© THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Darko Bandic
Germany forward Leon Draisaitl, bottom, is challenged by Kazakhstan defender Alexei Litvinenko during the Group B preliminary round match between Germany and Kazakhstan at the Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk, Belarus, Saturday, May 10, 2014. NHL draft prospect Draisaitl wants to be an ambassador for German hockey.
When he’s back home in Germany, Leon Draisaitl sees soccer gear everywhere. In North America, he sees Sidney Crosby jerseys.
If he has it his way, kids in his native country will be wearing “DRAISAITL” on their backs in no time.
The 18-year-old centre doesn’t just want to be a top-five pick in Friday’s NHL draft. Draisaitl wants to become the kind of professional hockey player who inspires growth in the sport.
“I want to be a guy that maybe makes younger guys in Germany play hockey,” Draisaitl said at last month’s scouting combine. “I’m proud to be German and I want to make the country proud and make as many kids play hockey as possible.”
That goal doesn’t come out of nowhere. It stems from a frustration over a thin line of German players that doesn’t go far beyond the retired Uwe Krupp and Marco Sturm and current NHLers like Buffalo Sabres defenceman Christian Ehrhoff, Boston Bruins defenceman Dennis Seidenberg and Pittsburgh Penguins forward Marcel Goc.
“German players don’t come along very often,” Draisaitl said. “We just don’t have the best development. I don’t like saying it. I’m proud to be German, but I think it’s important for the German hockey to have a guy like Christian and other guys like Goc so little kids can have guys to look up to.”
Germany is a soccer country, Draisaitl realizes. That likely won’t ever change.
But he wants to put hockey in the spotlight.
“We need more kids to be inspired to play hockey, and they need to have the passion to maybe even play in the NHL one day and they need to believe in themselves,” he said. “That’s what we need to work on in Germany.”
Draisaitl takes one step toward that in Philadelphia on Friday night. Barring an unforeseen drop, he’ll be a top-five pick and usurp Goc (20th overall in 2001) as the highest drafted German-born player.
That, naturally, would be a “huge honour.” But it wouldn’t be possible had Draisaitl not left home to continue his development.
At the age of 16, Draisaitl left his native Cologne to play Canadian junior hockey, and he wound up with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders. He passed over offers in Sweden and Finland to play in Canada because he considered the scouting to be better in North America.
“Everyone knows this league, or those three leagues, are probably the best junior leagues in the world,” Draisaitl said. “It’s always been my goal to play in the NHL one day, and I think for me, personally, I think it would’ve been the best way to do it. ... I took that step and I think I made the right decision.”
Behind only defenceman Aaron Ekblad and centres Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart on most draft boards, it’s hard to argue with Draisaitl’s path. Scouts certainly think he benefited from two seasons in the WHL, with NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr likening him to Los Angeles Kings centre Anze Kopitar, who left his native Slovenia to develop in Sweden.
“Leon just game over and decided to play in the Western Hockey League to develop, and it’s done well for him,” Marr said. “I think right now they know that that’s the one avenue that (Europeans) can accelerate their hockey development, and it’s good for him that he’s able to come over here and maximize it.”
Ross MacLean of ISS Hockey, an independent scouting firm, has seen Draisaitl’s vision develop significantly since he was a 15-year-old playing junior hockey in Germany.
“There are plays that he can make from the half boards that you can’t even see watching and sitting from the press box, seeing the whole ice. That’s an impressive skill, and he’s continued to cultivate that at this level,” MacLean said. “You typically see a lot of European players play on bigger ice surfaces and learn the game on bigger ice surfaces, but he’s actually gotten better at it on the smaller ice.”
According to NHL Central Scouting’s B.J. MacDonald, Draisaitl is “Jaromir Jagr-esque” in his ability to protect and handle the puck. MacDonald also likes his ability to get quick, accurate shots off that can surprise goaltenders.
Offence isn’t Draisaitl’s problem. He went from being less than a point-a-game player in 2012-13 to 38 goals and 67 assists this past season.
The six-foot-one, 209-pound forward knows foot speed isn’t his strongest attribute, and neither is his defensive prowess. That’s a work in progress.
“I improved over the year my two-way game,” Draisaitl said. “Last year I kind of was one-dimensional. I was more of a just offensive player, and this year I was a two-way centre. I played on the PK, I took important faceoffs.”
And Draisaitl was forced to raise his game to play against grown-up professionals at the world hockey championship last month in Minsk, Belarus. He had a goal and three assists in the tournament but, more importantly, came away from it with some valuable perspective.
“I’ve never played against men before, and it was a new experience,” Draisaitl said. “They’re all grown men and they’ve all had several years of professional hockey. Some of them even played in the NHL for a long time. You really get to see how they work, how they practise, the pace of the game.”
If Draisaitl follows his off-season plan and falls into the right situation, he could be in the NHL next season. MacLean thinks consistency might be the final ingredient to making that happen.
“There are times that he can be absolutely dominant and there are times when he can be a little bit invisible,” MacLean said. “He’s a young man, he’s only 18 years old right now. There’s still plenty of time for that.”
And still plenty of time to become Germany’s next great hockey star.