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Draisaitl the KO punch in Oil's 1-2 combo

McDavid softens teams up, German centre finishes them off

Amber Bracken / The Canadian Press</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien (33) keeps ahead of Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) with the puck during first period NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alta., on Sunday December 11, 2016.</p>

Amber Bracken / The Canadian Press

Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien (33) keeps ahead of Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) with the puck during first period NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alta., on Sunday December 11, 2016.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/12/2016 (1308 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

EDMONTON — Remember a time when the electrifying Edmonton Oilers, boasting not one but two premier centres, were the envy of the NHL?

No need to think back to the Gretzky-Messier era. The time is actually now.

Edmonton’s two young centres, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, provide as jarring a 1-2 combination up the middle as any team in the league can offer.

While McDavid’s meteoric rise to superstardom has caught few by surprise, the tremendous play of Draisaitl, who has edged out Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the Oilers No. 2 centre, comes somewhat unexpectedly.

The German-born 21-year-old fired 19 goals and added 32 assists in 72 games a year ago, his first full season in the NHL. The bulk of those points came with talented but since-traded Taylor Hall on his wing. The 6-1, 215-pound centre has size and he used it to his advantage, crashing the net while Hall made the pretty plays.

This year, he’s optimizing his ice time with finesse and puck control, and finds himself second on the roster in scoring, with 13 goals and 13 assists. He has points in 11 of his last 14 games and seven goals in his last six, including a goal in each of the last three contests playing alongside Tyler Pitlick and Benoit Pouliot.

Neither winger provides Hall’s offensive threat, yet the points keep piling up for Draisaitl, a former junior stud with the Prince Albert Raiders taken third overall behind Florida defenceman Aaron Ekblad and centre Sam Reinhart of Buffalo in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

"Honestly, he’s been great. He’s playing some of the best hockey I’ve ever seen him play right now over the last 10-game stretch. He’s been awesome," McDavid, who cruised into Sunday’s contest with the Winnipeg Jets as the league’s top offensive threat (12G, 26A), of his teammate. "He’s such a big man and when he gets it moving and he’s got so much talent, it’s a pretty scary threat."

Draisaitl plays about 20 minutes a game, occupies a spot on the power play and drifts in to takes crucial face-offs for the Oilers.

Reluctantly, he offered up a few reasons why things are clicking for him through 30 games, including a hectic stretch of six games in nine nights.

"I’ve been playing with players that can get me the puck and that can finish. I’ve been put in a lot of positions where I can succeed and get the team on the scoreboard," Draisaitl said. "I feel pretty confident in myself and, hopefully, I can keep that going.

"It’s definitely going my way right now but I know that can change any minute. This league is really about ups and downs, and you have to understand that as a young player."

Having another centre rolling gives Edmonton a huge advantage, as opposing teams focus on finding ways to shut down McDavid but don’t always have a solution for Draisaitl.

"It’s hard to argue against how well Connor has played for us, so to say he isn’t our top forward would be hard to say. But there’s 1A and 1B and right now Connor and Leon occupy those spots," said Oilers head coach Todd McLellan.

"I’ve been impressed with him offensively and equally impressed with his commitment to coming back the other way, his size and strength, ability to win face-offs on a team that struggles to win them. He’s taking more on, on the penalty kill. He’s done a lot of really good things for us."

No help required

Addressing the media after the Oilers morning skate, McLellan was asked about his McDavid’s physical and verbal battle with Philadelphia defenceman Brandon Manning last Thursday during a game the Flyers won 6-5.

McDavid called Manning "classless" after hearing Manning suggest he’d purposely knocked him hard into the boards more than a year ago, resulting in a broken clavicle that sidelined him for 37 games.

The Edmonton coach said he had no issue with McDavid’s volatile reaction.

"Connor has an emotional thermometer, I talked about it on the road, and it goes up and down. That night it went up," he said.

He then dismissed any suggestion someone from the Oilers organization is, or should, be counselling the young captain on how to handle himself when he becomes a target on the ice.

"Connor’s our captain. He’s a mature guy. He’s dealt with those situations since he probably played in peewees," McLellan said. "He’s just fine. His teammates look after him and take care of him. 

"He gets excited about scoring goals, he gets excited about playing against certain individuals, he rises to the challenge and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the thermometer going up."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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