Is Leon Draisaitl the best NHL No. 2 ever? What could it mean for his next contract?

Just one week after the Edmonton Oilers’ hopes of winning the Stanley Cup ended in Game 7, another door opened to start planning for the future.

On July 1, along with signing unrestricted free agents for the 2024-25 season, Edmonton could start extending its 2025 free agents. That list of free agents starts with one of its most pivotal players: Leon Draisaitl.

It’s one of the rare occasions where Draisaitl lands as the ‘No. 1′ on the Oilers’ list. The rest of the time, he sits firmly as their No. 2 to their generational star, Connor McDavid.

Being No. 2 to McDavid isn’t a knock in any way at Draisaitl, it’s just the reality. Between the two forwards, the Oilers have one of the most dangerous one-two punches in the league. And if they continue to play at this elite rate, they should join the ranks as one of the most dynamic duos in league history — if.

That if isn’t a question of whether the two can sustain high-caliber play for years to come; McDavid and Draisaitl, both together and on their separate lines, have proven they’re among the best players in the world. The two have thrived in all situations, no matter the stage, with and without support around them.

The if instead revolves around how long this duo will stay together in Edmonton. With Draisaitl’s contract up in 2025 and McDavid’s in 2026, two massive question marks are looming over the Oilers.

And with Draisaitl’s contract expiring first, the focus is primarily on his future.

Draisaitl’s next contract will cover the rest of his prime years and projects to be the most lucrative of his career. Aside from figuring out the term and cost, there’s another overarching question: Does Draisaitl want to step out of McDavid’s shadow and become another team’s leading star?

Some teams have already gotten to work on their 2025 free agents. Victor Hedman, Jaccob Slavin and Pavel Buchnevich are all off the board after extending a year early. That the Oilers haven’t extended Draisaitl yet isn’t a bad sign. The team has only been in offseason mode for a little over two weeks and has yet to name a new general manager to make these franchise-defining decisions.

Once a permanent general manager is named, the work on Draisaitl’s future can begin.

The Oilers may have to reconcile that Draisaitl’s current contract — an eight-year contract carrying an $8.5 million cap hit — is such an underpayment considering how much his value has risen over the years. But it’s easy to slide right into overpay territory on a contract that will essentially cover his 30s and past prime years. Age-related decline is inevitable — elite players’ later years can still be extremely productive, but those later years may not be worth, say, $14 million on the books.

It’s a steep number, but one Draisaitl could realistically ask for to become the league’s highest-paid player (at least until McDavid’s next contract). Maybe Edmonton could knock that lower to the $13 million range, closer to Evolving Hockey’s $13.5 million projection for an eight-year contract. Getting under $14 million would help limit some of the risk, but would still be above his projected worth in the later years of the deal.

Screenshot 2024 06 23 at 10.54.09%E2%80%AFAM

Draisaitl and McDavid could add up to over $28 million in cap space between their next two contracts, which would be tricky to navigate. But management could feel that with enough cap growth and team-friendly depth contracts, it’s an investment worth making for their franchise cornerstones.

Technically, management has until June 30, 2025 to extend Draisaitl. In a perfect world, the Oilers can find a solution sooner than later so this doesn’t loom over their next season. As The Athletic’s Chris Johnston reported, Edmonton isn’t inclined to go into the season with that uncertainty. The hurdle in that is Draisaitl’s no-movement clause and 10-team no-trade list.

Few elite players even make it to free agency. Teams usually extend their players early or trade them before having to deal with the risk of losing them for nothing. In the few instances where a franchise player walked, as Artemi Panarin and Johnny Gaudreau did in Columbus and Calgary, the former team was left in shambles. Maybe that wouldn’t happen in Edmonton — Draisaitl is again the No. 2 to McDavid, after all — but management may not want to find out, even if keeping Draisaitl for another year would give the team its best shot at the Stanley Cup next season.

The team perspective is just one side of the equation, though. The player also has to want to stay.

As The Athletic’s Daniel Nugent-Brown reported after the Oilers’ exit interviews, Draisaitl said he needed time to figure out what both he and the team want moving forward. And that could involve contemplating whether he wants the chance to be the driver of his team, instead of always being second to McDavid. It’s a question many No. 2 forwards likely face at some point in their career, considering how many teams would jump at the chance to have them as their leading star no matter the cost.

Jaromir Jagr got that opportunity when the Washington Capitals traded for him after spending years as the No. 2 in Pittsburgh to Mario Lemieux. Adam Oates left St. Louis after thriving with Brett Hull for a few years, too. But those are the exception, not the rule.

Most No. 2s stick with their No. 1, especially in recent years. Look at Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in Washington, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand in Boston, and Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in Detroit. Even now, Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk are both locked up for years to come in Florida.

By the time Kane left Chicago, he was far past his prime years. It’s similar to Steven Stamkos departing the Tampa Bay Lightning at 34 years old, after years of forming a one-two punch with Nikita Kucherov. Corey Perry also left Ryan Getzlaf and the Anaheim Ducks for Dallas when he was 34. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were both past their prime when they broke up with the San Jose Sharks.

Look further back through NHL history at how other one-two punches broke up: It often wasn’t the No. 2 who left first.  Peter Forsberg left Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche for Philadelphia (and eventually returned to Colorado years later). Mike Bossy retired before Bryan Trottier ultimately left the New York Islanders. Wayne Gretzky was traded out of Edmonton before Mark Messier left for New York.Even though Messier became the de-facto leader in Edmonton and won a Cup without Gretzky, he eventually stepped out of that shadow to lead New York on his own.  

At the simplest level, without the context of each scenario, history works in the Oilers’ favor. But just because most No. 2 forwards don’t leave their teams to become the star elsewhere, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen with Draisaitl. The fact his contract is up a year earlier than McDavid’s could decide the situation, as could management’s pressure to move him before the season starts. But if Draisaitl does bet on himself to become a driver of a new team, it could make waves. He isn’t the only No. 2 up for a new contract in the coming years — Mikko Rantanen and Mitch Marner are up in 2025.

Draisaitl controls his future and, like other No. 2s who were part of dynamic duos, faces a career-defining decision. Is it more important for him to shine elsewhere and make a name for himself without McDavid? Or can stronger championship hopes behind McDavid bring the same level of career success for him?

Data via Evolving Hockey, CapFriendly and Dom Luszczyszyn

(Photo: Codie McLachlan / Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top