Jordan Eberle has 11 goals and 26 points in 18 games with the Oklahoma City Barons in the Amercan Hockey League. After a bit of a slow start, he along with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall are dominating the AHL. Many expected them to dominate, but Eberle was quick to point out that the AHL is much better than people think.
I chatted with Eberle about the adjustment to the NHL, his desire to score, becoming a leader, his thoughts on Justin Schultz, Taylor Hall, Todd Nelson and if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins should play at the World Juniors.
Eberle had some excellent insight into scoring and you could tell that the kids aren’t wasting their time in the AHL. They are using it to get better, as well as trying to add some new dimensions to their offensive games.
Gregor: Was there a little bit of a transition for you to get comfortable in the American League?
Eberle: Ya it’s definitely a different game. The play is a bit more scrambled, there are a lot more turnovers, but ya, it took a little bit of time just to get new wind under the same team too. Even as a team, we were .500 forever and it was just a matter of time before we heated up. The team is starting to come together now and starting to play good hockey.
Gregor: I caught one of your games on the weekend and it seemed almost every time you were on the ice, you guys had a legitimate scoring chance. Talk about the continuity amongst the three of you and how much confidence you have in the offensive zone.
Eberle: We have a lot of chemistry. We played together a ton last year. You put us in a situation in the AHL and I think as a line, we’re even better than last year. We’re trying to do some things like the Sedins or even the Getzlaf line in Anaheim. We’re trying to take things off what they do and use it in behind the net. Just little things they’re doing and trying to perfect it at this level and it seems like we’ve been doing that. Like you said, every time we’re out there usually we’re getting a chance or moving the puck around pretty easily. It’s a lot of fun, I mean hockey’s always been a lot of fun when you’re winning games and we have a good group of guys too. We’re really enjoying it.
Gregor: You have mentioned before you how you watch a lot of games. Taylor Hall had told me he loves watching hockey. When you two were roomates, you guys would watch a lot of games. What specifically have you tried to emulate into your game that the Sedin line did or even the Getzlaf/Perry combination.
Eberle: Well if you watch those guys, I think especially the Getzlaf line and I’ve talked to a lot of defenceman, they find that line to be the toughest line to play against. They’re really good at moving it east to west in the offensive zone. Whether it’s using the back of the net, most teams nowadays kind of play a really 3-man system down low where they just take down one side and they leave the other side wide open with a defenceman and a centre man in the corner and usually another defenceman high, so the back of net and the other side of the offensive side is wide open. So we’ve been trying to move it a lot east to west. Defenceman are really having trouble with us. Our team, was struggling scoring 5-on-5, but we’ve seem to have found it in the last little bit. I think if we continue to score and special teams continue to be good, we’re just going to keep playing.
Gregor: Twenty of your last twenty-four goals have come 5-on-5. Did you change anything even strength, because your power play for the most part, was allowing you to win games earlier?
Eberle: I think for the most part, the biggest thing for us was to shoot the puck. We were getting outshot by a lot of teams. You know there’s a great stat, I think, that when you shoot the puck on net, it’s about 87% of the time you get the puck back. So we have a really good low team in the offensive zone, as far as beating teams to the net and out-cycling teams and once we kinda got the shot one them philosophy into our game we were starting to get more greasy goals. I think the other night we out-shot Charlotte 45-15. If you do that every night, you’re going to have a good chance at winning.
Gregor: You’re a guy who’s always had a high shooting percentage. Right now you’re at 22%, which is very, very high. You don’t seem to just waste a lot of shots. Rarely do I see you come down the wing from the top of the circle, or just inside the blue line and fire a weak shot on goal. You don’t do it. You just rattled off that stat of 87%, but you seem to be a guy who doesn’t want to just waste shots. So how does that work for your game personally?
Eberle: You know what, ever since I was in juniors it was the same thing. People ask me, ‘It seems like every time you’re in the slot you score.’ I think for one, I’ve really worked on my shot. I try not to waste a chance; you know if I’m in the slot I’m going to bury it. Like you said, I’m not a guy to come down the wing and fire a puck on net. I more so wanna be the guy that beats the defensive line, tries to make a play to a guy or turn back and try to create more out of it. The chances I usually get, I usually try to slip in to places where it is a lot easier to score. Something about my shot too, I think goalies usually have trouble with it. I think I shoot off the toe a little bit. I ask goalies, ‘What’s the difference between my shot and someone else’s?’ It just comes off differently. So, I take a lot of pride on working on it. If I get a chance, I wanna score. It pisses me off when I don’t.
