With 11 games left, Leon Draisaitl was on the verge of being crowned the NHL scoring champion, was a leading candidate for the Hart Memorial Trophy and still had a chance at a second straight 50-goal campaign.
It was by far the best year of the 24-year-old’s five-plus years in the league and his team, the Edmonton Oilers, was closing in on the playoffs. Then professional sports shut down due to the novel coronavirus – and games, as well as Draisaitl’s season for the ages, became frozen in time.
If anyone in hockey has a reason to feel sorry for himself, it is Leon Draisaitl. He would never.
“We still don’t know what is going to happen,” the Edmonton forward said on Monday during a video call with journalists. “There is still some talking left to do in all of the professional sports leagues.
“If we don’t get to play the playoffs it would be frustrating, but I think the health of people at this time is more important. We have to accept that. I believe [the NHL] made the right decision so far. Hopefully, we can return to playing games again, but that is not necessarily up to us.”
When it comes to that, COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is in charge. It grows more unlikely that the regular season will be completed as the coronavirus spreads. League officials have expressed a willingness to push the postseason back for two months but it possible that if the situation worsens, the Stanley Cup could go unawarded for only the third time in more than 100 years.
Draisaitl mulled returning home to Germany when NHL games were suspended on March 12, but remains in Edmonton.
“It definitely crossed my mind, but I don’t think it makes much sense for me to go there now,” he said. “[The coronavirus] is probably worse there than here. I thought about it, but I made the decision to stay. I’m in a good place here.”
He has a small gym in his house, but it does not offer the unlimited opportunities he would have at the Oilers’ fitness centre at Rogers Place.
“I try to do something different every day,” Draisaitl said. “I try to stay in shape, go for runs, do stairs, all kinds of different stuff.”
He has not yet taken to doing lunges with his dog like teammate Connor McDavid but does incorporate his pooch into his training.
“I try to dangle around my dog in the basement with my stick,” he said. “Other than that, there is not much of an opportunity to work on my skills or something like that.”
To relieve boredom, Draisaitl said he has begun to do puzzles as he whiles away hours in near isolation. He also watched a replay last week of the Oilers’ Game 5 victory over the San Jose Sharks in the 2017 Western Conference playoffs. Edmonton won the series in six, but then lost to the Anaheim Ducks in the second round.
“It was almost a little bit of a tease,” he said of the rewind. “You start to miss playing hockey even more. Sometimes, I think it is better to watch Friends. That might be the hardest part about this for us. We all miss the game-day routine and we are all sitting here patiently waiting to go back.”
Draisaitl said he and all NHL players are waiting for a final decision to be made.
“Obviously, it is not an ideal situation right now,” he said. “Once a decision is made, there will be some clarity and if it is to go on back it will be very exciting.”
When the season was suspended, Draisaitl had 110 points. McDavid was the next-closest player to him in the scoring race – and he was 13 behind. Draisaitl was seven goals shy of 50 with 11 games to play – not an easy task but not out of the question, either. He had 50 last year and was second only to Alex Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals superstar had 51.
Draisaitl hopes the coronavirus does not taking a wrecking ball to the postseason, but he says it has also brought him new perspective.
“I think it teaches us a little lesson,” he said. “You think about how many things you touch and how many germs are being spread all over. It is tough that people pass away from this and that has to be a part of it, but it is [a reminder].
“We see what can happen if we don’t treat it seriously.”