Thursday, May 4, 2017

In Defense Of Jordan Eberle


Uh, okay let me elaborate.

As is custom in Edmonton, every year the Oilers fan base must find one player on which to heap all scorn for any and all failures of the team. It's generally a moving target, passed around from player to player like any number of "player of the game" rituals we see in almost every NHL dressing room these days. But there is usually one guy who gets the honour on a consistent basis throughout the year, and for the 2016-17 season that lucky man was one Jordan Leslie Eberle.

Eberle made an impression literally from game one. Fresh off a 106 point final junior campaign with Regina, and a very solid pro debut to finish off the season with the Springfield Falcons (11 games played - 14 points) the kid with the gap tooth smile and a penchant for scoring the clutchiest of clutch goals delivered what would arguably the best single highlight during the darkest era of Edmonton Oilers hockey. (Sam Gagner's 8 point night does not qualify as a single highlight DO NOT @ ME!)

"This is the dawn of a new era" we all screamed at no one in particular. For the first time in a few seasons (looking back now BOY did we have no idea what was in store for us!) the Oilers had hope. LITERALLY, Hall, Omark (LOL), Paajarvi and Eberle were the new class of young guns ready to turn this team back into a contender, alongside stalwart veterans like Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner (I absolutely need to point something out here that broke my brain; Sam Gagner was 21 when this season started. Jordan Eberle? 20!!! Gagner isn't even a full 12 months older than Eberle! Doesn't it feel like he was already in the league for like 5 years by this point?? Cripes. He's STILL only 27 and people have been talking for like two years as if he's too old to be impactful in the NHL anymore).

Eberle finished his rookie season with a more than respectable 43 points in 69 (#Nice) games. The only real problem here is he LEAD THE TEAM IN SCORING! God dammit those Tambellini Oiler teams were ATROCIOUS! And while we're here, I would also like to mention that Devan Dubnyk had a completely respectable .916 SV% with a 2.71 GAA, on a team without a single 50 point player, and a top 4 defense that included Kurtis Foster and Jim Vandermeer. Just try to keep things like this in mind when people try to use revisionist history that Dubnyk was terrible in his time in Edmonton (his last season here notwithstanding).

So a bad season for the Oilers in general, but H.O.P.E was still alive and well and Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle looked to build off some decent rookie campaigns. And BOY DID JORDAN EVER BUILD!

With the addition of Edmonton's second first overall pick in a row, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers had an entire line of exciting young players and the future was looking bright. And Eberle took full advantage, leading the team in scoring for the second year in a row with an outstanding 76 point campaign, good enough for 15th overall (tied with Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar, not terrible company IMO). "Eberle might be even better than Hall" I'm sure a lot of people thought as they got way ahead of themselves. Even with a great season from Eberle, and a 14 point improvement overall, the Oilers somehow STILL managed to finish 29th. Just in case you've lost track, that's now two seasons in a row where Eberle was the leading scorer on the worst team in the league.

Next came the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, which saw our trio of tween players start the season in the AHL, and god dammit did they DOMINATE. Despite only playing half a season for the Oklahoma City Barons, Eberle finished second in team scoring with 51 points in 34 games (the leading scorer that year? MARK ARCOBELLOOOOOOOOOOOOOO). Eberle couldn't keep up that torrid pace in the NHL, nor could he match his output from the previous season (which elicited a few too many I TOLD YOU SO pieces from certain sections of Oilers internet) but still managed to finish third in team scoring with 37 points in a shortened 48 game season (A 63 point pace over an 82 game season in case you were curious).

So that's now three seasons in the NHL, and three seasons he was one of the best offensive players on the team. Is this.... is this a pattern we're starting to see?

2013-14 was where I think Eberle firmly settled into what I would call his sweet spot, offensive-wise anyway. He finished 65 points in 80 games (second only to Taylor Hall) which was good enough to place him squarely as the 30th best point-getter in the league that season. And if we do some quick math here, three first line forwards per team, times 30 teams, is 90 first line players. And being the 30th best out of that 90 puts you in the top 1/3 of forwards in the league. Four seasons into his career and Jordan Eberle firmly established himself as an elite, top line forward. VERY INTERESTING....

