Draisaitl’s season shows Oilers’ hope goes beyond McDavid

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If you scan a list of the NHL’s leading scorers, one name might surprise you: Leon Draisaitl.

Heading into Friday’s games, the Edmonton Oilers forward ranks sixth with 89 points, and his 42 goals leave him second only to Alex Ovechkin.

When you hear people express disbelief that the Oilers can fail this hard with Connor McDavid on their roster, perhaps that shock should be adapted to also include Draisaitl.

To some extent, that only makes the Oilers’ mismanagement more damning. They’ve landed a superstar in McDavid, someone between a star and a superstar in Draisaitl (depending upon your taste), and oodles and noodles of draft lottery luck, yet they find themselves in this profoundly sad state.

That’s grim in the present, yet the “they have McDavid and Draisaitl” talking point should at least provide Oilers fans with at least some faint hope for the future.

Now, no doubt, Oilers fans are probably jaded. They’ve heard one too many times about an alleged light at the end of the tunnel.

Well … sorry. Let’s try to squint to see some light.

More on Draisaitl’s year

Before I delve a little deeper, it’s fair to provide some qualifiers regarding Draisaitl’s 42 goals and 89 points in just 70 games.

For one thing, there’s no denying that Draisaitl’s numbers are buoyed by the time he’s spent with McDavid. Anyone with a pulse would see their production improve alongside number 97, and Draisaitl is no different.

That said, it’s not like Draisaitl is wholly tethered to McDavid in the way that, say, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon barely ever play a shift without each other. As Natural Stat Trick’s listings show, McDavid is Draisaitl’s most common even-strength partner (648:10 with), yet Draisaitl’s also spent 435:24 without him.

The Oilers can wrestle with the loading up versus spreading the wealth question for years, but either way, it seems pretty clear that Draistail is for real.

This season’s numbers won’t be easy to match, though. Before 2018-19, Draisaitl showed some goal scoring ability, generating 29 in 2016-17 and 25 last season. His 42 goals come on an inflated 21.4 shooting percentage, much higher than his-already-fairly high career percentage of 15.7.

That number’s almost certain to go down, although maybe not catastrophically so if Draisaitl sticks with McDavid more often than not. (McDavid’s really that special.)

The best other pieces

Whether Draisaitl slides in on McDavid’s wing or serves as the 2C, the Oilers have two pieces just about anyone would clamor for at forward. So, what else?

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: Somehow, he’s only 25; it feels like he’s been suffering in Edmonton for our natural-born lives.

Maybe RNH won’t ever dazzle quite at the level that you’d want from a top overall pick, but he’s a steady scorer, generating 22 goals already this season (two short of his career-high), and already set a new career-high with 58 points.

Nugent-Hopkins seems like a perennial trade rumor target, but Edmonton would be smart just to keep him. Much like with Draisaitl, RNH gives Edmonton some versatility. He can be a center, or also give McDavid a more talented winger than the Oilers have normally been able to furnish. At this prime-age and at an affordable $6M cap hit through 2020-21, RNH is a nice asset.

(You could argue that maybe there could be actual value in trading RNH but … *gets interrupted by Oilers fans shrieking at the mention of another risky trade*)

Oscar Klefbom – A very good, very affordable, defenseman in his prime at 25. Even more than RNH, thank goodness the Oilers didn’t recklessly trade Klefbom for peanuts.

Varied value

Jesse Puljujärvi – Look, for all we know, he really might be a lost cause.

But even if he is, and the Oilers decide to part ways with Puljujärvi, they likely wouldn’t have sold lower than if they moved him during this fraught, lost season.

And there’s a possibility that things could go very right. Maybe a new coach would give the 20-year-old a clean slate? Perhaps he’s just a guy, but one who might sign a team-friendly contract as an RFA this summer?

His development could be key in the Oilers giving their top guys crucial support. There’s plenty of room for growth, and it’s not that outrageous to picture Puljujärvi actually figuring things out.

Kailer Yamamoto, Evan Bouchard – For Peter Chiarelli’s many many many foibles, he seemed to fall in line with conventional wisdom in recent drafts, which feels like a good thing. That can always change, as prospects are tough to project, but players like Yamamoto and Bouchard might be able to provide future boosts. That’s important if the Oilers remain cap-crunched thanks to lousy contracts like those of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell.

Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse – We can go back and forth about how valuable these two defensemen are. Opinions likely range based on the ups and downs of their seasons. But, really, both have reasonable-enough contracts, and can probably help a team win. They sure beat many of the Oilers’ other options, whether they are in the system or free agency.

(Maybe a trade would actually make sen—*interrupted by another shriek*)

Andrej Sekera – It’s been a lost season for the veteran defenseman, but maybe he’s not as “done” as he seemed?

The 32-year-old’s been limited to 12 games played so far, and hasn’t scored much (two assists) or logged big minutes (16:33 TOI average), yet Sekera’s possession numbers are strong enough to prompt some positive thinking. If nothing else, maybe Sekera could take minutes from lesser defensemen, like Russell?

***

The Oilers have some fantastic pieces (McDavid, Draisaitl), and some undeniable problems (bad contracts, executive who still might not “get it”).

Ultimately, there’s no downplaying how important it is to hire the right GM, and to make sure that no one gets in the way, bungling things like always. It would be convenient if this was just a matter of Chiarelli messing things up, but Edmonton’s issues extend well beyond Chiarelli’s era of errors.

The thing is, if a new GM hit the right notes, the Oilers could actually become a team worthy of McDavid’s and Draisatil’s time — and maybe turn things around pretty quickly.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.