Beyond Tomorrow: Draisaitl makes a solid first impression

By Brian Fogarty

Leon Draisaitl - Prince Albert Raiders

Photo: Prince Albert Raiders forward and 2014 draft prospect Leon Draisaitl is a finalist for the WHL's Rookie of the Year award (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

The Prince Albert Raiders have struggled to make the playoffs for the last several years, despite the best efforts of players like current team leader and first-round NHL draft pick, Mark McNeil (CHI). Enter Leon Draisaitl, a German-born WHL rookie and 2014 draft-eligible forward who scored at nearly a point-per-game pace in his rookie season. Draisaitl and McNeil combined for 125 points and led the Raiders to their first post-season appearance in almost a decade.

Draisaitl was selected by the Raiders second overall in the 2012 CHL Import Draft, and once he joined the team, he did not disappoint. In fact, he is one of two finalists for the Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s top rookie, along with defensive sensation and potential first overall pick in the upcoming NHL Draft, Portland defenseman Seth Jones.

Draisaitl’s father, Peter, was born in what is now the Czech Republic, but he played and coached nearly 30 years of professional hockey in Germany. Leon was born in Koln, Germany, and played his way up through the German youth ranks before moving to North America last fall. He began playing with an Under-16 team when he was just twelve years old, and the Under-18 squad at fifteen. A year ago, and still only sixteen years old, Draisaitl played for the German national team at the U-18 World Junior Championship, and he is set to do so again in a few days (he got a long look with the German men’s team for the upcoming World Championships, but failed to make the cut). More impressive, however, was the 17-year-old sensation’s play for the Germans during the most recent U-20 World Junior Championship. Not only was he the youngest player on the roster, but Draisaitl also led all Germans in scoring for the tournament with six points in six games.

Draisaitl is a well-rounded player, with an array of effective tools. At 6’2” and 198 pounds, he already has the size and strength to compete at a professional level. He has not yet developed an advanced physical game, but he shows a good willingness to play the body both while forechecking and on defense. He also has the balance necessary to absorb a hit and still maintain possession, and he uses his body and his stick to shield the puck from defenders. He has an active stick in the defensive zone, though most of the time he has been shifted to the wing in his own end while McNeil handled the more rigorous defensive responsibilities down low.

When Draisaitl has the puck, he attacks. He looks comfortable rushing the puck up ice, and shows a determination to carry the puck into the offensive zone to create chances. He drives the net with a purpose, and shows a good ability to change speeds while puck handling and he uses his balance and agility to get around defenders while maintaining possession even in heavy traffic. He has a hard, accurate wrist shot and likes to set up in the high slot on the power-play. Draisaitl did not rely on the power-play for his scoring, though. In fact, only two of his 21 goals were scored with the man advantage, which also helped to contribute to his team-best plus-22 rating.

What really sets him apart from the field is his vision and passing. Draisaitl, even at full speed or heavily pressured, consistently finds open linemates and makes accurate passes with perfect weight.

“That was one of the first things we noticed when he first came to us,” said Raiders Coach Steve Young. “He makes great passes from both his forehand and backhand, and he’s really strong on the puck.”

Draisaitl regularly makes soft passes into open ice to players at full stride. “He sees the ice very well. The way he thinks the game is one of his greatest assets,” said Coach Young.

Like all young players, Draisaitl still has a lot to learn and room to expand his game.

“We’d like to get him to start shooting the puck more,” said Coach Young. “One of the biggest changes for Leon was the 72-game schedule and the grind. You start to get noticed by the opposition. We’d like him to shoot the puck more so that he becomes less predictable.”

When asked about what Draisaitl is like in the locker room, Coach Young praised the forward’s work ethic and leadership abilities.

“He’s a fan favorite. He generated a lot of attention and he handled everything extremely well. He still has a lot of growing to do and maturing, but he is definitely a candidate for wearing a letter next year.”

Given his tremendous offensive abilities and his raw defensive potential, Draisaitl could have received top-20 draft consideration had he been eligible for the upcoming 2013 NHL Draft. Instead, he will get another year in Prince Albert as the Raiders top offensive threat, and have the opportunity to further display his talents before scouts and fans.

Looking Back

Ryan MacInnis scored eight goals and six assists through 39 USHL games with the U.S. NTDP squad this season. MacInnis did not make it onto the Team USA roster for the World U-18 Championship, but few members of the U-17 team will be making the trip to Sochi.

Jordan Thomson is currently involved in the WHL playoffs with the Kamloops Blazers. He finished the regular season with two goals and twelve assists in 47 games, and is scoreless through six playoff games so far as the team has been leaning heavily on the veteran defensemen.

Josh Ho-Sang’ and the Windsor Spitfires did not make the playoffs. Ho-Sang finished the regular season with 14 goals and 30 assists in 63 games, but he failed to make the competitive U-18 roster for Canada.

Next Time in Beyond Tomorrow

As mentioned above, the U-18 World Junior Championship begins April 18th in Sochi, Russia. There will be several 2014 draft-eligible players participating in the tournament, so next month’s Beyond Tomorrow will take a look at how those players fared in the tournament, as well as a retrospective of the playoff performances of the late ’95- and ’96-born players throughout North America and Europe.

Follow Brian Fogarty on Twitter via @Brian_Fogarty