Gregor: You have a very good release. How much extra time do you spend in the off-season or even during the season just working on your shot?
Eberle: Lots. There’s a machine we use called the Rapid Shot where it passes you pucks. You pick targets, it’s great. It’s great for your release, great for your accuracy. I think those are the two biggest things. If you can get them off quick and accurate you’re gonna be a better shooter. At the end of the day, that’s what I want to be. It makes me mad in practice when you see guys just throwing it on net. I’ve always been a guy that’s wanted to shoot to score. You know, even in the first warm up when guys warm up the goalie I’m still trying to go bar and down. It’s just the guy I’ve always wanted to be, it just comes with scoring. It’s fun to score.
Gregor: Talk about Taylor Hall’s game. You know him very well. He seems to have shaken off all that rust from a long lay-off.
Eberle: Ya, I think in the first few games he hadn’t played in about 6 or 7 months. You could tell he was a little rusty, but he’s definitely found his game in the last little bit. He’s made our line a lot better. I think when you’ve got all three of us clicking we’re a tough unit to stop. I think he had eight points this weekend. It’s good to see him get going and it makes him a lot happier around the house so that’s good. (laughs)
Gregor: Are teams trying to take more liberties with you down there, or is it the same as when you’re in the NHL?
Eberle: It’s tough to say. There have definitely been a few cheap shots. Guys are trying to make a name for themselves or whatever it is. It’s part of the game. I think we have such a dangerous power play that teams are starting to realize that if they’re taking liberties or lot of times if you’re beating guys around and taking the puck on net they can’t hold you or hook you, because you put us on the power play we can be pretty deadly. It’s a win/win for us.
Gregor: Justin Schultz hasn’t slowed down. Are you surprised at how Schultz continues to produce, especially offensively for a defenceman?
Eberle: No, not at all. He’s another guy that loves to score or set things up. Much like me, when he gets a chance, he scores. That’s what you need out of a goal scorer. It’s funny to see that out of a defenceman because it’s rare. He makes a good play every time, and the right play and I think that’s a big reason why he gets so many points and creates so much.
Gregor: When you look at Schultz’s game, can you tell me how you think he will make that transition to the NHL? Is there any way to tell how he can translate his AHL success to the NHL?
Eberle: I think if he continues to play with confidence like he is… He’s definitely a unique style. It’s rare to see a defenceman jump up as much as he does. Even on the penalty kill, he’s jumping up and it’s kind of funny to watch but we score. I think sometimes defence is huge but it can be a little overrated sometimes for a defenceman. There’s a lot of time where you can work as a five-man unit. He can jump down low and one of us can play defence for him. I think as long as he keeps that into his game and adds a little more defence (laughs) because sometimes he can be a fourth forward out there, but I don’t think he’s going to have a problem stepping into the NHL.
Gregor: Maybe you just put him with a veteran stay-at-home defenceman like Nick Schultz so the younger Schult can roam a little more.
Eberle: Ya, exactly. At the same time, I think Schultzys so smart on the puck. He’s not a big, physical guy, but I think as long as he gets his stick on the ice in the D zone, gets pucks down low, and creates turnovers then he can be dangerous.
Gregor: Does he have that good of a shot or is it just very accurate?
Eberle: I think it’s accurate. If I had to compare him to a guy in the NHL, he’s like a Mike Green. He puts it in the right spot. Even as the off defenceman on a power play, he’s always got his head up. Sometimes I don’t even think he knows what color the puck is. He’s just throwing it on net and knows there’s a screen there and it just floats in. That’s what you want out of your defenceman.
Gregor: When the season was over you young guys talked about how you wanted to take a bigger role when the Oilers came back. I know it’s not the Oilers, but how important is it for you guys to take your work ethic and ensure a lot of the other young guys in OKC follow that?
Eberle: It’s a good test for us, trying to improve our leadership quality. I think, for the most part, just being down here and having that experience for me has been beneficial. I’ve already been in the NHL, played in the All Star game and the World Championships. Guys look up to you. They’re watching what you’re doing on and off the ice. That’s how I was. When I go to situations, with guys like Perry or Getzlaf or with Datsyuk at the All Star game, I’m watching what they’re doing. I’m trying to emulate what they do and incorporate it into how I pursue myself on and off the ice. I know it’s the same for them (OKC teammates) and that’s a big part of leadership.
