Edmonton - July 13, 2013 - Following the 2011-2012 season, much of the talk surrounding the Edmonton Oilers and their core group of offensively gifted youngsters, was focused on Jordan Eberle.
After leading the team in scoring during both his rookie and sophomore campaigns, many felt the former first round pick was destined to lead this group into the future.
One abbreviated NHL season later and Eberle has become a non-essential piece of the puzzle...at least in the minds of some.
Heading into 2013, the Regina native was not only coming off a 34 goal, 76 point season but had just finished toying with the American Hockey League during the NHL Lockout.
While he struggled to find his game during the opening month of the season, he proceeded to tear it up over the next two, finishing with 25 goals and 51 points in just thirty-four games with the Oklahoma City Barons.
When the lockout came to an end, many expected the former Canadian Hockey Player of the Year, along with teammates Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and rookie defenceman Justin Schultz, to be ahead of the curve to start the year. A week and half into the season, Eberle had three goals and seven points through the Oilers first seven games. It looked as though everything was going according to plan but than it happened. The pucks simply stopped going in.
After collecting points at an almost obscene rate over the last year or so, Eberle couldn't buy a break, as neither he nor Hall and Nugent-Hopkins could score at even strength. While Hall would eventually find his way and produce what was easily his most complete campaign to date, his two linemates were not so lucky. Both showed marked improvement in other aspects of their game, especially on the defensive side, but scoring goals is what they are paid to do.
RNH would finish the year with just 24 points, playing the entire season with a bad shoulder, while Eberle produced a 16 goal, 37 point campaign, battling through a handful of ailments, including a broken finger for a good chunk of the schedule. On its own, his point total wasn't awful, as it was just a single point shy of Sam Gagner's apparent breakout season, but for #14, it was definitely a disappointment.
If you were to remove his quick start and final two games of season from the equation, the former Regina Pats star put up just 25 points in the remaining 39 games. Perhaps the most alarming statistic of all, was the fact Eberle was held off the scoresheet in 24 of Edmonton's 48 games. A sharp drop off from the previous season, in which he was held pointless in 29 of his 78 appearances.
With the emergence of Hall as a top ten National Hockey League scorer and the addition of Nail Yakupov into the mix, Eberle's "off year" left some wondering if he should be the piece moved to help improve some of this club's other glaring needs. Funny how a tough three month stretch can change the overall perception of the masses. He went form being touted by many as the Oilers next captain and best player, to being used as possible trade bait, seemingly overnight.
In his defence, Eberle saw limited minutes on the Oilers first unit power play over the last half of the season, despite being an integral part of its early season success with the man advantage. Then why make the move? That is a very good question but one that only last year's coaching staff could answer. It likely had something to do with creating "two quality" units, when in reality, it had the complete opposite effect.
Also, let's not forget the biggest factor in all of this, the health of Nugent-Hopkins. No matter how you cut it, #93 is an elite NHL talent and arguably as good a playmaker as their is in the game today. His inability to perform at his usual level not only hampered the Oilers ability to win games but also left his triggerman without his setup guy. No single player saw more ice time at even strength with RNH than Eberle and no player saw a more drastic drop in his production from the previous season. Coincidence? Not sure how it could be.
While there does seem to be some question as to whether or not the Nuge will be ready to go to start the 2013-14 season, the shoulder issue has been taken care of. Like most guys who have shoulder surgery, Nugent-Hopkins likely won't feel 100% comfortable until the following season, but that doesn't mean he won't be able to produce on the ice. Just ask Hall, who bounced back from off-season surgery very nicely, with an outstanding 2013 campaign.
A healthy Nugent-Hopkins, will go along way in helping Eberle bounce back with a better season. Some think his thirty-four goal campaign was a bit of a mirage, due to his 18.9% shooting percentage. I am not one of them. While I do not expect him to maintain that pace throughout his career, I fully expect him to become a perennial 30-40 goal guy. While he may never again enjoy such a success rate, you can bet on him consistently firing more pucks on net.
Even with his numbers being what they were this past season, Eberle was still on target for 27 goals over a full 82 game schedule. He increased his shots per game total to 2.77, from 2.31 the previous year, and that was playing alongside an injured Nugent-Hopkins and with a busted finger, His shooting percentage fell to 12% but he was still productive from a goal scoring standpoint. Leading me to believe, he is more than capable of pushing the forty goal mark on a regular basis...starting next season.