What the numbers say about Leon Draisaitl's early-season heater

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Draisaitl has always had the ability to turn chances into goals at an elite rate, but the odds of him sustaining this for the Oilers all year are slim. (Getty)
The Oilers star has always had the ability to turn chances into goals at an elite rate, but Draisaitl has somehow found a whole new gear this season. (Getty)

Seventeen games into the Edmonton Oilers’ season, Leon Draisaitl sits atop the league in goals and points, somehow having more goals than games played while also averaging over two points per game.

Remarkably, only five of Draisaitl’s 18 tallies have come at 5-on-5, while he’s already scored nine with the man advantage. The sniper’s goal-scoring prowess on the powerplay is nothing new, as he leads the league in that department since 2018 by a wide margin, but the pace he’s on right now is foreign even for his lofty standards. Draisaitl’s lethal one-timer plays a huge role in him converting on 24 percent of his shots on the powerplay in that time. So far this season that conversion rate is up to a ridiculous 33 percent, scoring nine goals on 27 shots. He’s absolutely mastered that one-timer from below the faceoff dot.

My personal favourite has to be this one off the perfect set-up from Bruins defender Brandon Carlo, though. Not only does Carlo make the unfortunate mistake of mishandling the puck right in front of his own net, but he tees up arguably the game’s best shooter for a one-timer in the most dangerous possible area with a one-goal lead in the third period. Draisaitl would score again a few minutes later and the Oilers went on to win the game. Poor Carlo probably didn’t get too much sleep that night.

More often than not, though, those one-timer goals occur on the powerplay following a cross-seam pass from Connor McDavid. McDavid loves to wheel around the zone on the man advantage which gets the defenders scrambling and opens up passing lanes. The one they’re always searching for is that seam pass to Draisaitl, and McDavid being the best playmaker in the world really works well with a sniper like Draisaitl waiting to unleash off those passes — to absolutely nobody’s surprise.

The duo rank first and second in power-play scoring since 2018, with McDavid racking up 126 points to Draisaitl’s 116, while Nathan MacKinnon ranks third at just 93. In fact, McDavid has more power-play assists (94) than third place MacKinnon has points.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has always been the third most valuable player to that powerplay unit and he often acts as a sort of middle man for McDavid to Draisaitl when the seam pass isn’t there. Nugent-Hopkins will slide up around the top of the circles when McDavid wheels around his side looking for Draisaitl and McDavid will pass it back to him to work it around the blockage in the middle of the ice.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, Draisaitl has just two primary assists on the powerplay so far. Of the 19 powerplay goals Draisaitl has been on the ice for, he’s scored nine of them, so that obviously explains some of it, but he’s a very good passer in his own right and ranks seventh in primary assists on the powerplay since 2018. He also probably won’t continue to score on 33 percent of his shots there, which could lead to the Oilers diversifying their attack a bit, but only time will tell.

At 5-on-5, Draisaitl is a bit of a unicorn. This is where things get a bit complicated. Again, he’s the most efficient shooter there since 2018 as he’s converted on over 18 percent of his shots and ranks fourth in total goals behind Auston Matthews, Alexander Ovechkin and McDavid. This year, that conversion rate is up to 22%, but he’s not shooting the puck much. On a per-minute basis, Draisaitl ranks 407th of the 585 players in the league to play over 100 5-on-5 minutes this season, surrounded by a whole bunch of defencemen. He’s always been a quality over quantity shooter, but over the previous three seasons his shot rate (6.12 shots per 60) was still significantly higher than it has been this season (4.87 shots per 60).

Fortunately for the Oilers, on top of his five goals at 5-on-5, Draisaitl’s playmaking abilities have been on display as he’s racked up ten assists with seven of them being the primary helper, good for third in the NHL. The result is that the Oilers have outscored the opposition 19-11 with the league’s leading scorer on the ice at even strength, despite losing the scoring-chance battle, which has been a trend over the last few seasons for Draisaitl.

