Leon Draisaitl on his ascent, anti-racism, and how close the Oilers are to a Cup

EDMONTON, AB - FEBRUARY 11: Leon Draisaitl #29 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates his empty net goal against the Chicago Blackhawks at Rogers Place on February 11, 2020, in Edmonton, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
Leon Dasaitl has come a long way since going third overall in the 2014 NHL draft. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

If you’re hoping to get in contact with Leon Draisaitl at 2 a.m., there’s a good chance, like most of us, the 24-year old will be sound asleep.

But he made an exception on Sept. 6, as he sat awake in his home in Cologne, Germany, waiting to see if he had been named the winner of the most prestigious individual honour in the world of men’s hockey.

He did, and more. In addition to a Hart Trophy, Draisaitl won the Ted Lindsay and Art Ross trophies following a 43-goal, 110-point campaign. Remember, those totals happened in only 71 games due to the league’s shutdown over COVID-19.

“It’s special. In a way, I’m obviously proud of myself and the hard work that I’ve been putting in over the last years that’s paying off,” Draisaitl told Yahoo Sports.

His accomplishments this past season are the latest culmination of a career that began with a slight setback. High hopes were thrown onto Draisaitl, like every player in his position, after he was selected third overall in the 2014 NHL Draft behind defenceman Aaron Ekblad and forward Sam Reinhart.

Perhaps he wouldn’t be a star right away, but he’d eventually fit right into a stacked young core featuring Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins that had many fans salivating.

Unlike his trophy haul in September, success would not come overnight for Draisaitl.

He was returned to the Western Hockey League after 37 games in his rookie season where he scored just two goals to go with seven assists. Following a Memorial Cup run that saw him named tournament MVP in a losing effort with the Kelowna Rockets, he began the 2015-16 campaign with the American Hockey League’s Bakersfield Condors for more seasoning.

“When you’re 18, 19 years old all you want to do is play in the NHL,” Draisaitl said. “That’s your goal. That’s your dream. You think you’re ready.”

While there may have been some internal frustrations during that time, Draisaitl sees the benefit of being held back for development’s sake.

“A lot of times those steps back, let’s say going back to the AHL, going back to junior. In the long run, they’re so good for you and that was the case with me,” Draisaitl said.

“I thought I was ready. I wasn’t. I didn’t have an impact on games and didn’t have my confidence. I’d go back down and you’d build your confidence back up. Sometimes a step back, in the long run, brings you a lot further than maybe trying to just grind it out in that moment.”

Even if he only scored once during his six-game stay in Bakersfield, it was enough for the Oilers to bring him back.

“I did ask him, ‘what was your first thought going into your first game (called up from the AHL),’” said Mike Liut, Draisaitl’s agent. “He said, ‘I never want to see the American League again.’”

And he hasn’t looked back since. His rising point totals are an obvious sign of progression, but taking inspiration from one of his hockey idols, Detroit Red Wings legend Pavel Datsyuk, has helped him as well. The two met through former Oilers assistant coach and current Bakersfield Condors head coach Jay Woodcroft.

“I think over the years we’ve seen his faceoff numbers really pick up,” Woodcroft said. “Defensively, when he’s tracking back in his own end he can be a man on a mission just like Pavel was.”

Draisaitl has since progressed from budding star centre to superstar accomplice to Connor McDavid as the two hope to restore glory to Edmonton for the first time since 1990. The goal was not attained this past year despite the team’s unique home ice advantage in the Edmonton bubble, amidst a backdrop of rising coronavirus concern and protests against systemic racism and police brutality.

Ahead of their series opener against Chicago, the Oilers were part of a pregame ceremony that saw Minnesota Wild defenceman Matt Dumba deliver a powerful speech and take a knee during the U.S. national anthem with two Black players — Chicago goalie Malcolm Subban and Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse — by his side.

Draisaitl praised Dumba for his speech, remarking at how touching it was while crediting the NHL’s efforts at encouraging diversity.

“I think the NHL is doing a good job of reaching out to people and having their voice and making sure no matter what race, or where you’re from, or what nationality, or (whether you’re a) girl, a female, we’re all the same. We all stand by that,” Draisaitl said.

But while Dumba raised his fist in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and other players did take the opportunity to kneel, a great majority of the league’s players didn’t go beyond boilerplate attempts to show they “skated” for Black lives.

“Some people feel like that’s the right thing to do and for them, that is the right thing to do and maybe others don’t think that’s the right thing to do in that moment,” Draisaitl said when asked why more white players didn’t perform other acts of solidarity with Dumba. “A lot of it is situational in that moment. How you feel, what you’re thinking. I think it’s hard to pinpoint that everyone has to do a certain thing or does not have to do a certain thing.”

Ultimately, the Oilers’ stay in the bubble lasted all of four games as Chicago eliminated them in their play-in series. The team is still trying to find consistent footing in the playoffs as they hope to ascend to Cup contender status. But it’s not as if Draisaitl doesn’t have help.

Despite the departures of Yakupov, Hall and Eberle, the Oilers remain in a position of luxury down the middle thanks to the smorgasbord of first-round picks they’ve accumulated over the last decade.

Two of the last four Hart Trophy winners, Draisaitl and McDavid, are the key cogs of the organization and will determine if the Oilers ever reach the heights reached by giants like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.

But how close are they to that summit?

“I think we’re a lot closer than people give us credit for,” Draisaitl said. “We were fighting for first in our division all season long and we were two points back when the pause hit. We had a good year. Obviously, we didn’t play the way we wanted to or expected to in the playoffs. I think we’ll be back stronger next season.”

What’s another year for Oilers fans, who’ve already had to be patient for nearly 30 years. Draisaitl is a perfect example that good things come to those who wait.

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