The second half of the NHL season has been yet another endurance test for the Edmonton Oilers, consigned once again to also-ran status since sometime last fall. Fans of the team look for signs of hope, and find them in the promise of young players like Oscar Klefbom and Anton Lander, the recent scoring exploits of Nail Yakupov, or in the continuing emergence of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as a top-notch two-way centre. But one of the best stories of the second half revolves around one of the Oilers’ most reliable veterans, Jordan Eberle.
Still just 24, Eberle doesn’t fit everybody’s definition of a veteran, but the first-round draft choice (22nd overall) from 2008 has been in the organization longer than anyone else, and as a five-year performer on the big club shares the “longest-serving Oiler” honours with star winger Taylor Hall. In the eyes of many, Hall is the face of the Oilers, with Eberle consigned to some sort of sidekick status. Many have suggested that Eberle is the logical choice to be trade bait in the eternal search for a franchise defenceman.
Perhaps it’s time to re-think Eberle’s place in the scheme of things. He’s one of the relatively few players on the squad who reliably fills his own position description, “scoring winger”. After leading the Oilers in scoring his first two seasons, he was surpassed by Hall the past two as the Kingston Cannonball surged into the league’s top ten scorers. But for his part Eberle kept up scoring at an elite level, and in Hall’s absence this season he has once again emerged as the club’s scoring leader.
Strange as it might seem, Eberle has done better than ever without the support of his long-time linemate. Hall was struck down by injury immediately following the All-Star game, and has played just two periods of one game of the 22 the Oilers have logged since that time. During that span, Eberle has become the central figure of Edmonton’s attack, emerging as one of the NHL’s hottest producers. Here are the league leaders since the break:
Some half-decent players on the short list, what? All data courtesy War-On-Ice.com, which includes some background data about the players’ age (Eberle is second youngest), cap hit (a little below the mean of $6.5 MM) and average ice time (middle of the pack, certainly nothing excessive). Eberle has really been bagging the apples, being tied for second among forwards with Joe Thornton over that span and ranking behind only Backstrom — who of course feeds the puck to the incomparable Ovechkin.
A big part of Eberle’s success has occurred with the man advantage, where he has been the main man of a revived Oilers powerplay that has ranked first in the NHL over the past five weeks. Over that span Eberle has made a number of gorgeous feeds to the goal scorer, such as the between-the-legs pass he sent Yakupov’s way for a one-time finish in Edmonton’s most recent game in Columbus. But Eberle’s even-strength production has also been elite during this time as well.
That’s all well and good, but is it sustainable? Consider this: since his sophomore season, Eberle has ranked among the top ten in scoring by right-wingers every year. He was tied for fourth in 2011-12, ninth in the lockout year, eighth in 2013-14, and currently sits tied for sixth among NHLers patrolling the starboard side.
One would hope and expect that a team’s top player at any given discipline should rank somewhere in the NHL’s top 30, preferably in the top half of that indicating above-average production. But to consistently land within the top 10 ranks as “elite” in my books. Indeed, over those four years, Eberle sits fourth among full-time RWs in scoring, behind only Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane, and Martin St. Louis. And yet some folks think the Oilers can improve their lot by trading this guy? One thing is for sure, if they put his name out there on the market, there will be a long line-up of teams looking for his services.
Perhaps the best aspect of Eberle’s eruption during Hall’s absence is that Coach Todd Nelson — or his replacement, Coach Du Jour — has a very real option of putting Hall on a different line when he is available. Make no mistake the Oilers could use a second scoring line; over the past 20 games, they have scored all of 45 goals, with Eberle recording a scoring point on more than half (23) of those tallies. When the Oilers make their own short list of guys who have been getting the job done, surely Jordan Eberle’s name will be right at the top.