Eberle was back on top as the team's leading scorer in 2014-15, with 63 points in 81 games, on an Oilers team that had three different head coaches in a single season, dressed five different goalies, and were without Taylor Hall for almost half a season.

Once again I must ask, are we seeing a pattern here? For five seasons in a row Jordan Eberle is consistently one of the Oilers best players, on teams that can't stop stumbling over their own damn feet. So far he has had four different head coaches, two wholly incompetent GMs, a depressingly long list of non-NHL caliber teammates, and still managed to be a consistent, elite offensive contributor.

Last season was arguably the worst of his pro career, with a disappointing 47 points in 69 games. That season was also the first time since he made his NHL debut that he wasn't one of the top 3 leading scorers on the team, finishing fourth behind Connor McDavid by one point. He battled through a hand injury for a good part of the season, which was one of a number of disappointing things that happened that year that basically postponed the Oilers first trip back to the postseason by a year.

This season was a funny one. I think we can all agree we were disappointed in the season Eberle had, as he seemed to disappear through large chunks of the calendar, and not to make excuses but it definitely looked like he had a hard time adjusting to life without Taylor Hall, as their chemistry was undeniable throughout their time in Edmonton. And even despite our disappointment he, ONCE AGAIN, finished in the top three for scorers on the team, behind only Connor McDavid's Art Ross winning season, and Leon Draisaitl's transition into the Goose to Connor McDavid's Maverick (uhh... wait.... that may not be the best comparison to make). He finished with more points than high-priced free agent acquisition Milan Lucic, and Patrick Maroon who had the best season of his god damn life and was a force all year long. So even though his points were down, and as I said I think we all agree we were disappointed in his season overall, he still finished with 20 goals and 51 points, playing mostly a second line role. If I told you the Oilers had a chance to acquire Player X to play on their second line, and he had that stat line, we'd trip all over ourselves to make sure the Oilers did everything in their power to acquire him.

HOWEVER, since it's Jordan Eberle, and he has a pedigree, he's a proven point getter, and he's the oldest player left out of the original H.O.P.E crew now that everyone's favorite reason-the-Oilers-were-bad Taylor Hall is gone, the fans have unsurprisingly turned on him en masse. Combine that with what has so far been a nightmare postseason (no defending that here. He's been terrible) and we're seeing legitimate talk about letting him go for nothing to Las Vegas this summer. I mean, we saw with the Taylor Hall trade that the "addition by subtraction" move has a 100% success rate, SO WHY WOULD THEY NOT DO IT??

Look, I agree that there are flaws in Eberle's game. We've seen him muscled off the puck time and time again. We've seen him turn into George Michael Bluthe trying to catch something when someone initiates body contact. HOWEVER, when you've got a guy who consistently gets you anywhere between 50 to 65 points a season, especially when he's been able to do it on teams as atrocious as the 2010-2015 Oilers were, there is clearly value there. Hockey fans in general have this unrealistic expectation that every player on their team is going to be great at everything. But the reality is some guys are good at some things, and terrible at others. And what good teams do is find a way to build a roster that compliments those strengths and weaknesses.

Look at Johnathan Toews. He's heralded not only as one of the best players in the league, but one of the 100 BEST PLAYERS IN NHL HISTORY, but did you know he's only broken the 70 point plateau once in his career? He's rightfully praised for his defensive prowess, and he's a legit, elite talent to be sure. But his offensive ability is lacking, so what do you do if you're Stan Bowman/Joel Quenneville? You put him out there with guys like Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa who go out and do most of the heavy lifting offensively, and next thing you know you've won 3 Cups in 5 years, and 65 point player Toews is making more money than SIDNEY FUCKING CROSBY. (It also doesn't hurt when you've got a perennial Norris contender manning the point behind you) If he was drafted by, say, Minnesota, and surrounded with good but non-elite offensive players and playing in a system that relies mostly on suffocating defense, do you think he's still gets as much praise? Probably not.

