Most hockey fans will know who Leon Draisaitl – the Deutschland Dangler – is. After all, he was an incredibly buzz-worthy draft pick in 2014, and was eventually selected third overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2014 NHL Draft. While he does need some time for development – he is, after all, only 19 years old – his size and skill meant he was called to the NHL fairly early, despite his youth.
His first NHL game was on October 9th, 2014, and he’s had both highs and lows since his debut, as is to be expected. Any player, regardless of how talented, will generally have a bit of a learning curve when they enter the big leagues. Draisaitl himself has acknowledged that in interviews.
However, Draisaitl recently garnered a lot of attention based on a decision that his NHL team made. On December 12th, the Edmonton Oilers made the announcement that they would not be allowing Draisaitl to play for Germany in the 2015 World Junior Championships. Less than ten days later, he was a healthy scratch in an NHL game, and in January – a few days before the World Junior Championships final – he was returned to the CHL, then traded to the Kelowna Rockets, back in the little leagues for development.
There’s just one question on everyone’s mind – why not let him play for Germany if you weren’t keeping him anyway? Let’s break down the situation a bit.
There are certainly situations where an NHL team would be perfectly justified in refusing a player the chance to play in the World Junior Championships. If a player stands to develop more in the NHL than in an international tournament like the Juniors, there would be no need to send them to the Juniors. If Draisaitl were an integral part of the Oilers’ team, and if the Oilers were a winning team, it might be understandable that they didn’t want to give him up for a tournament – both for their own record and for his development. Call it a Bo Horvat 2.0. However, that’s not the case – the Oilers have had an abysmal record, and while Draisaitl has had some good games, he’s certainly not the team’s backbone (they currently don’t have one).
So why deny him the chance to play for his country? Draisaitl obviously finds international tournaments like the World Junior Championships important – he appeared in both 2013 and 2014, and even captained the 2014 team. It was expected that he would captain the 2015 German squad as well. If the Oilers thought the development opportunities in the NHL outweighed the development opportunities in a tournament, given that he’s had two years of experience at the World Juniors, that’s understandable as well. The Oilers clearly weren’t letting him develop in the NHL during that time, however – he was a healthy scratch for two games occurring in the tournament’s time span before he was moved out of the NHL.
Hockey fans are calling foul on the decision, but it begs the question – what should the right decision be? Had he continued to play for the Oilers in 2015, would it have been okay to deny him the chance to go to the World Juniors? Would it have been okay to send him down to the little leagues after the tournament? Is there even a right answer?
It’s a very real thing that many professional athletes have to face. It’s an immense honor to play on a professional sports team, something many athletes work towards for years and years. Sometimes things line up and an athlete is able to compete internationally and with their respective team with no schedule conflicts. This isn’t always the case – and who should be the one to make the call in situations where it’s either/or? The player, the team, or some higher authority?
The World Juniors are often seen as a venue where young, undrafted hockey superstars can shine and show their skills off so that they get snapped up when the NHL drafts. If an athlete is already playing on a professional team, they might not need the opportunity to showcase their skills as much as a young, undrafted player does. However, it’s still a really big deal to represent your country on a national stage, to honor your homeland, and share in the joy of winning them a medal or a trophy. There are superstar athletes who still light up when they play for their country in events like the Olympics. It’s still competing in the same sport they excel at, but it’s a whole different game, an opportunity that players should have.
Draisaitl was traded to the Kelowna Rockets for a good reason – the Oilers staff thought out what the best venue would be for Draisaitl to develop his skills. However, in his last year of eligibility for World Juniors, if he wasn’t playing for his NHL team, he should have been given the opportunity to captain Germany.
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