People love to read The Hockey News because they trust that the stories reflect the honest views of the writers. I want to continue that tradition of integrity with an admission. I have scouted the games for Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers for a month this season, and I spoke with respected NHL scouting personnel and people who have coached these players. Let me state three obvious facts. First, they are two of the top offensive players in the NHL. Second, their styles of play are significantly different. Third, their results are remarkably similar.
For the first time my series of Versus comparisons, I’m really not sure who I should select as the more valuable of the two players. That said, I will not pass the buck. I will make my decision. However, all readers should understand that I do so without a strong conviction that I am correct. Let me describe Eichel and Draisaitl in more detail. This should provide you with a basis for making an informed decision of your own in selecting one over the other.
Both players are entering the peak years of their careers. Draisaitl is 24. Eichel is 23. Draisaitl is from Germany and went to Prince Albert of the WHL in 2012. He was taken third overall in the 2014 NHL draft behind Aaron Ekblad and Sam Reinhart. He then played one more season in the WHL, leading Kelowna to the Memorial Cup final. He’s now in his fifth full season with the Oilers. Eichel is from Boston. In 2012, he joined USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program for two seasons and then played one season for Boston University, leading them to the Frozen Four final. He was selected second overall in the 2015 draft behind Connor McDavid. He jumped immediately to the Sabres and just finished his fifth season with the club. Remarkably, Draisaitl has averaged exactly a point per game during his career, while Eichel has averaged 0.95 points per game. EDGE: NEITHER
This category is interesting. Both players are natural centres. Both have received ice time consistent with being the No. 1 centre on their team. They are key components of their team’s top power-play unit but aren’t often used in penalty-killing situations. When Eichel scored a shorthanded goal in December, it was the first shorthanded point either player had produced in the NHL. Draisaitl has a problem in assuming his role. As McDavid’s teammate, he’ll never be the Oilers’ No. 1 centre. In most cases, he has performed as the second-line centre and, when the Oilers need an offensive jolt, he has played left wing on the first line. Interestingly, when he plays left wing, he’s still used for important face offs ahead of McDavid. Eichel is the top player on his team. Because of McDavid, Draisaitl is looked on as the No. 2 player on his team. EDGE: NEITHER
It is remarkable that in more than 300 NHL games for each player, both at or near a point per game. This puts them in the top echelon of the NHL. Eichel has accumulated a greater percentage of his points on the power play and has a higher rate of assists. Draisaitl has scored more goals, breaking out for 50 last season. EDGE: NEITHER
It is difficult to imagine two top-level offensive forwards being so different. The most obvious difference is in skating. Eichel’s skating is ahead of every player in the NHL except for McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon. His long, powerful stride may be the best in the league. He reminds me of Paul Coffey as he effortlessly strides past opponents in the open ice. Under Buffalo coach Ralph Krueger, Eichel’s defensive positioning is better, but he still likes to play the game by making big swoops, often with his back to the play. Of all the top players in the NHL, Eichel is most likely to try to beat opponents 1-on-1. On the power play, he often is the player building up speed to carry the puck through the neutral zone, and once the Sabres gain the zone, he plays the half-wall, usually on his off-wing side. His main role is that of a play maker, with Reinhart the chief beneficiary of his plays. Draisaitl is a stiff-legged skater who seldom tries to beat anybody 1-on-1. He has great stamina and does not labour unless his shift is too long. His game is based upon quick puck movement, finding an open teammate with momentum and moving into position for a return pass. On the power play, he is usually positioned in the slot in the middle of the defensive box. From there, he can take advantage of his quick, accurate release or make quick passes. He is every bit as important as McDavid in forming the top power-play unit in the NHL. Draisaitl never seems to have his back to the play. EDGE: NEITHER
WHAT WOWS YOU
Both players combine size, strength, smarts and skill. Watch them come through the neutral zone on their off-wing and, while still in motion, make a backhand pass across the width of the rink to a teammate in flight. Watch them thread passes through a number of bodies and sticks to open teammates in the offensive zone. Watch Draisaitl consistently find an open teammate with momentum in the defensive zone and use a quick pass to exit the zone. Watch him use a quick give-and-go in the offensive zone and then show his great concentration and hands to score from bad angles. Watch Eichel go coast-to-coast in overtime against Edmonton, draw a penalty and then win the game on a penalty shot. Watch him drive to the net against Vegas, protect the puck and score the winner. Both players consistently perform at the elite level with different styles, and they are fun to watch. EDGE: NEITHER
WHY NOT PERFECT
Neither player is used in penalty-killing situations. Draisaitl works very hard to be an average NHL skater. Both are risk-takers with the puck. This hurts their numbers in the important takeaway/giveaway ratio. In their careers, Eichel is minus-97 and Draisaitl is minus-105. With their puck skills, both of them should be better in this area. Eichel does not lack hockey sense. What he does lack is a word not used enough in player evaluations: concentration. Pundits would rave about Wayne Gretzky’s ability to visualise what was going to happen. They overlooked the fact Gretzky’s ability to retain his concentration made the rest of his game possible. How many times can you remember Gretzky over skating a puck in a key situation or fanning on a drop pass with the game on the line? It almost never happened. Watch Eichel play. Even on his best nights, he is prone to these types of mental errors. EDGE: NEITHER
Both Eichel and Draisaitl can be key components of a Stanley Cup contender. So how do I choose who is more valuable? Neither player is perfect. One masks his average skating with great hands, sense and concentration. The other overcomes lapses in concentration with hands, sense and tremendous skating. Their career offensive production is nearly identical. In order to break the stalemate, imagine this situation: it’s late in a crucial game, and we need a goal to keep our playoff hopes alive. I can either put Draisaitl or Eichel on the ice. No more waffling. I choose Draisaitl. He’s a better face off man to get the puck. There is less chance he’ll make a sloppy play to lose the puck. His ability to score in tight is a bit better. But I don’t wish to sound bolder than I am. I hate to overlook a skilled player with courage who can skate through the entire opposition. I choose Draisaitl over Eichel because I’m forced to make the call. The key question is: what do you think?