They are the shadow superstars.
Hall-of-Famers or certain future Hall-of-Famers who would be the face and name of their franchise if it were not for one brighter light on the ice.
Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux. Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky. Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.
While McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers captain, is generally considered the greatest hockey player of his generation, assistant-captain Draisaitl has often been called the second best. McDavid ran away with the NHL scoring championship this season with 153 points on 64 goals and 89 assists. Draisaitl was second overall with 128 points on 52 goals and 76 assists – 15 points ahead of Boston’s David Pastrnak and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov.
It is in the playoffs, however, that the 27-year-old German’s star has exploded. He is tied with the Florida Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk in playoff scoring with 15 points, though Tkachuk has played two more games. Draisaitl’s 11 goals – including four Wednesday night in the Oilers’ 6-4 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights – are the most in the first seven games of playoff hockey in more than a century. Newsy Lalonde of the Montreal Canadiens had 15 goals in the first seven games of the 1919 playoffs.
Not even the great Gretzky or Messier accomplished this for the Oilers, though both had nine goals in the first seven matches of the 1983 playoffs. Depending on how far the Oilers go this spring, it is quite possible the NHL playoff record of 19 goals – held by Jari Kurri and Reggie Leach – is within reach for the Edmonton centre.
What is truly astonishing is how little Draisaitl is known, particularly in Central Canada where the Toronto Maple Leafs tend to suck most of the oxygen out of hockey talk, leaving even McDavid gasping for recognition.
Jim Matheson, who has covered the Oilers since the Gretzky-Messier Stanley Cup victories, says Draisaitl is not a race car, as McDavid sometimes appears, but more a muscle car who gets the job done. He played the last several games of last year’s playoffs with a painful high-ankle sprain, yet still put up 32 points in 16 games. Muscle car, indeed.
In the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, Draisaitl won the Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer, as well as the Hart Memorial Trophy as the season’s MVP, but that was sort of a “lost” season for fans and players alike.
Reporters in Edmonton find Draisaitl a serious man who seldom says hello, takes losses badly and can be curt and dismissive at times. At one point this past season, Matheson asked Draisaitl in a news gathering why he was being so “pissy” when it came to not answering simple questions about the team’s current play.
Draisaitl had said he’d rather not talk about such matters and leave such analysis to reporters like Matheson – “You know everything.”
Matheson does know a great deal about hockey, so it is worth considering when he says Draisaitl is, in his opinion, the second-best player in the world after McDavid. The next closest would be Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon.
Draisaitl is superb at the faceoff. He has the rare combination of a rocket for a shot, soft hands for passing and 360-degree vision. Teammate Zach Hyman has described Draisaitl as “a 50-goal, pass-first guy.” He may be the best in the league when it comes to delicate backhand passes, and he sees the ice as well, or better, than anyone. There is a story told that when he was playing junior hockey for the Prince Albert Raiders, he taught himself to read reflections on the glass to see where he might sneak a pass to a teammate no one was guarding.
The native of Cologne, Germany, was drafted third overall in the 2014 NHL entry draft, behind Aaron Ekblad (Florida Panthers) and Sam Reinhart (Buffalo Sabres). The now US$8.5-million-a-year superstar was the inspired selection of former Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish.
Just as the happy-go-lucky Jagr never seemed to resent the domineering presence of Lemieux, and power forward Messier was closest friends with the brilliant Gretzky, Draisaitl seems more than content to stand back of the friendly and more outgoing McDavid. As in the other shadow cases, there is no jealousy – just appreciation for what the other means for team success.
Germany has never been known for producing elite hockey players. Traditionally, German teams in Olympic or world hockey championships grind and trap their way to middling success. Germany did win a silver medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games, which featured no NHLers. Usually, the country finishes far lower in world tournaments.
Hockey is always seeing trends, however. Goalies went from being the smallest player to the biggest, from Canadian to European to, today, Russian. Coaches turned from screaming “Let the goalie see the puck!” to yelling “Block shots with your face if you have to!”
Germany has now given the NHL Leon Draisaitl as well as 21-year-old Tim Stutzle, who may well soon be the Ottawa Senators best player. Stutzle is already seen as one of the smartest and most creative players in the game and will only get better with time.
More Draisaitls and Stutzles would be most welcome.