The simple solution for Leon Draisaitl and the most troubling question about today's Edmonton Oilers

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When I talk to fellow fans of the Edmonton Oilers just now, they’re troubled by one thing. Invariably, the first question they ask is, “What’s up with Leon Draisaitl?”

It’s a reasonable question. It’s also perplexing. But there’s a straightforward answer to it and also a simple solution to Draisaitl’s overall issue heading into Game 6. I’ll get to both of those answers in a moment. But, for now, the vexing question is nonetheless on most every fan’s mind.

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Heck, Draisaitl himself has been wondering about his own play. He’s been beating himself up over it.

For example, after the Oilers second of three losses to start the Stanley Cup Final against the Florida Panthers, Draisaitl said, “We can certainly be better, it starts me with me. I can only speak for myself, I have a lot more to give. Not my best tonight. I’m owning that.”

Heading into Game 5, Draisaitl was back at it with the self-criticism: “Obviously I haven’t played my best this series here. Trying to find it. (Game 5) is a great chance for me to step up and be good.”

Asked to expand on the issues in his game, Draisaitl said, “I think it’s just the way I’m skating, the way I’m moving. For me it’s all about being aggressive in how I play, and have the confidence to push the puck up the ice, and force defenders or forwards into tough reads. I think I haven’t done enough of that.”

Media critics are all over the Oilers’ most fearsome shooter.

After Game 4, Frank Seravalli of the Daily Faceoff asked, “Is it too much to ask for a Leon Draisaitl goal during that stretch? He’s had a really off Stanley Cup Final, he’s been off-kilter. I don’t know what’s going on with him, but he doesn’t look quite right, and this is one of the best playoff performers of this generation.”

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And Mark Spector of Sportsnet said, “Among NHL players with more than 50 playoff games played, Draisaitl’s points-per-game average of 1.51 is fourth all-time, behind Wayne Gretzky (1.84), Mario Lemieux (1.61) and McDavid (1.59) Draisaitl was averaging 1.56 PPG through the opening three rounds, and whether he’s playing hurt or not, the Oilers need him.”

Not surprisingly, Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch defended the player yesterday when asked about Draisaitl’s slump. “So often you look at the stat line and you just think, ‘He’s not playing well.’ … (But) the numbers don’t usually add up. It doesn’t tell the whole picture. .. He’s been playing well. Has it been what it sometimes is, what it was in the L.A. series or other times during the playoffs? Maybe not quite. But it’s still been pretty good. He’s been doing a lot of things for our team and just missing the goals and assists and that a lot has to do with the luck factor.”

My take

1. Draisaitl is clearly playing hurt. We’ve seen a splint on his finger and we know he hurt his back in Game 1 vs Vancouver. He’s at his best when his feet are moving and he’s driving low and hard like a torpedo. Just now he’s skating more stiff and upright, and he’s, generally, not driving with the puck, but pulling up and trying to make a pass.

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2. Draisaitl’s point production has dropped as the playoffs have progressed but there’s a simple explanation for it, injury and quality of competition.

In five games against Los Angeles, Draisaitl had five goals, 10 points. He was in beast mode.

He got hurt early against Vancouver, but soldiered on. Indeed, he did more than that. He kept up his high level of scoring, just as he was able to do against the Calgary Flames in 2022. Against Vancouver, he had three goals and 14 points in seven games, still at his two point per game clip.

But against the Dallas Stars, a much tougher defensive team, he had just two goals and four points in six games.

Now he’s got just two assists against Florida in five games.

Given his consistent history of coming up big and scoring in the playoffs, that drop in production speaks to two things, injury and facing tougher, more disciplined defensive teams in Dallas and Florida.

3. What to make of Knoblauch’s statement that Draisaitl has played well enough and has had some bad luck when it comes to putting up points?

I’ll suggest Knoblauch is generally correct. His explanation certainly aligns with our own in-depth video analysis at the Cult of Hockey.

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We try to measure the process of each player through video review at the Cult of Hockey, not just focusing on goals, assists and goals plus-minus, but on how many contributions each player makes to Grade A shots and how many mistakes they make on all Grade A shots against. I generally make all initial assessments, then sharp-eyed Bruce McCurdy goes over my work and makes suggestions and corrections, one way to check for bias. We takes careful notes and keep records of each game.

When we dig in on Draisaitl’s play, we see he excelled on the attack against both Vancouver and Los Angeles, then struggled more against Dallas both in creating Grade A shots and defending against them, and now is picking up his play somewhat against Florida, though not to his previous level of Conn Smythe-level play as seen against Los Angeles and Vancouver. Draisaitl had a weak defensive series against Dallas, but is doing somewhat better against Florida.

In other words, and especially when it comes to Draisaitl’s attacking play, our numbers pretty much confirm what Knoblauch said.

Draisaitl is still making numerous contributions to Grade A shots against Florida, enough that you’d expect him to have five-to-seven points, not just two.

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Drasaitl McDavid

As a comparison, I also looked at Connor McDavid, who has created abundant Grade A shots each series, but had some defensive struggles against both Vancouver and Dallas.  He was excellent in his two-way play against Los Angeles and he’s excellent again now against Florida.

Both players, evidently, had their toughest series against the smart and disciplined Dallas Stars.

P.S. By our system, McDavid would be expected to have about 42 points right now. He’s got 42. Draisaitl would be expected to have 29. He’s got 30. The puck luck, over time, has evened out for both of them.

4. Draisaitl has talked about the need to be aggressive and confident on the attack against Florida. That sounds like exactly the right prescription to cure what ails him. I’m not sure, though, that he’s got the power, agility and skating speed just now to push back Florida’s defence as he did the Los Angeles and Vancouver defence. That said, he’s getting enough chances that it will be no surprise if points come his way tonight.

But I’ll also suggest that better puck luck isn’t the real solution to Draisaitl’s issue. I promised a simple solution, the surest way for Draisaitl to help his team win. He’s got to just keep doing what’s doing on offence, but the solution comes on defence. If all Draisaitl does in Game 6 is cover the defensive slot, blocking all passes to dangerous Florida forwards sneaking in to score, that will go a long way in Edmonton winning the game. If all he also makes sure that when he’s F3 in the offensive zone, the high forward, that he does not allow for any odd man rushes, that will be huge.

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Even when Edmonton is playing its best defensive game, defencemen still make mistakes. They’ll need Edmonton’s centres to be hyper protective of the slot area in Game 6. That means staying in the slot, not over-committing to the corners, and not charging out of the Edmonton zone before the puck is out.

My  major takeaway for this game is: If Edmonton’s centres do the smart and dirty work in the d-zone, Edmonton will beat Florida in Game 6.

This is a key issue in particular for Draisaitl, who struggled with his slot defence in Game 6 against Vegas last year in that 2023 playoff elimination game.

Draisaitl does not need to score in Game 6 against Florida, though that would be nice. If he defends with focus, awareness and ferocity, that’s the simple solution to his current predicament. He can help his team win by being a d-zone monster. The points will come as his puck luck improves.

As Knoblauch has often said, it’s that defence wins championship, and if Draisaitl and Edmonton’s other centres nail it in Game 6, Edmonton will force a Game 7.

Make sense? How do you see it?

At the Cult of Hockey

McCURDY: Edmonton flamethrowers scorching their way into the Stanley Cup record books

STAPLES: Trap game for Oilers in Game 6? Most definitely

STAPLES: Bobrovsky blamed but beware of what comes next

STAPLES: Hockey world praises Game 5 as best game of the NHL season

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