The 2017–18 NHL season begins this week, and with it comes a slew of new players, new front offices, and even a new team. And while familiar powerhouses like the Penguins and Blackhawks will once again be favored, the league’s hierarchy is changing. The Nashville Predators will be looking to defend their Western Conference crown, the youthful Oilers and Maple Leafs seem poised for deep playoff runs, and the new Vegas Golden Knights are ready to challenge any and all opponents (well, at least on Twitter). This could be a season that launches a new dynasty—that, or Pittsburgh could be the first NHL three-peat winner since the ’80s Islanders. We hope for the former, as we break it all down in our “Changing of the Guard” NHL Preview week.
We don’t get to see much of the Edmonton Oilers in the United States. NBC tends to chase big local ratings with its national games, which is why it seems like every Wednesday Night Rivalry matchup is Penguins vs. Capitals. Of course, in the 1980s, Edmonton was the hockey capital of the world, thanks to Wayne Gretzky. But nowadays it’s simply a metro area of 1.3 million people that’s a 13-hour drive from Seattle, the closest American city worth driving to. The name “Edmonton” derives from a 19th-century French slang term meaning “Middle of the Damn Woods.”
So when the Oilers showed up on TV for the first round of the Western Conference playoffs earlier this year, it was like watching a circus act from Mars. They were like a fireball—beautiful, fast-moving, destructive, and disconcertingly orange. Edmonton scored 36 goals in 13 playoff games, playing a style that might be called “firewagon” hockey if, instead of water, a firewagon pumped out the kind of youthful confidence that can be produced by only an unfamiliarity with failure.
The Oilers’ star and captain is 20-year-old center Connor McDavid, the most anticipated young Canadian hockey player since Sidney Crosby. Last season he broke the 100-point barrier and won the Hart Trophy, and, as Crosby enters his age-30 season, McDavid is emerging as the new face of the NHL. McDavid can outskate just about anyone in the league, and he has a Lionel Messi-like combination of creativity, skill, and daringness. Just the other night, he alley-ooped himself in a preseason game.
Connor McDavid is in midseason form. Flips the puck in the air and then swings it into the net. pic.twitter.com/JAi4QT8ID0— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) September 28, 2017
McDavid is an incredible athlete, a showman on the level of Russell Westbrook or Javier Báez, and a worthy heir to Crosby as the face of the league. But everyone went into the postseason expecting McDavid to be great. What we didn’t expect was Leon Draisaitl.
Draisaitl was far and away the Oilers’ leading scorer in last season’s playoffs, with 16 points in 13 games (no other Oiler had more than 11; McDavid had only nine), including a hat trick against Anaheim in the second round.
Draisaitl, the son of a German professional hockey player, stands out not just because of his heritage—at 21 years old, he’s already the 11th-highest scoring German-born player in NHL history—but also because in a league of boring, preppy Anglophone Canadians named Brayden, just saying “Leon Draisaitl” feels subversive in its own right. He’s the stylistic antithesis of McDavid and the modern NHL.
Where McDavid is zippy and elusive, Draisaitl just sort of looms. McDavid is all energy, constantly tapping the puck and keeping it close to him as he weaves through traffic, but Draisaitl simply drifts like a fog from one spot to the next. And it works—Draisaitl scored 29 goals with 48 assists in 2016-17, giving him the eighth-highest point total in the NHL.
If McDavid is Messi, Draisaitl is Thomas Müller—always on the verge of tripping over his own feet, but managing to score anyway. (Like Müller, Draisaitl has a nasty streak; in addition to his eye-popping scoring rate, Draisaitl made headlines last spring for pitchforking San Jose’s Chris Tierney in the face-off dots behind the play, an incident that caused a leaguewide controversy when Draisaitl wasn’t suspended.)
Here Draisaitl wins a defensive-zone face-off and sets course for the opposing net, churning like an oil tanker. By the time he gets to where he needs to be—inside the Vancouver blue line, with nothing between him and the goal—Milan Lucic is flinging the puck at his skates.
McDavid exemplifies the high-action, fast-skating NHL, but Draisaitl just doesn’t have the wheels to play like that. McDavid usually keeps the puck close no matter how fast he’s going or how much space he has, but Draisaitl seems to use up exactly as much room as the defense will give him. His is a game of last-ditch deflected goals, dangles that look like yo-yo tricks, and one-timers from the right face-off circle that only just knuckle past the goaltender. And he gets away with it because of his ability to think faster than he skates.
At last summer’s World Cup, Draisaitl scored two spectacular breakaway goals—one against the Czech Republic, one against the United States—by anticipating defensive rebounds and turnovers and sneaking out behind the opposing defensemen. Here he shepherds Patrick Kane into Tobias Rieder, then turns and skates up the ice.
Because of the physical differences between running and skating, it’s more important in hockey than in other sports to be not only in the right spot, but also facing and moving the right direction. By the time the lightning-fast Kane can stop, switch gears, and give chase, Draisaitl is so far ahead he has time to toy with American goalie Jonathan Quick before slapping the puck home. I grew up playing hockey with a bunch of kids who were faster than I was and loved to stickhandle through traffic, and watching Draisaitl—the inverse of that—nudge and shuffle his way to the top of the scoring leaderboard has been personally validating.
There’s still some uncertainty about Draisaitl, not only because of his youth, but because he spent about half of his even-strength minutes last season playing on McDavid’s wing. The Oilers have four centers age 24 or younger who were drafted in the top five overall, so not everyone can play down the middle. Last year that meant Draisaitl and McDavid played with Patrick Maroon in the middle. But Draisaitl will likely anchor his own line in 2017-18. That means he’ll be spending time away from McDavid and increasing his defensive responsibility. But while you can ride McDavid’s coattails to 42 points, like Maroon did, you can’t score 77 points in a season at age 21 like Draisaitl did without being really talented.
Certainly the Oilers think so; there’s a great tradition in the NHL of teams winning multiple Stanley Cups with a pair of superstar centers, so when McDavid got an eight-year, $100 million contract extension this summer, Edmonton also signed Draisaitl to an eight-year deal worth $68 million, penciling him in as the Evgeni Malkin to McDavid’s Crosby, the Sergei Fedorov to McDavid’s Steve Yzerman, or—to invoke the most successful Oilers teams in history—the Mark Messier to McDavid’s Gretzky.
The Oilers will be on national TV three times this season, up from zero in 2016-17, but you’ll still have to go out of your way to find the other 79 games, particularly if you live on the East Coast. It’ll be worth the effort. Not just for their MVP golden boy, but for the weird German kid who’ll follow him.