It doesn’t get much better than covering the WHL playoffs. Saturday’s overtime game between the Kelowna Rockets and Victoria Royals — which Kelowna won 4-3 to take a 2-0 lead in their second-round series — might have been the best game I’ve had the privilege of watching live since relocating to the Okanagan in August of 2008 to chase my dream job of becoming an NHL beat writer.
One of the best parts of my current gig is interacting with future NHLers, such as Leon Draisaitl, the third overall pick from the 2014 NHL draft who already got a cup of coffee with the Edmonton Oilers to start this season before getting reassigned to the junior ranks and, subsequently, traded to the Rockets in January.
I’ve gotten to know Leon a little bit over the last three-plus months and he’s a consummate pro, mature well beyond his 19 years both in the way he plays the game and the way he interacts with the media. He’s definitely been a man amongst boys on the ice since coming back to the WHL.
In the dozen or so interviews I’ve conducted with Draisaitl, we mostly talk WHL stuff for my “day” job. Occasionally, we shoot the breeze about the Oilers — on, and off, the record — and I’ve decided to share with the THW audience a couple snippets from our latest conversation prior to that aforementioned Game 2 on Saturday.
We talked about Edmonton’s season ending that same night — a 6-5 overtime loss in Vancouver — and how he was fortunate to be in the midst of a playoff run with the Rockets, which you can read here.
We also chatted about his potential future in the Alberta capital, and where he might slot in on the depth chart next season as well as long-term. Draisaitl has kept close tabs on the Oilers since getting sent down after a 37-game stint, and is well aware that pending unrestricted free agent Derek Roy has worked himself into the mix going forward. The Oilers acquired Roy from the Nashville Predators in what seemed to be a minor swap for Mark Arcobello, but Roy’s instant chemistry with 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupov has Edmonton general manager Craig MacTavish contemplating a contract offer prior to the soon-to-be 32-year-old hitting the open market on July 1.
“He’s played great for the Oilers and that’s good, that’s what they needed,” Draisaitl said of Roy. “If they sign him, then I’m going to have to fight for my spot either way. I’m not too worried about who they sign, or what they don’t do, it’s up to me — the way I play.”
Prior to Roy’s emergence in Edmonton, many had Draisaitl, a playmaker, penciled in as the perfect centre for Yakupov, a shooter. They were paired only briefly under the fired Dallas Eakins and Draisaitl was demoted shortly after Todd Nelson took over the coaching reins. Nelson reignited Edmonton’s offence, including its anemic turned potent power play, and got Yakupov back on track.
“He’s a shooter, he likes to shoot the puck, and he’s quick and he’s easy to find,” Draisaitl said of Yakupov. “I played with him for a little bit and I think it worked out OK. Obviously, we’re both young guys and it’s hard in that league to be productive when you’re really young and you don’t have much experience.”
That combination will surely be tried again in the future, regardless of whom Edmonton selects in this June’s NHL draft. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, both centres, are the consensus No. 1 and 2 picks, respectively, and McDavid’s teammate Dylan Strome — the younger brother of New York Islanders centre Ryan Strome — is another pivot of interest who has been making a strong case to go third overall.
Switching gears, I’ve also enjoyed picking the brain of Royals coach Dave Lowry, who spent nearly two decades in the NHL as a player, most notably finishing off his career with the Calgary Flames during their improbable run to the 2004 Stanley Cup final.
Just over a decade later, Lowry’s son, Adam, is about to embark on his first NHL playoff experience as a rookie forward for the Winnipeg Jets. He wasn’t expected to make the cut out of training camp but wound up playing in 80 of Winnipeg’s 82 games and posting a respectable stat-line of 11 goals, 23 points, 46 penalty minutes and a plus-1 rating while logging some tough minutes in a checking role. Adam might have more offensive upside than his dad — he was the WHL’s most valuable player just two seasons ago with the Swift Current Broncos — but he’s proving to be a chip off the old block in terms of work ethic and sheer determination.
“You spend a year in the American Hockey League and you go on a long playoff run like they did (with St. John’s IceCaps), losing in the final, you gain valuable experience,” Lowry said of his son’s ascent, which has been greatly aided by Jets coach Paul Maurice, who took over from Claude Noel in Winnipeg midway through last season.
Maurice might be a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s top coach this season, but he insists he hasn’t done anything special in Manitoba, according to the elder Lowry.
“With Paul, interestingly enough, he says he timed it perfect,” Lowry said. “He got in when the team was in a position where they felt like they were going to turn a corner.
“You have to look from Day 1 and it really helped him last season when he went in at the end of the year, he kind of put his stamp on what the mandate was going to be. . . . Practices were going to be harder and there was going to be more attention to the fitness side of it, and training camp was going to be hard. He was true to his word, but what he did was he allowed that group to lead the room and own the room and he just kind of guided them.”
Great insight that the everyday person wouldn’t be privy too, not without these connections made along the way in the hockey world — which, like they say, truly is a small world.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.