Leon Draisaitl has proven that he is the second most dangerous offensive threat that the Oilers have. He has had his greatest success thus far playing alongside Connor McDavid. However, the numbers reveal that the Oilers are a weaker team when 29 and 97 play together at even strength. The new-found chemistry between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid has perhaps removed some of the temptation for coach McLellan to put Draisaitl with Connor.
Oilers fans were concerned about whether or not Draisaitl can drive his own line when he signed his new contract that pays him $8.5 million per season. I think Draisaitl is quite capable of driving his own line. The question that we should be asking is who is the best fit to play with him.
Before we can determine who that is, we need to have a better understanding of Draisaitl’s skill set.
Firstly, he is an incredible playmaker. He has surpassed 45 assists in each of the last two seasons. He has a way of being able to slow the game down when the puck is on his stick. His vision and creativity in the offensive zone are matched by few in the game. He has a knack for being able to find open players through crowds of sticks and feet. The long blade that he uses on his stick allows him to have incredibly deft touch on his saucer passes.
Whoever he plays with needs to be able to capitalize on the opportunities that Draisaitl will create. They need to have good hands in front of the net, and they need to be able to shoot. These players will also need to be able to utilize give and go plays, and they will need to have a little bit of Draisaitl’s creativity in the offensive zone.
Draisaitl is more than just a playmaker though. He’s a gifted scorer as well, which is evidenced by the fact that he has scored 25+ goals in each of the last two seasons. His release is quick and deceptive. He is able to get wrist shots off mid-stride, which prevents the goalie from being able to anticipate when he is going to shoot the puck. He has been developing a great one-timer as well. Last season, he really started to utilize a one-timer from incredibly sharp angles. He is skilled at deflecting pucks into the net as well. He can score in every possible way at a high level.
Whoever he plays with will need to be able to feed Draisaitl the puck.
Draisaitl is an absolute horse. He’s a big guy that likes to protect the puck. His puck handling skills are off the charts as well. Draisaitl’s size, puck handling, creativity, and playmaking ability are catalysts for extended shifts in the offensive zone.
Whoever he plays with will need to be effective at the cycle game as well.
To recap, Draisaitl’s wingers will need to be capable finishers around the net, good shooters, creative playmakers, and effective at the cycle game.
Which current Oilers wingers fit the bill?
Ideally, Draisaitl should have a right-handed player that could capture the attention of defenders in the slot with his shot, and the ability to find him for one-timers in the right corner. That sounds a lot like Jesse Puljujarvi to me. He possesses an elite one-timer, and he is an underrated passer. Puljujarvi is also a big kid that can get in on the forecheck. He has shown glimpses that he can be effective on the cycle. I can see Draisaitl and Puljujarvi teaming up for a lot of highlight reel goals for the Oilers this coming season.
Some people might say that Puljujarvi isn’t ready for top-6 minutes and that he hasn’t proven that he can play there yet. Guess what… it’s a young and unproven group at right wing, and someone has to play there. He’s going into his third year as a pro now. Puljujarvi has the physical tools to be able to play with Draisaitl, so why not play him there. Puljujarvi has the potential to break out this year, and he needs to be put in a position to allow him to do that.
There were times last year where Draisaitl looked frustrated playing with Milan Lucic. Lucic was having a tough season. He wasn’t corralling passes like he has been able to in the past, and he was giving the puck away at will. Despite that, I believe that Lucic is the best fit at left wing for Draisaitl. Lucic has proven to be a capable finisher in years gone by. He can make creative passes coming off of the wall. Of course, we know that Lucic is a big man that can also protect the puck. He has all of the ingredients of someone that should be able to succeed with Draisaitl. I am one that believes that Lucic will bounce back this coming season. He probably won’t score 55-60 points again, but 45-50 points is entirely achievable for him. Especially if he slots in next to Draisaitl.
The Lucic-Draisaitl-Puljujarvi line would be one that could give opposing defenses fits in their own end. It is a line that is built for extended shifts in the offensive zone. These three have the skill sets needed to break defences down and to capitalize on the inevitable opportunities that would arise.
Let’s look at some other possibilities as well. I am going to exclude McDavid from this list because the goal here is to break those two up.
Nugent-Hopkins will likely see a lot of time with McDavid this year, but an idea that has been bandied about is putting the Nuge with Draisaitl. I actually like this idea as well. Nugent-Hopkins is smart enough to figure out how to play with almost anyone. He has a well-rounded skill set. He can distribute the puck to Draisaitl. He can finish around the net. He can get in on the forecheck and be effective in the cycle game. He checks off all of the boxes.
The problem with putting Nugent-Hopkins with Draisaitl would be finding someone to play on McDavid’s left wing. Lucic hasn’t had much success there, and Patrick Maroon is gone.
Tobias Rieder is someone that a lot of people think should play with Draisaitl. They’re both German after all. Rieder has wheels and he has moderate scoring ability. My only concern about it is that he isn’t known as a player that can excel in the cycle game. Puljujarvi has a higher ceiling for potential goals this year than Rieder does in my opinion.
Pontus Aberg had a bit of chemistry with Draisaitl at the end of last season. He had 5 points in a 2-game span while playing with Draisaitl against Carolina and Ottawa. Aberg is a good shooter, and he’s right-handed, which would open him up for one-timers from Draisaitl more often. Aberg is also not known for his ability in the cycle game, so he’s not an ideal long-term fit for Leon either. His consistency is still a question mark as well.
Ty Rattie started his stint with the Oilers last season on Draisaitl’s wing, but he didn’t take off until he was moved to McDavid’s wing. That’s where I see Rattie playing for the majority of this season.
Jujhar Khaira had moments of success with Leon last year. Khaira is a big body that can excel in the cycle game, but he simply doesn’t have the skill set to be a top-6 forward for the duration of an 82-game season. I think Khaira will be an incredibly effective bottom-6 forward for the Oilers year, but that won’t be on Draisaitl’s wing.
Drake Caggiula has simply been ineffective when given opportunities to play with Draisaitl and McDavid. He was 4th on the team in goals last year, but that was more of an indictment on the wingers as a whole last year than it was a sign of Caggiula’s ability to be a top-6 forward. Caggiula is best utilized as a bottom-6 forward.
Zack Kassian can cycle the puck, and he can forecheck. He just doesn’t have the hands to be able to finish consistently enough to play with Draisaitl. He needs to be used as a bottom-6 energy player.
Ryan Strome is versatile enough to play on Draisaitl’s wing in spurts, but he found a niche as the 3rd line centre last season. He was a much more effective player once he was given a consistent role at centre and as a penalty killer. I wouldn’t want to change that unless there is an injury and Strome is forced to play right wing.
Kyle Brodziak is the perfect fit as the 4th line centre, so he won’t play with Draisaitl.
After going through the remaining available options, Puljujarvi and Lucic are definitely the best options to play with Draisaitl this coming season. McLellan likes to shuffle his lines, and there will be plenty of opportunities for him to do so throughout an 82-game season. The Lucic-Draisaitl-Puljujarvi line won’t be the only successful combination, but I believe that it should be the combination that McLellan uses the most often this season.