Leon Draisaitl for a first-round pick. Yeah, Bruce Hamilton would make that deal again. Every day of the week. Twice on Sunday.
It was an unprecedented move when it went down on January 6th. Never before — in 24 years — had the Kelowna Rockets general manager parted with his franchise’s first-rounder in the WHL bantam draft. But Draisaitl, the third overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft who had spent the first half of this season with the Edmonton Oilers, was deemed worthy of that coveted asset, plus two depth players and two more draft picks. It was a steep price to pay — well, depending who you ask in WHL circles — but Draisaitl proved his worth by leading the Rockets to a WHL championship and a berth into the Memorial Cup tournament that begins on Friday in Quebec City.
Draisaitl was a man among boys upon returning to the WHL — a league that he torched for 105 points on a lesser team during his draft year. He admitted it was a difficult transition, going from a losing culture in Edmonton to a winning environment in Kelowna — where the Rockets were already enjoying success without him and were expected to go all the way upon his arrival. Draisaitl was expected to put the team over the top and he eventually did after some trying times in the regular season, adjusting to constantly changing linemates on the ice and new surroundings away from the rink.
When it clicked, there was no stopping the big German, who was named playoff MVP after tying Portland’s Nic Petan as the top post-season scorer with 28 points in 19 games.
Draisaitl powered the Rockets past Victoria in the second round, that five-game series still standing out as his most dominant stretch. He had clearly been saving another gear for the post-season and didn’t need it against overmatched Tri-City in the first round.
Against Victoria, on a line with undrafted 19-year-olds Tyson Baillie and Gage Quinney, Draisaitl took the Rockets on his shoulders and was a difference-maker throughout — finding the scoresheet in every game and finishing with 11 points, including four multi-point efforts. Justin Kirkland, a third-round pick of the Nashville Predators last June, replaced Quinney for the clincher and stayed there for the first three games against Portland.
The Winterhawks, who entered as four-time defending Western Conference champions and had eliminated the Rockets from playoffs in three of those four years, did a decent job containing the Draisaitl line in the early stages — led by Vancouver Canucks defence prospect Anton Cederholm, who took a physical approach to shutting him down. Petan also got the better of Draisaitl in the faceoff circle. But when push came to shove, resulting in an undisclosed injury to Kelowna’s other top centre Rourke Chartier midway through Game 3, Draisaitl stepped it up another notch. Rookie head coach Dan Lambert decided to pair Draisaitl with Chartier’s wingman, Nick Merkley, who led Kelowna in regular-season scoring with 90 points and is projected to be a first-round pick in next month’s NHL draft. They had instant chemistry and Kelowna took off, scoring seven straight wins — including three in a row without Chartier — to capture the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
Chartier surprised everyone, including Lambert, by returning for the opener of the championship series against Brandon. After showing he was capable of contributing further down the depth chart, Lambert loaded up his top line midway through the first period of Game 2 in Brandon. Chartier joined Draisaitl and Merkley for their first even-strength shift together all season and they factored into 11 of Kelowna’s 13 goals over the latter three games in a shocking sweep of the Wheat Kings.
Shocking because this was a matchup of the WHL’s top two teams from start to finish, and neither had lost three straight — let alone four in a row — prior to their showdown that turned into a beatdown, though all the games were close and could have gone either way in the third periods.
Brandon’s best players — including the draft-eligible defence pairing of Ivan Provorov and Ryan Pilon — were just no match for Draisaitl (3g, 3a), Chartier (4g, 3a) and Merkley (3g, 4a), who combined for 20 points after becoming a unit. Pilon wound up a series-worst minus-9 and Provorov was minus-7, while all three members of Kelowna’s first line finished plus-8, second only to Josh Morrissey’s series-best plus-9 rating.
Draisaitl opened the scoring with shorthanded goals in each of the final two games, exploding with emotion both times in front of Kelowna’s capacity crowds. The latter stood up as the winner in this past Wednesday’s title-clinching 3-0 victory.
WATCH: Leon opens scoring with first of back to back shorties pic.twitter.com/45G2r9gw1y
— Kelowna Rockets (@Kelowna_Rockets) May 14, 2015
— Kelowna Rockets (@Kelowna_Rockets) May 12, 2015
The Rockets will land in Quebec City riding a wave of momentum — and a seven-game winning streak — that can be credited to clearing a psychological hurdle by beating Portland in the third round. It can also be credited to the addition of Draisaitl, who delivered when it mattered most and made Mr. Hamilton out to be a very smart man.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.