The second Leon Draisaitl’s entry-level contract expired, numbers were flying around. Some people were looking at point totals, others comparing contract with similar players and productions, but one thing remained constant: The pesky fact that he spent all of last season putting up 77 points as a winger, and not a center.
People wanted him to be a center. If he’s being paid that much, he has to be lined up in the middle. I completely understand wanting him to drive his own line — which, by design, can’t happen when he’s playing with McDavid — but I could never understand why the obsession with center. I think a lot of it comes down to how we view the roles between forwards. We tend to correlate them by where they line up at the dot more than what they’re actually doing on the ice. Let me explain.
When you play minor hockey, beer league, or road hockey, the positions are pretty simple. You have a Left wing covering the left side of the ice, he covers the opposing right D-man, breaks out from the hash-marks in his own end and forechecks deep into the opposition’s end. You have the Right wing doing the same thing on the other side. And of course, you have the Center covering the opposing team’s center, breaking out from anywhere on the ice and typically being the last on the forecheck and playing high.
This is where things differ from amateur and professional hockey. In the NHL you have some very skilled and fast players. Many times, it’s more efficient to cover high, middle and low zones, than it is to cover the sides and center. It’s easier for a player to get from one side of the ice to the other than it is to get from one end to the other. The best players in the game, players like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, can play any one of those positions quite well. They can adapt to where the puck ends up on the ice and take the most efficient point of coverage. With players like that, it doesn’t make sense if they have to get back in their starting position if, after a rush, they end up in opposite positions. They’d simply switch zone coverage, get the puck, and make the break out from where they see fit.
What gets interesting is when you have players that excel in certain coverages, but not others. Look at Zack Kassian or Jordan Eberle. Kassian gets a ton of breakaways (Usually ends with him falling and missing the net). It doesn’t matter what side of the ice the puck happens to be, he’s first on the forecheck. Same with Maroon. Left wing and Right wing are meaningless with players like that, regardless of side, they’re the first ones out of the D-Zone.
Most of our lines now seem to have specified middle-coverage forwards now too, in Jujhar Khaira, Milan Lucic, and Drake Cagguila. Doesn’t matter where the puck is, they’re not going to be the first out of the zone. They’ll switch sides to assist the breakout on the half wall, but they won’t leave the zone until the first forward out has.
This is where it gets interesting with Draisaitl. He was switching with McDavid all of last year between F2 and F3. This year, he was even taking the faceoffs. I still heard complaints that he wasn’t playing center and it just wasn’t true. Again, I completely understand wanting to see what he could do when he was strictly F3, but ideally, you have a whole line that can interchange. I’m still dreaming of a world where we can have Kailer Yamamoto, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl all on the same line, even if it’s just for one game. Those three are about the only players we have who full understand the system, can cover the whole sheet of ice and possess the puck exceptionally well. I’d imagine that if those three were ever on the same line, the other team would never get a hold of the puck.
Ryan Strome has been interesting this season. Earlier this year, he was playing F1 in the defensive zone and interchanging F2 and F3 in the offensive zone. It was a disaster. I understand why they did that, he’s slow as hell, but trying to work around foot speed like that just ended up confusing the whole line, limiting offense, and worst of all, leading to 1-on-4s scoring against us in crucial situations. The team all lost coverage because none of them could cover, or didn’t know if they should. To me that was a bad system, bad utilization of players and bad coaching.
A fun thing now, is what the Draisaitl line is doing. Watch what happen off of a faceoff when that line is out there. Draisaitl lines up at center, and then immediately goes to the right side of the ice. He’s the lowest forward on that line but he’s playing less of what you would expect a player called “center” to be doing than he ever has. He goes to the right side to create offense while Strome immediately goes to the middle of the ice and aggressively forechecks. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think Ryan Strome would be able to play F1 because of his speed issue; However, he’s been doing it exceptionally well on that line. He’s getting in deep, cycling to the front of the net with Khaira while Draisaitl can work off of his off wing to force offence. It’s a great system and that line has been very effective.
One thing I would like to see is Darnell Nurse jumping into the play more aggressively. There are times where he is almost F3 or even F2 just by getting into the zone faster than the forwards. With some more communication, that could lead to chaos around the net and a lot of options on the cycle. Think of a chess match where you try to fork the opponent, an engaged defensman in low on the rush could work wonders against other teams. Particularly ones like the Winnipeg Jets who have been actively held back by their coaching for years.
Now that Leon has been lining up at the dot and consistently been playing low, are we happy with his contract and 70+ point pace? Or was it really just about him being on a line with players worse than McDavid and still preforming? I can get behind the latter, but if it is a positional thing, all I ask is for your personal definition of “Center” because in the NHL, I don’t have one.