TORONTO – It’s never easy being the kid in the room.
Leon Draisaitl is 20 years old, and has 102 NHL games to his credit. The average age of Team Europe is 30.3 years old, and that’s with the Edmonton Oilers’ young star bringing down that average.
“He’s the ringer,” joked captain Anze Kopitar.
He’s also arguably the MVP of the World Cup of Hockey’s biggest surprise team: Draisaitl scored his second goal in as many games, this time to give Team Europe a 3-2 overtime win over Team Czech Republic. His overtime, breakaway goal froze goalie Petr Mrazek – who had been brilliant for the Czechs – and moved this hodgepodge collection of European players to 2-0 in the tournament and closer to an improbable semifinal berth.
“It was definitely not easy. Everyone saw the first couple of games. It took some time to find us, and find some chemistry,” Draisaitl said.
It also took some time for the Edmonton Oilers forward to find his confidence while surrounded by some of his hockey idols, including Kopitar.
“At first, he was too star-struck. Too shy. Not to show what he was all about. But once he got comfortable … you saw it in [the Washington exhibition game] and you’re seeing it now. We’re going to need much more of the same, going forward,” said Kopitar.
“He was just shy around everybody. I think when I looked back when I was 20, I was probably shy too. That’s when the older guys poke him a little bit, make sure he comes out of his shell.”
The maturation process for Draisaitl began in Team Europe’s second exhibition game, a loss to Team North America. His ice time was cut in that game. Since then, in an exhibition game against Sweden and two World Cup of Hockey preliminaries against Team USA and the Czechs, he has five goals in three games.
“To be quite honest with you, I was 90 percent sure he was going to score. The way he’s going right now, there aren’t a whole lot of people that can stop him,” said Kopitar. “He’s a good guy and he deserves the spotlight.”
Team Europe, arguably the tournament’s biggest underdog, finishes prelims with a game against Canada on Wednesday. If the Canadians defeat Team USA on Tuesday night in regulation or overtime, Team Europe advances to the semifinals.
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