowna Rockets could be coming to fruition as early as this weekend.
For that to happen, two things need to take place: the Rockets need to acquire Draisaitl’s rights from the Prince Albert Raiders, and the Oilers need to reassign him to Kelowna. That sounds like the plan, according to several sources both in Edmonton and Kelowna, but Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish pulled the “no comment” card when speaking with Sportsnet’s Gene Principe during the first period of Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings. MacTavish did say any pending decisions would be in the best interests of Draisaitl’s development.
That comment wasn’t much of a revelation, but reading between the lines, Draisaitl could very well be Kelowna bound in the near future. There are a couple hold-ups, however, in that the Rockets already have two imports on their roster.
That being, Swiss forward Kris Schmidli, a second-year WHL player currently representing his country at the world juniors, plus Czech winger Tomas Soustal, who is only 17 and a projected mid-round pick in the 2015 NHL draft.
Soustal is not eligible to be traded because this is his first season of major junior, so he would need to be waived in order for the Rockets to acquire Draisaitl’s rights, which seems unlikely. More probable would be a potential move involving Schmidli — to Prince Albert or elsewhere — but players cannot be traded while competing in IIHF events, so this deal might have to wait until Switzerland’s tournament wraps up. Barring an unlikely appearance in Monday’s gold-medal game, that will in fact be this weekend, so the first shoe could drop then.
Keep in mind that Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton is part of Canada’s management team at the world juniors and has made that squad’s pursuit of gold his primary focus. The WHL trade deadline is not until Jan. 10 — next Saturday — so there is no immediate rush, but all indications are that it’s a done deal. That the negotiated but still undisclosed return has been agreed upon with Prince Albert, but the finishing touches may not be formalized until Hamilton (and Schmidli) arrive back in Kelowna.
Draisaitl might end up in limbo between now and then, as the Oilers need to make up their mind prior to Sunday’s home game against the New York Islanders. That will be game No. 40 on the season for Edmonton and if Draisaitl remains on the roster, it’ll count as an accrued season towards free agency, which is what the Oilers would be aiming to avoid with any reassignment. Therefore, Draisaitl might actually go back to Prince Albert — at least on paper — prior to going to Kelowna.
Kelowna A Good Fit
Should Draisaitl end up in the Okanagan, it would make a lot of sense. The Rockets are already WHL frontrunners and Memorial Cup contenders. Morrissey and Draisaitl are close friends, have kept in contact throughout this season and developed incredible chemistry in Prince Albert the previous two years as both became first-round NHL draft picks — Morrissey going 13th overall to the Winnipeg Jets in 2013 and Draisaitl third overall to Edmonton in 2014. They combined for 178 points last season, playing just 59 and 64 games respectively while also representing their countries at the world juniors. Another former Raiders teammate, Gage Quinney, also came over in the Morrissey trade and would be another familiar face for Draisaitl in Kelowna.
Morrissey is currently playing for Canada again, along with Rockets captain Madison Bowey. Much was made of the Oilers opting against loaning Draisaitl to Germany, but he’s already experienced that showcase twice before. Since coming to North America, Draisaitl has not experienced a long playoff run, which is almost assured for Kelowna and would certainly be beneficial at this stage of his career. That is something Edmonton can’t offer, with the Oilers sitting last overall and looking like a lock for another lottery pick come June.
Behind the scenes, there are many ties between Hamilton and the Oilers. He is tight with MacTavish, who spends his summers in B.C. He has a past working relationship through Hockey Canada with Edmonton’s new vice-chairman Bob Nicholson, who also hails from nearby Penticton. And Hamilton’s son, Curtis, is a prospect in the Oilers’ system, having been selected by Edmonton in the second round of the 2010 draft before spending the past few seasons with the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons playing under recently promoted Oilers head coach Todd Nelson. Curtis Hamilton also played for Canada at this year’s Spengler Cup, with that team bowing out in a wild semifinal loss on Tuesday morning.
Connecting those dots back to Draisaitl, it all adds up to him donning a Rockets jersey in their quest to qualify for the Memorial Cup in Quebec City in May.
That speculation intensified on Monday, when the Oilers swung a deal with the Nashville Predators to acquire Derek Roy, a capable stopgap centre to stem the tide until next season when Draisaitl will be better prepared to handle the rigours of full-time NHL duty. Roy is on a 1-year, $1-million contract and the veteran won’t likely be retained past this season. Expect Edmonton to recall Anton Lander from Oklahoma City once Draisaitl is reassigned, which will give the Oilers a depth chart of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Roy, Lander and Boyd Gordon down the middle for the duration of this season.
In Kelowna, Draisaitl would join a potent offensive lineup that already includes WHL goal-scoring leader Rourke Chartier, who has lit the lamp 35 times in 32 games, plus projected first-round pick Nick Merkley, who has tallied a team-leading 56 points in 38 games. They could end up forming a trio, with Chartier shifting from centre back to the wing where he spent much of last season.
The Rockets are deep up front and could afford that luxury, especially if they add another over-age forward, as expected, with sources suggesting that player could be Ryan Olsen of the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps. Olsen, 20, previously spent two full seasons with Kelowna, scoring 32 and 30 goals with 56 and 64 points. A sixth-round pick for Winnipeg in 2012, he has been limited to 2 goals and 5 points in 31 AHL games while playing a depth role.
Whether it is Olsen or another impact guy from a non-playoff team, Kelowna will be able to ice three scoring lines and an energy line providing those additions become reality. With Draisaitl in the fold, the Rockets would be on a collision course with the Eastern Conference-leading Brandon Wheat Kings, who loaded up earlier in the season by pulling off a lopsided blockbuster with the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
That WHL championship series would be one for the ages — assuming nobody plays spoiler — and you’d have to give Kelowna the edge in both top-end talent and prior playoff experience.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.