Credit to Todd McLellan though, as it seemed like he did try something like that. Nugent-Hopkins has always been solid defensively, but he fully transitioned into a shutdown center role this season, so if things had gone well we could have seen Eberle put up another 65 point season while having his defensive deficiencies masked by both Nuge, and having a competent second defensive pairing playing behind him. Unfortunately for both players this season, the pucks just wouldn't go in for them. Eberle was second on the team in shots with 208, while Nuge was fourth with an even 200, but disappointingly both finished with just a 9% shooting percentage. Contrast that with the previous season in which Eberle shot at 14.5% and Nuge 11.1% and we can chalk some of their offensive struggles up to just shitty puck luck. And for quick reference here are Jordan Eberle's shooting numbers through his career so far:

16-17 - 208 shots, 9.6%
15-16 - 173 shots, 14.5%
14-15 - 183 shots, 13.1%
13-14 - 200 shots, 14%
12-13 - 133 shots, 12%
11-12 - 180 shots, 18.9% (his anomaly 76 point season)
10-11 - 158 shots, 11.4%

So this season his shooting percentage was around 4-5% worse than normal. AND HE STILL MANAGED TO SCORE 20 GOALS!

Are you into plus/minus? You really shouldn't be, BUT IF YOU ARE Eberle managed to finish the season +3, the first time he was in the black since his 76 point season.

He had 14 power play points this year, good enough for fifth on the team.

He was third in assists with 31, behind only McDavid and Draisaitl.

He took only 8 penalties this year, which was second only to Oscar Klefbom and his should-have-been Lady Byng winning season, for players with at least 70 games played.

Jordan Eberle is (in a week and a bit) 27 years old, has been a consistent 55-60 point player for the majority of his career, and has two more years left on a reasonable $6 million a year contract. If the Oilers find some kind of trade that brings back a comparable player (not likely) or an offensive top 4 D-man (even less likely) then I'd be open to moving him. But the idea of trading away a still valuable player whose stock is at an all-time low at the moment, let alone this insane idea of exposing him in the expansion draft, is peak Oiler fan lunacy.

"He's too soft" may be a somewhat reasonable talking point if we were referring to a 6'5", 230lbs stay-at-home D-man, or a bottom six grinder in the mould of a Zack Kassian or a Tom Wilson. But when you're using it to try describe a 5'11", top six forward whose role it is to put fucking points on the board, and not to just punch faces and set tones, you can just fuck right off with that nonsense.

I just cannot emphasize this point enough; in a down season, which saw him hang a career low shooting percentage, and where he had to adjust to life without his BFF Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle

All Jordan Eberle has done his entire career up to this point is be one of the Oilers best players. There are warts to his game to be sure, but they're picked at and looked at under a microscope due to how terrible the teams he has played on have been (or, as is the case at this moment, his team has lost two playoff games). He was the epitome of a good player on terrible teams, whose greatest sin was not being able to drag a group of AHL and Europe bound players up to his level. Man, all of this sounds vaguely familia- OH GOD NO!

He will bounce back next season, I guarantee you that. And for the sake of seeing the Oilers continue to make strides toward becoming one of the best teams in the league I just hope it's with Edmonton and not with Pittsburgh, or Minnesota, or Columbus, or Montreal, or, you know, SOMETHING like that.

1 comment:

Neilio76 said...

I've been an Eberle fan from the start. And even though you lay out some logical, reasonable points here, fans aren't picking him at random. He's put up a generally respectable number of points during the regular season the last couple of years, but not for $6 million. And not for being given the chance to be McD's trigger man. He hasn't been able to adapt to the changes on the team like we'd hoped. You'd think getting the chance to play with the best player in the world would get him closer to 40 or 50 goals, not 20.

He's never going to be a physical beast out there, but the playoff run seemed to show that he isn't capable or willing to battle. Cagguila, Desharnais and Russell are all smaller guys that will battle for ice and position. Eberle was a pushover. Soft giveaways all over the place. The play seemed to always die on his stick, save for a shift or two each game, after he was called out, where he made an effort to make physical contact, or force a play. He had his chances from the coach. He was playing in games where he would have been benched had he not been a $6 million dollar man.

He's not been able to produce, or compete in a top 6 role in the playoffs and he is completely ineffective in a bottom 6 role. So where does he fit? Do you want to go to war with a guy that won't rise to the occasion, in at least one aspect?
The fact he couldn't produce offensively is one thing. If you can't look at the guys sitting beside you in the locker room last night and say you did everything you could, that's much worse.
That might be a bit harsh, but I think his teammates will have their doubts about him now. And that's reason enough to consider trading him.

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