Ben Eager: a worthwhile reclamation project?

Ben Eager played his 400th regular season game in the NHL last season. He has been a successful depth player for good teams, getting minutes in Philadelphia, Chicago and San Jose. He played 18 games for the Blackhawks when they won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and now has been an integral part of three long playoff runs.

Despite falling off the map last season, is there a player there for the Oilers to reclaim?

A Statistical Lens

What I’d like to do is look at items unrelated (except tangentially) to Eager’s physical game. I’m going to look, year by year, at four statistical categories, which are as follow:

  • CorsiRel. "Corsi" is shorthand for shot attempts plus/minus – all the shots, missed shots, and blocked shots that a player was on the ice for 5-on-5 over an average one-hour period. The "Rel" part stands for relative – what we’re doing there is adjusting for team strength.
  • 5-on-5 Points/60. Just like regular points, only adjusted for an average hour of ice-time.
  • ZoneStarts. Taking offensive zone and defensive zone faceoffs, and expressing them as a percentage. If a player was on the ice for 70 offensive zone faceoffs and 30 defensive zone faceoffs, he would have a 70% offensive zone start, and we’d expect him to do better than a player with 30 offensive zone and 70 defensive zone faceoffs (30% zone start).
  • Quality of Competition rank. The player’s rank among active forwards on his team in Behind the Net’s Quality of Competition (we’re using the Corsi-based one, though the site also offers a goal-based one and the difference between the two is small). This gives us an idea of the kind of opponents Eager typically played against. Note: for years where he played for multiple teams, this is less helpful so I have excluded it.

What do we find?

Season Team CorsiRel 5v5 Points/60 ZoneStart QC Rank.
2007-08 CHI/PHI -11.3 0.66 51.8 N/A
2008-09 Chicago -5.4 1.43 64.0 12th
2009-10 Chicago -3.0 1.94 69.9 13th
2010-11 ATL/S.J. -12.6 1.36 50.4 N/A
2011-12 Edmonton -8.8 1.46 49.3 12th
2013 Edmonton -28.3 0.89 39.8 10th

What It Means

What we find in Eager is a player who consistently plays a poor possession game. But that shouldn’t be a surprise: most fourth line players have poor numbers in this regard, in part because they aren’t playing with very good teammates and occasionally see good opponents, in part because coaching strategies generally ask for the fourth line to crash and bang and get pucks deep but not worry too much about getting them to the net, and likely in part for reasons I’m overlooking. Regardless: fourth line players will have poor Corsi numbers, almost without exception: their lot in life is getting outshot. That’s why they’re on the fourth line.

Still: between 2008 and 2012, Eager did some things beyond crashing and banging that make him stand out. In Chicago, a very strong team had the option of putting their fourth line on the ice a lot in the offensive zone, and that certainly helped, but even so Eager’s scoring numbers are pretty respectable for a fourth-line guy. A very good points/60 number in the NHL is 2.0, and Eager comes close to that once and on three other occasions also scores quite well (as a rule, a fourth-liner within sight of the 1.50 points/hour mark is scoring his share or even a little more than his share). Chicago’s fourth line, blessed with those offensive zone starts, had only a slightly below even relative shot rate – and in real terms, because Chicago was a good team, they actuall  out-shot the opposition. In 2009-10, for example, over an average hour with Eager on the ice, the Blackhawks would out-shoot the opposition 33-to-23 – and for a fourth line, even one starting a lot in the offensive zone, even on a very good team, that’s not bad at all.

The lockout-shortened 2013 campaign stands out in a negative way. Eager’s on-ice shot numbers plunge: with him on the ice, the Oilers were brutalized by the opposition. His scoring numbers plunge, too. Some of that is likely related to usage – the 2013 Oilers were not a very good team, and did not have the luxury of employing eager in the offensive zone. His numbers were off-the-charts bad.

History, though, suggests that isn’t who he is. He was never the difference-maker that fans dreamed he might be when the Oilers offered him a three-year deal; there was a narrative at the time that the Oilers needed some size and crazy in the bottom-six to complement the skill players, and while there may be truth in that Eager’s never been the kind of guy who drives results anywhere and expecting him to be anything other than a crash-and-bang fourth liner was a mistake (the thoughts of sticking him on a line with Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle to ‘give them space’ were also nutty, because he’s not a guy who has any track record of playing a competent puck-possession game and offensive players tend to need the puck to score).

The good news, though, is that history also suggests 2013 is an aberration. Over his career, Eager has been a 6’2", 236 pound wrecking ball – and there is value in that – who adds a little bit of scoring and can play a regular shift on the fourth line. If he can get back to that level, I see him as a guy who can add some value to the Oilers’ lineup. The fact is that he’s under contract for another year, so there’s likely little harm in giving the 29 year-old a chance to show that 2013 was an exception rather than the new normal.

Recently around the Nation Network

At Flames Nation, Kent wilson implores the Calgary Flames to Be Less Wrong and takes some time to point out that the Edmonton Oilers have also had the habit in recent years of doing foolish things:

Consider, for example, the Oilers ill-fated quests for Danny Heatley, Marian Hossa and Tomas Vanek a few years ago as they were bottoming out. During the same time frame, they allowed Curtis Glencross and Kyle Brodziak to walk while retaining Zack Stortini. They were too centered on making a big splash than simply not being dumb.

Click the link to read more, or alternately, feel free check out some of my other pieces here:

  • Spydyr

    How about we all wait and see what Eager gets done in training camp. Just keep him away from Pubs this summer.

    I even heard some of the better NHL teams actually pick their team in camp. Not six months before hand based on draft position. See Klefbom for example.

  • STAZE

    A summer to re-coup. I hope that Eager comes back with a vengeance. No longer a fighter, it would be wise to avoid another concussion causing bout. Eager can still be a physical threat and a pest, who can skate, on the 4th line. A fair shot at training camp, under a new coach and a new direction. Couldn’t hurt. Nothing to lose, so much to gain.

  • Tikkanese

    To all those saying give him a shot in the top 6… Do you even watch Oilers games? He’s had plenty of those chances here already under both Renney and Krueger, and he always failed, miserably. What makes you think barely being a regular in the AHL is going to change that? He was a healthy scratch down there too.

    He can’t fight anymore(concussions), lost his “crazy”(concussions) and won’t be much of a crash ‘n banger anymore(concussions). I don’t think you can buy him out after he fails to impress at camp, there is a short window for buyouts, no? His wasted salary in the minors will be just another reason for more expensive tickets here. Time to move on.