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Game #12 – Oilers vs. Hawks Spotlight: It’s When You Pay ‘Em

It would be beyond too cynical to let impending contracts dictate how a team sets out its lineup. Although you get the feeling that’s how some fans would do it. Still, you wonder if the Oilers contemplate at times what their cap might look like if Leon Draisaitl hadn’t shifted to be Connor McDavid’s winger two seasons ago.

Draisaitl came up as a center, but thanks to organizational incompetence–either via the draft or y’know, shipping out Taylor Hall for a middle pairing defenseman–the Oilers didn’t really have any wingers. They especially didn’t have any to keep up with McDavid, who spent a good portion of his first two years waiting a good 10 seconds for Patrick Maroon to catch up. And he made it work.

So you can’t blame Todd McLellan for looking at Draisaitl, figuring he had enough center-depth with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins behind, and putting an immensely talented player with McDavid for the first time.

And Run CMD and Draisaitl tore a hole in time together, leading the Oilers to their only playoff berth that anyone who doesn’t grow a mustache ironically can remember. They carried 54% of the attempts together, 55% of the shots, 54% of the scoring chances, and 60% of the goals. Draisaitl claimed 29 goals and 77 points, which was pretty convenient as he was out of his entry-level deal at that time.

There was really nowhere for the Oilers to go. He was only one of three forwards who were worth a damn, and at the time he was still 21. They handed him an eight-year deal worth $8.5M a year, clenched their teeth and hoped they could find a way. They knew at some point that in order to maximize their investment, they would have to move the German back to center at some point. After all, center is the more important position and if they ever hope to go anywhere, they’d have to get production from another line that didn’t have McDavid on it.

There were warning signs. All of Draisaitl’s possession- and underlying-numbers took a huge hit when he wasn’t around McDavid. McDavid’s did as well away from Draisaitl, but both could chalk that up to the rest of the Edmonton forward crew being filled out by various pack animals and the throughly bewildered. Remember this. And as the Oilers couldn’t find any other solution, Draisaitl spent a good portion of last year running with McDavid again.

Before this season, it was decided that Draisaitl will move back to center permanently, and if McDavid’s line needed any goosing it would be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who would shift to wing. The fact that the Oilers still have to displace a center to get anyone to play with McDavid and not hurl from exhaustion is hardly on any of the players, but here we are.

It has not gone well.

Drice is carrying a 38 CF%. He’s got a 41 xGF%. And this is while starting half of his shifts in the offensive zone. To be fair to him, he’s been saddled with some combination of Tobias Rieder, who even the Kings didn’t think was worth it and they have an actual rodeo at forward, Milan Lucic (all the jokes have been made), and Drake Caggiula, a person were not even sure really exists. You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit that your dog vomited up. And why is your dog in the chicken coop again?

It’s only 10 games, so it would be ridiculous to write off Draisaitl. And even with that, he’s put up five goals and four assists, thanks to netting on over a third of his shots so far. But his shots-per-game have dropped as well, as he was comfortably over two the previous seasons and this year is at about 1.5. Once his shooting-percentage comes back to something of this planet, those possession numbers are going to be a real issue.

Again, Draisaitl is only 23. There is time, and plenty of it. And the Oilers have to get center-play from somewhere. If it isn’t Draisaitl, they’ll have to pay even more to find it somewhere else. You’d think it wouldn’t be that hard to find any stiff with decent skating ability to pot everything that McDavid provides. And yet the Oilers have made it a challenge on the level of K2.

If Draisaitl can figure it out, the Oilers can make a fist of it in what is looking an even worse division than it did before the season. If he spends the rest of the season in a fog of “meh,”…well, the Oilers will have some very expensive questions on their hands.


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