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Draisaitl's ability to adapt how he dominates is key to Oilers' success

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Leon Draisaitl is an immense and versatile attacking talent, this we know.

At his best, he's the preferred and most profitable target for Connor McDavid, who's capable of sliding into virtually any soft pocket in any defensive-zone coverage and hitting the target from all angles with his quick and powerful release. Also strong as all hell, he's a bull who can use his body and off-hand to shield the puck and maintain possession for prolonged stretches deep in the offensive zone, either to allow his teammates to work themselves in position to continue the cycle or to set up a pass of his own.

He's like prime Joe Thornton, but he shoots the puck like Steven Stamkos. His abilities and mastery of the offensive zone is about as vast and detailed as it comes when compared to the list of handfuls in the NHL right now. It's a mix that's won him a Hart Trophy, and saw him become the first player in more than quarter century to record more than 55 goals and 55 assists in the same season.

What Draisaitl is not is an obvious plus skater, but he's covered the ice far better than he's ever given credit for over the course of his career.

And everything we have seen this postseason is a reminder of that.

There are many players on the final four teams managing injuries right now, but few have appeared as affected as Draisaitl. His stride is short and his turns are limited after suffering a reported high-ankle sprain in Round 1 versus the Los Angeles Kings. One of the more difficult injuries to manage in hockey, Draisaitl has been taken out of his second-line centre position and asked to do all he can to help maximize McDavid on his right wing.

CALGARY, AB - MAY 18: Edmonton Oilers Center Leon Draisaitl (29) passes the puck to Edmonton Oilers Center Connor McDavid (97) during the third period of game 1 of the second round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers on May 18, 2022, at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, AB. (Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
As Connor McDavid takes his game to another level, Draisaitl has simplified his approach. Both have been critical to the Edmonton Oilers. (Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports)

What was a move made out of necessity has turned out to make all the difference for the Edmonton Oilers.

Draisaitl and McDavid have taken their partnership to the next level since linking up late in the Los Angeles series. In the last seven games spread across parts of three series, No. 29 and No. 97 have outscored opponents 18-7 at even strength and 22-7 overall in their shared minutes, while the Oilers are working at a 17-10 scoring deficit with both players on the bench.

Edmonton's two superstars have collected 36 combined points (out of a possible 44) on those 22 goals scored in shared ice, which works out, remarkably, to an average of more than three goals per game in the throes of the NHL postseason.

Of course, McDavid has taken his performance to another level over the last few weeks, at times single-handedly driving the Oilers.

But ranking just slightly below the legendary performance of the captain in terms of importance is Draisaitl, and the critical adjustments he's made to his game.

Understanding his limitations, Draisaitl took a simplistic and brilliant approach to playing with McDavid on one fully-functioning ankle. Instead of trying to play his normal game when the injury was at its worst in the final shifts versus L.A. and early on versus the Flames, it seemed all Draisaitl was concerned with was finding the right pass for McDavid.

In the first five full games following the injury, the Oilers tallied 10 goals through nearly identical means, with Draisaitl moving the puck into McDavid's orbit in the most efficient and advantageous manner possible for No. 97 to either set up, score, or create the conditions required for a goal.

The best example of this was maybe the simplest pass Draisaitl made in Game 3 versus Calgary. In the lead-up to this goal, it couldn't be more clear that Draisaitl would push the puck ahead to McDavid after collecting it himself in the defensive zone.

But by waiting a moment and manipulating one of the Flames defenders, he gives McDavid the space and ability to generate the speed necessary to create Zach Hyman's goal:

There are countless examples of Draisaitl making the right pass in these playoffs.

He buys space here for McDavid with a smart pass into an empty area of the ice for his linemate to turn into a goal for Evan Bouchard:

He gives it up at the perfect moment here to notch a third assist on Evander Kane's natural hat-trick goal in Game 3 versus Calgary:

And of course, he dishes to McDavid for the series winner in overtime versus Flames:

Draisaitl's brilliant distribution of the puck has resulted in 21 assists through 13 games. Aside from McDavid, that's more assists than anyone else in the postseason has points and is tied for the third-most helpers in a single playoffs in the last decade.

But what should give the Oilers the most encouragement as they look to bounce back from another shoddy defensive effort in Game 1 in the Western Conference Final versus the Colorado Avalanche is that Draisaitl's entire game appears to be coming back as the ankle continues to heal.

Draisaitl leaned less on McDavid and showed a little more of that individual offensive ability in Game 5 versus the Flames, looking off his superstar linemate to set up others for goals, claiming basketball assists on three markers and finishing the night with four helpers.

Five nights later in Game 1 versus Colorado, Draisaitl looked a little more comfortable on his skates and added two more helpers, including this slick set-up for McDavid:

Before another beautiful goal-line feed to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the power play:

If one thing has been missing from Draisaitl's game, it's been the one-touch scoring ability from a stationary position. Draisaitl has two goals since picking up the injury, which both came on breakaways, indicating that the straight-line speed is not an issue on the ankle.

But Draisaitl's biggest threat as a scorer is when laying in the weeds in the offensive zone. And if he can get some opportunities and survive the torque on his injured joint to unlock that one-touch release, the highest-scoring team in the postseason so far will be even more dangerous, and will have a better chance to overcome that titanic challenge that is the Avalanche.

And if he does offer more, and the Oilers do beat the Avs and make it to the Stanley Cup Final, it wouldn't have been without Draisaitl brilliantly adapting his game to preserve his superstar standard through injury.

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