QUEBEC CITY — The stars came out Monday night for the Kelowna Rockets. Not surprisingly, Leon Draisaitl shined brightest.
The Rockets took a step forward when they managed their first win of the 2015 Memorial Cup in a 7-3 blowout over the Rimouski Oceanic. Draisaitl finished the game with three points, scoring twice and setting up one of linemate Nick Merkley’s two goals. It was a much-needed result for the Western Hockey League champions who lost their opener to the Quebec Remparts.
“It’s nice to show the hockey world what we are capable of,” said Draisaitl. “We played, in my opinion one of the worst games we played all year against Quebec so it’s nice to get everyone going and get a few guys on the scoresheet and show the world we are better than we have been.
“It was nice to score that many goals for sure.”
The Rockets will have little rest, facing the Oshawa Generals (2-0) on Tuesday night. The QMJHL-champion Oceanic (0-2) will fight for their tournament lives on Wednesday in a rematch of the President’s Cup final with the host Remparts. They’ll have a day to get their act together after a poor display against Kelowna.
“We played like (crap),” Oceanic defender Samuel Morin told reporters in French after the game.
Draisaitl is the biggest star at this tournament, which isn’t really new for him considering he’s been the biggest star almost everywhere he’s played in the junior ranks. At the 2014 NHL draft he became the highest German national to be drafted when he went third overall to the Edmonton Oilers. The Cologne native was taken second overall at the CHL import draft by the Prince Albert Raiders before being traded to Kelowna after spending the first half of the season in the NHL with the Oilers.
“It’s probably a role he’s had throughout his life playing in Germany,” said Rockets head coach Dan Lambert of Draisaitl’s star power. “I know in Prince Albert he was their go-to guy for a couple years there. He’s been a key guy for Germany at different levels whether it was world junior in the past or as a youngster. I would think that he’s comfortable with it.”
As one of the Oilers’ best prospects, Draisaitl has been keeping a close eye on all the management changes that have been happening in Edmonton – namely the recent hiring of general manager Peter Chiarelli and head coach Todd McLellan.
“I think they’ve done a great job so far hiring Chiarelli and McLellan,” said the 19-year-old “They’re two very well-known people and they’re very experienced and I think it will help the organization a lot.”
In fairness, they can’t be any worse than the previous management which failed to make the playoffs for nine straight seasons going back to 2005-06. The Oilers decided to keep Draisaitl in the NHL for the first half of the season, but prevented him from joining Germany at the world junior championship only to send him back to junior a week later.
“That wasn't really my decision to be honest,” said Draisaitl of the decision to forgo a third and final world junior championship. “It was the Oilers’ decision and I don't want to comment too much on it.”
Without their star player, the Germans were relegated from the top division and will have to try to work their way back in 2016. It was especially tough for Draisaitl, who has been vocal about wanting to be an ambassador for German hockey.
“It’s never fun to see your country go down – especially your age group,” said Draisaitl. “It’s kind of funny; all my best friends are on that team and I’ve played with all of those guys for a number of years growing up in hockey. It’s not easy to see something like that, so obviously it’s disappointing. I would have loved to help them out a little bit at least.”
A trade meant that the 6-foot-1, 209-pound forward went straight to Kelowna to join the Rockets on their quest for the WHL title. Having spent the first half of the season with the Oilers getting limited ice time or sitting in a press box as a scratch, the move back to junior was an adjustment.
“I think it took me a good 15 games to really get back to my game,” said Draisaitl.
“It took me maybe a week or two,” he added on the disappointment of leaving the NHL. “Obviously it’s not easy. You’re living the dream basically and then you kind of get sent down.”
The move to Kelowna was helped by the fact that Prince Albert teammates Josh Morrissey and Gage Quinney had been acquired earlier in December by the Rockets. Still, the new faces added to the Rockets lineup meant some adjustments for a number of players – particularly the 18-year-old Merkley who saw many of his minutes go to Draisaitl.
“It was obviously less opportunity for me with Leon there,” said Merkley. “But we started playing with each other and started clicking so I think it helped out in the long run. Obviously he’s a great player and helped our team the whole time.”
Merkley is the top-ranked prospect at the Memorial Cup for the 2015 NHL draft, so playing with someone of Draisaitl’s calibre and experience has been a boon in his draft year. In the playoffs the young German tied for the WHL scoring lead with 10 goals and 28 points in 19 games. As a result, he was named as the league’s playoff MVP which was no surprise to his teammates.
“He’s played at the next level and he knows how to find guys,” said Merkley of playing with Draisaitl. “So I think it’s just getting open for him and obviously (Rourke) Chartier has been great finding space for me and Leon. He’s an elite player and it’s special to play with him.”
The Rockets’ top line was firing on all cylinders against Rimouski, but they’ll face a stiff test against an Oshawa team that had much success shutting down Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters in the OHL championship series.
“I’ve said it many times before,” said Draisaitl. “As a hockey player you want to win and eventually you want to win championships.”