Gregor: Have you had any talks with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins about the possibility that he’ll play for Canada at the World Juniors?
Eberle: I haven’t. I’m not sure what he wants to do. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. I’ve played in the World Juniors twice and those have been pretty big events for me as far as creating the player who I am today. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when it comes.
Gregor: Do you think it would benefit him to go to the World Juniors, or is it more beneficial to just stay playing professional hockey in the American league?
Eberle: That’s a tough question. Everyone knows how I feel about the World Juniors, but at the same time I was in junior when I played and that was kind of the next step with me. You know, Nuge has played a year in the NHL, a year in the World Championships. I don’t know if it will be good for him, other than you get to represent Canada which is always amazing. I’ll probably ask him in the next little bit what he wants to do and I’m sure the Oilers will too. I’m not even sure how he feels or even if they’ll actually let him go. We’ll see when the time comes.
Gregor: What about some of your other teammates. Have any of them impressed you with their game and are there players guys who you think may be are ready, this year or next year, to take the step and be some complementary guys on the Oilers?
Eberle: There are a lot of guys down here. Like I’ve always said before, the AHL it’s really underrated for how well the league is for developing players and how good it is for the talent down here. There are for sure, especially this year, seven or eight guys on each team that could easily play in the NHL. We have the European line right now that’s playing really well for us and that’s Hartikainen – who so strong on the puck, he’s definitely going to be an Oiler one day- and obviously Lander’s played a little bit with us and Mags too. That line has really been picking up their game.
We’ve had some injuries. Tyler Pitlick’s a guy who’s got all the characteristics of being a good hockey player; he’s fast, he can shoot the puck, he’s a smart player. I think once he gets some confidence he’s going to be a guy that can be a dynamic player and good for us in the future. All the way up front for us we’re pretty stacked.
Gregor: Do you go out of your way after practice to work with some of the other guys? Maybe on shot selection or release points and different things like that, or do you wait for them to come to you?
Eberle: I think for me, I’ve never really been a guy to go up to guys and approach them, more so guys come up to me and ask. They have a few times. I’ve always been a guy to lead by example. I mean, they see me working on stuff and I know they try to install it in their game too. We’ve got a lot of good talent on this team and I think a lot of it comes along with confidence and once guys get their confidence, we’re just going to be rolling even better.
Gregor: What are your thoughts on Todd Nelson as a coach? What do you like about him?
Eberle: He’s a great coach. We have a lot of systems that team’s can’t handle and he’s good at incorporating it. He’s definitely a player’s coach. We have a good relationship with him. He’s never been a guy to say he knows everything and he’s got an open door policy. It’s great to have that in the locker room and any time you’ve got a problem you can speak to him. We’ve responded to him very well, I mean obviously, I think we’ve got 13 of our last 14 points. He demands a good work ethic, so we always have good practices.
Gregor: Have you experienced one of Rocky Thompson’s inspirational pre-game speeches yet?
Eberle: Oh I love them. They get you going. He’s got a great singing voice. He sings before every game, usually he changes the lyrics to match how we’re playing or who we’re playing. The other night we were playing in Texas and he sang, “If you’re gonna win in Texas…” So he changed the lyrics to that. He’s actually got a good voice. I think it just kind of loosens the guys up before the game and we seem to respond well to it.
Gregor: Are you following the lockout at all?
Eberle: A little bit. I try not to get my mind too wrapped around it. It seems like some days are so positive and then the next day we get shut down. So you don’t want to get your mind too wrapped around it. You know my focus has been on being here and playing hard and so far we’ve done pretty well and I just want to continue that.
It is obvious Eberle is having fun in OKC, and when we chatted after the interview you could tell how determined he was to continue improving his game. His practice habits will rub off on the other guys around him. He and Hall are incredibly competitive with one another, and that will only make them, and their teammates better.
If the lockout ends, and it is a 40-game sprint to the playoffs the Oilers will have a legitimate chance of making the postseason, because their three best offensive players will have been playing together for three months. Toss in J.Schultz on the powerplay, and the Oilers could find themselves in the playoffs much sooner than anyone expected.