Opening night, 2010-11. The Edmonton Oilers–coming off the worst season in their history–had three highly touted rookies and 82 games ahead to show what they could do. It didn’t take long for the youngsters to take it to the limit.
Before the first period of their first NHL game, Mike Milbury, Kelly Hrudey and Scott Oake were talking about Eberle, Hall and Pääjärvi. Milbury suggested before the game that survival was the key, and Hrudey said "I think (that nervousness) might be as long as 20 minutes." 20 minutes later the tone from Hrudey, Milbury and Oake was completely different.
Speed was mentioned about a dozen times in the between period comments and then Hrudey said this: "I thought I’d see more nervousness from him. The thing about these three young men is the way they think the game. I knew they had talent, but I didn’t know they’d be that smart on the ice."
For Edmonton Oiler fans, the progress early in the season is coming in waves. Last night in Chicago, the kids (and veterans) took full advantage of a veteran goalie on a bad night and the Hawks depleted defense. The final tally for the three rookies was 2 goals, 4 assists over several miles and 60 minutes.
This morning, there are some impressive items for Oiler fans to ponder. The NHL leader in rookie points? Jordan Eberle. Pääjärvi is tied for 5th, Hall tied for 8th. In terms of TOI per game, Eberle is 1st among rookie NHL forwards, followed by Hall in 2nd and Pääjärvi in 7th.
Pääjärvi leads the group in 5×5 points-per-60 minutes:
- Pääjärvi 2.52
- Hall 1.94
- Eberle 1.53
Pääjärvi also leads the trio in Corsi relative to quality of competition and PDO. All of these numbers beg a few questions, so let’s ask them.
- Who has been the most impressive? Eberle. If Pääjärvi is the rocket man and Hall is touched by God, Eberle plays the game with a combination of skill, smarts and determination seldom seen in a rookie. His positioning is exceptional, his anticipation off the charts and the words "quick stick" don’t do justice to what the young man can do in all three zones. Intercepting passes, breaking up rushes by getting a piece of a pass, he’s already a player the coach can count on in difficult circumstances.
- The Calder trophy? I’ll vote Eberle but it’s early. Hall is just finding the range and if he can post a strong number then Eberle (and others) will have to rip it up in order to win the thing. Pääjärvi will have to get increased minutes at both EV and PP in order to run with the other two as the season wears on.
- Injury? If every shift is a sortie then every successful flight means these players are settling in with the size and speed of the game. Pääjärvi has appeared to shy away from traffic in the last week or so after a Regehr hit (would they just trade his ass to Boston already?) and they’ve all taken big league hits. However, all three resume’s imply durable young men and so far so good.
- What has been surprising about Eberle? We’re not talking about Eberle’s lack of foot speed and that was a topic before the season began. Also, I felt he would eventually be a "complete player" but he seems to be playing at that level now. This is early in his career and he could lose confidence, but watching him play it looks for all the world like he knows exactly what to do in all situations.
- What has been surprising about Hall? His composure. Look, Taylor Hall is a kid. Canadians like our best hockey players to say and do the right things and it must have been difficult for him early in the season when the puck wasn’t going in the net. But in every interview (and there were a lot) he seemed sincere and confident. Sometimes you encounter people who are ready to meet high expectations on their way to greatness. Hall definitely looks like that type of person.
- What has been surprising about Pääjärvi? Well I knew he was fast but he’s really, really fast. The young man is also efficient offensively (witness his 5×5/60 number above) and is already an expert on things like the give and go. I’m surprised he’s so adaptable in terms of linemates, and he’s very aware defensively if not effective yet.
- Is this group of three better than the 07-08 rookie group (Gagner, Cogliano, Brodziak)? This is the best F trio to play their first NHL season in Edmonton since 79-80 (Gretzky, Messier, Dave Hunter) and 80-81 (Kurri, Anderson, Tom Roulston).
- What is their overall weakness? Play away from the puck, but even with that there are promising signs. Eberle’s overall effectiveness, Pääjärvi’s eagerness to fall back and Hall’s skill set which lend themselves to the defensive side of the puck.
- Will the Oilers get a lottery pick in 2011? Not at this rate. What are you going to do? You can’t hold back the water.