This is the fourth in a series of prospect profiles leading into the NHL draft Friday and Saturday.
For much of his youth, Leon Draisaitl has been dubbed “The German Gretzky.” No one can reasonably expect the 18-year-old to be the next Wayne Gretzky, but it’s almost certain he’ll be a top-five pick Friday night at the NHL Draft in Philadelphia.
And that will make him the most highly touted hockey player ever to come out of Germany.
Draisaitl is 6-feet-1½ and 205 pounds and has thrived the last two years playing junior hockey in Canada for the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western League. He can play center and left wing, and he’s considered perhaps the biggest puckhound in this draft.
“It’s an exciting time, really exciting,” Draisaitl said at the recent NHL Scouting Combine outside of Toronto. “It’s always been my goal to play in the NHL one day and I’m close. I’m not there yet and I know I have a lot of work in front of me, but it’s kind of surreal so far.
“I’ll be extremely proud and honored because we’ve had some high picks. To be considered as maybe the highest drafted German player so far would be a huge honor.”
Draisaitl has interviewed with 18 teams and the Sabres were one of them. Although it appears Barrie defenseman Aaron Ekblad has emerged as the likely No. 1 choice, Draisaitl has had the most buzz building around him in recent weeks among the top forwards.
Draisaitl first burst on the scene on an under-16 team in Mannheim, the home of former Sabres center Jochen Hecht. Draisaitl had 105 points in 26 games in 2009-10 and then had rolled up an incredible 97 goals, 95 assists and 192 points in just 29 games the next season. Yes, he averaged more than six points a game.
Draisaitl was named player of the year in 2011-12 after moving up to the under-18 league and then came to Canada as the No. 2 choice in the CHL Import Draft. He had 58 points for the Raiders in 2012-13 and finished fourth in the WHL this year with 38 goals, 67 assists and 105 points in 64 games.
Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting, said Draisaitl could translate to Los Angeles Kings power forward Anze Kopitar. Others said Draisaitl could play a puck-possession game akin to Jaromir Jagr.
“Leon decided to come to WHL, and it’s gone well for him,” Marr said. “Right now, these guys know that’s the one avenue they can take to accelerate their hockey development. It’s good for him that he’s been able to come over here and maximize it.”
Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff is aware of the hype of his fellow German. Ehrhoff has played in three Olympics for his homeland but said prior to the Sochi Games that it was one of the low moments in his country’s recent hockey history that it did not qualify.
Pittsburgh winger Marcel Goc, picked 20th by San Jose in 2001, stands as the highest-drafted German. The attention given to Draisaitl as he shatters that mark could change the country’s negative momentum.
“That’s so good for German hockey because not being in the Olympics is really tough and not a good situation,” Ehrhoff said. “I have not seen him play, but I have many friends who have and said he’s really an outstanding player. That’s going to mean a great deal for Germany to have a player drafted that high and hopefully he can step into the NHL and have great impact.”
Told of Ehrhoff’s remarks, Draisaitl said he was flattered.
“It’s a huge honor to hear that,” he said. “Like Christian said, German players don’t come along very often. We just don’t have the best development. I don’t like saying that, and I’m proud to be German, but it’s important for German hockey to have a guy like Christian and others like Goc so little kids can have guys to look up to.”
Draisaitl was a standout at the World Junior Championships and then got a surprise invitation to play for Germany in last month’s World Championships in Belarus, featuring many NHL players.
He was third on the team with four points in seven games and averaged 13½ minutes per game as the Germans went 1-5-1.
“It was a really exciting time, something new,” he said. “I’ve never played against men before. I enjoyed it, had a really good time and learned a lot from it about the pace of the game and the strength the pros had. That’s what it comes down to. They’re grown men with several years of professional hockey. Some have played in the NHL for a long time.
“I want to be a complete player, not a one-dimensional player. I learned a lot in my couple weeks with the German national team, and I was really thankful that they invited me.”
Sooner or later, Draisaitl might be the most notable German of all. “I want to be a guy that maybe makes younger guys in Germany play hockey,” he said. “I’m proud of where I’m from, and I want to make the country proud and make as many kids play hockey as possible.”
Next: Kasperi Kapanen