As dominant as Leon Draisaitl looked during the Edmonton Oilers rookie camp, his performance during the big club’s exhibition games was always going to be the sole determining factor as to whether or not he would start the 2015-16 season in the Alberta capital. In order for him to make the cut, the 19-year old was going to need to send a very clear message to Todd McLellan and his coaching staff that he was ready to contribute at this level.
With three games remaining on their pre-season schedule, the Oilers appear to have eleven of their twelve starting forward positions spoken for. Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Matt Hendricks, Lauri Korpikoski, Anton Lander, Mark Letestu, Connor McDavid, Benoit Pouliot, Teddy Purcell and Nail Yakupov were all but guaranteed to make the squad heading into camp and that still remains the case.
While it should have surprised absolutely no one to see this coaching staff keep the trio of Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and Pouliot intact at training camp, the decision to use Purcell on a line with the Hall and McDavid likely left more than few fans scratching their heads. With that said, give McLellan credit for wasting little time in trying to construct a lineup that would give him the best opportunity to win hockey games.
The masses may have wanted the Oilers new bench boss to see how a Hall-McDavid-Yakupov combo might work, but instead he made the right call by inserting a veteran presence on a line with his two young star forwards. Is Purcell the perfect fit? Far from it but on this roster he is the best option. Unfortunately for Draisaitl, that decision could force the 2015 Memorial Cup MVP to start the year in the AHL.
Oilers Still Lack Impactful Veteran Presence
With a grand total of 37 NHL games under his belt and nothing more than third line minutes as a “best case scenario”, what benefit is there to the player in using him in such a role? Let’s be honest here. Having a young skilled forward learn his way as a third liner on a good team with a ton of depth is one thing, see the Chicago Blackhawks of years gone by, but the Oilers are no such creature.
Chances are both Lander and Yakupov will eventually turn into solid players but does anyone truly believe that duo along with Draisaitl would be a good fit as a third line for the coming season? While McLellan will likely have one of the league’s most skilled top-six forward units at his disposal during his first kick at the can in Edmonton, it will also be one of the most challenged.
This group’s limitations are well known and while they will surely continue to show signs of improvement, adding another 18-year old into the mix won’t make that learning curve any easier…even if that player is as good as McDavid appears to be. Make no mistake, the Oilers will be better in 2015-16 but expecting a complete turnaround in one season isn’t realistic.
Hence the need for a third and fourth line that can hold their own at even strength and hopefully chip in from time to time with some offence. Again, the current setup is far from ideal but perhaps a bottom six of Hendricks, Korpikoski, Lander, Letestu, Yakupov and possibly Rob Klinkhammer would be the better way to go.
Long-Term Impact Is All That Matters
One could easily make the argument that Draisaitl is a better than each and every one of those players but forcing a round peg into a square hole is a recipe for disaster. Taking such a route has absolutely no long term benefit for either the player or organization. Unless of course the plan is to turn the third overall pick of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft into nothing more than a useful bottom six forward.
With the Oilers current stable of young talent being what it is and Draisaitl’s skill-set being what it is, there is every reason to believe the talented German could have himself one heck of a productive career. However, it is up to this organization to ensure they place him into a situation that best allows him to develop into said player. End of story.
In my mind, giving Leon Draisaitl the opportunity to play major minutes with the Bakersfield Condors may very well be the best way to go about accomplishing just that. If the kid goes to the AHL and forces the Edmonton Oilers to make room for him inside their top six in the here and now, something tells Peter Chiarelli and company would be more than happy to accommodate him.
Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.