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Fortunately for the Oilers and Draisaitl, he’s one of the few players so efficient in the offensive zone that he’s able to sustainably elevate his team’s shooting percentage while he’s on the ice, due to his own elite finishing ability and passing ability. He ranks fourth since 2018 in that department, while all three players above him and six of the top eight players are either on the Washington Capitals or spent most of that time with them. The other player in that group is Artemiy Panarin, who has done it throughout his career. The difference with Panarin, of course, is that he also tips the scales in the scoring chance differential department, leading to better on-ice goal differentials. He just doesn’t give near as much back in the other end, though the last couple of seasons in New York have seen a bit of a drop off in that department.

What’s been driving Draisaitl’s on-ice goal differential at 5-on-5 this season has been an unsustainably high PDO, which is a meaningless acronym for adding up on-ice shooting and save percentages. As mentioned, Draisaitl’s ability to elevate on-ice shooting percentage seems like a legitimate proven talent of his, but save percentage is obviously even more out of a player’s control and Draisaitl bleeds quality chances against anyway. 

Over the previous three seasons, Draisaitl’s PDO was still high at 102, but this season that number is way up to 106. For context, PDO usually levels out around 100 over a large sample and Evgeny Kuznetsov of the aforementioned Capitals led the NHL in that department over the previous three seasons at 104. Put simply, the Oilers aren’t going to continue to score 63 percent of the goals with Draisaitl on the ice at 5-on-5 while controlling just 48 percent of the expected goal share. As good as he is in the offensive zone, he just gives back far too much in his own zone. The Oilers are not a good defensive team, but they get markedly worse in that department when Draisaitl steps on the ice.

Even more concerning when projecting what the future holds in that department is Draisaitl’s on-ice numbers when playing away from McDavid, which has accounted for about 60 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time. Put simply, they’ve been absolutely torched with Draisaitl out there without McDavid by every metric but the all important goal differential. That goal differential gap will begin to shrink if nothing changes and it will be something I’ll be checking in on as the season progresses. What’s also interesting here is that it’s the offence that really stands out as porous without McDavid. Draisaitl just hasn’t been able to drive the bus in any way without him and Draisaitl needs to be in the offensive zone to do what he does best. His most common forward linemates aren’t scrubs either in Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto, but his three most common teammates on the blueline likely aren’t helping much.

A likely culprit of a decent chunk of Draisaitl’s inability to drive play without McDavid is he and his linemate’s inability to recover pucks on the forecheck with any consistency. Draisaitl rates out as the best forechecker on the line from Corey Sznajder’s tracking data from last season, but even he’s not all that involved there. This has been a team-wide issue in recent years and Edmonton addressed some of that with the offseason additions of Zach Hyman and Warren Foegele, but neither of those guys are playing on Draisaitl’s wing.

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Naturally, that leads to a rush-reliant line that spends more time without the puck than with it, which leads to more defensive zone time and more chances against. You’ll note that you also can’t create offence when you’re in the defensive zone. As mentioned earlier, it hasn’t hurt the Oilers yet this season due to a mixture of some crazy high shooting and save rates as well as Draisaitl’s ability to turn chances into goals at an elite rate, but something’s got to give there eventually. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise if that line starts giving up more goals and get separated as a result. If that does happen, I’d imagine they’d look to get Draisaitl somebody like Foegele or Jesse Puljujarvi to go get him the puck in the offensive zone and keep it there more consistently.

This may all come off as pretty negative considering the asinine production Draisaitl’s given the Oilers early this season and it’s true, the results have been a driving force behind the team’s red-hot start. They currently have the West’s best points percentage and the best powerplay in the league by a landslide. A lot of the credit can be given to Draisaitl for all of that, it’s just a question of whether or not they’re going to be able to sustain anything close to it. In his case, when you look under the hood there are glaring signs that things may start to swing the wrong way for his line. In the meantime, though, I’d bet on that powerplay to keep on ticking and Draisaitl to continue to do what he does best: rack up points at a rate that nobody but his teammate can touch.

*data via evolving-hockey.com, hockeyviz.com and naturalstattrick.com

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