5 things: Living without you

There are probably not too many headlines worse than “Jordan Eberle out four to six weeks” as far as the Oilers are concerned, but you’d have to think those would involve longer lengths of time, or the names “Taylor Hall” and “Connor McDavid.” Beyond that, disasters don’t get much bigger.

1. Bad news from home

Eberle is one of the very best right wings in hockey, and the fact that he finished tied with Corey Perry in WAR (for 23rd) last season despite being on a desperately bad team — WAR, after all, does seem to at least slightly penalize good players on bad teams while rewarding mediocre players on good ones — tells you a lot about how good he is, and therefore how much not-having him in the lineup is going to set any team on its heels.

Even a cursory look at the numbers tells you that, as you might expect, Taylor Hall suffers mightily when he’s not on the ice with Eberle; big drop in possession share, bigger drop in goal share. (It’s also true the other way around, but again, you knew that). This happens not only because the offense evaporates, but because the defense goes completely egg-shaped. Let’s put it this way: In the dark days of Oilerdom over the entirety of poor Taylor Hall’s career, he and Eberle are neutral possession players and outscore the opposition. Part of that comes from favorable deployment from their (many) coaches, but also because they both happen to be really good. A top-15 or so right wing with the planet’s premier left wing usually get you those kinds of results even when other conditions don’t favor them.

Add Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to the mix and you get a trio with a 51.5 percent CF%, and a 55.3 percent GF% for their careers together. When they’re off, it’s 45.8 percent and 43.7 percent, respectively, from 2011 (when Nugent-Hopkins came into the league) to present.

So yeah, losing this guy is basically losing one of three or four truly great forward options in Edmonton (the other, of course, being Connor McDavid).

2. Bet no one ever hurt this bad

And it was with McDavid, and Hall, that Eberle was undoubtedly going to play which creates a massive hole in the lineup. Even with the acknowledgement that adding McDavid gives you a dynamite one-two punch down the middle, someone has to ride shotgun for one of those guys on the right side. And the drop-off from Eberle to the next-best thing is a steep one.

Teddy Purcell and Leon Draisaitl obviously come across as the two most likely options to replace Eberle. All signs point to Leon Draisaitl being The Guy that gets the job — he certainly packs more skill and has the pedigree that would allow him to keep up with the high-flying offensive capabilities of a Hall/McDavid pair — mostly because he’s spent plenty of time with them in the preseason already.

Draisaitl is good, but he’s not someone you can necessarily rely upon in high-leverage situations. He played 37 games last year, but I’m pretty willing to throw out whatever he did as being not all that relevant to the situation at hand. For one thing, he got some very soft handling from the coaching staff (as you might expect) but for another he was 18 and playing in the middle of the ice for the most part. That’s going to get you run over, and the fact that he even remotely held his own, even in such a limited role, speaks to the brightness of his future.

Now, when trying to evaluate the statistical impact of losing Eberle, you have to look at what distributing his minutes throughout the lineup looks like. I’d be curious to see how Todd McLellan deploys the likely line of Hall-McDavid-Draisaitl, because he’d effectively be rolling one high-end rookie and a possibly all-time-great rookie with the world’s best left wing. You can’t trust that line to do anything but play a purely offensive role, right? At least until you know what you have with McDavid and to a lesser extent Draisaitl vis a vis own-zone play, they almost have to play second-line competition with tons of offensive-zone starts, right?

3. Roll with the punches

Which leads to the question of what you do with Nugent-Hopkins, Purcell (probably?), and Benoit Pouliot. That doesn’t strike one as a line that’s going to be particularly high-scoring — Purcell and Pouliot are possession drivers, sure, but can you really expect either to approach their career highs, even if they’re playing with a player as talented as Nugent-Hopkins?

The drop-off in attacking wherewithal from Draisaitl as your second-line right wing option to Purcell is likely to be significant, meaning that the line’s configuration goes from Pouliot being a support player for two offensive talents to Nugent-Hopkins hopefully being an offensive catalyst. This casts the line in a pretty definitive role, though: They’ll probably take on top competition when Edmonton is in its own zone and needs to get out of there. Hall-McDavid-Draisaitl will therefore serve to potentially deliver the kill shots in the attacking end more or less entirely.

The third- and fourth-line assignments become less important, but everyone moving up a slot probably still keeps Nail Yakupov on Anton Lander’s right, and maybe you just use Anton Slepyshev as your fourth-line option now that the spot’s been opened for him. At least give him the nine-game tryout, because it probably doesn’t affect you too much if you use him right, and you still get a good look at him against actual NHL competition, even if it is just the fourth line.

4. Take me back

For any team, losing a player like Eberle would be a huge blow to the offense, but it’s pretty hard to guess just how much of one it will be given the Oilers’ rather unique situation.

We frankly have no basis for comparison when it comes to what McDavid will do for this team’s offense (we could at least ballpark it to what Nathan MacKinnon did as a rookie, but even that might be shortchanging McDavid). But even beyond that, the fact of Draisaitl, another relative unknown — again, I’m pretty confident in dismissing whatever he did last year as a bizarre thing that happened and won’t or can’t be replicated — also being on that top line throws the whole thing into a weird situation.

However, with all that having been said, the addition of McDavid makes this concern a lot less galling overall. Because even if you lose a healthy chunk of top-line production, you might be able to make it up on the second line, both in terms of denying opponents possession and scoring goals yourself. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a better two-way center than a paper plate that has a mean face drawn on it taped to a mop the Oilers used for the Nos. 2-4 center slots last year.

This is, unfortunately, one of the shortcomings of current statistical analysis in the NHL: It’s hard to figure out what impact things like “chemistry” will have on proceedings, even before you acknowledge that other unknowns like deployment, the chance of future injury, and so on all coalesce. And this is a sport ruled so much by percentages that even those guesses as they relate to goals for and against could end up being wildly off (see also: last year’s Oilers goaltending debacle).

5. Back on my feet again

That obviously depends on McDavid being as-advertised and Purcell producing closer to his career norms (again, though, being with Nugent-Hopkins and not Derek Roy helps a lot there).

And the four-to-six-weeks talk I’ve seen so far often overlooks the fact that there’s still a week or so before the season even starts. Meaning that if Eberle is back healthy on the shorter side of that, he probably only misses 10 or 11 games. That’s a lot, but it’s not a disaster. Another two weeks beyond that and he’s probably looking at somewhere between 15 and 18 games. At that point, it’s a worrisome amount of time to go without a player of Eberle’s caliber.

That’s especially true because of who the Oilers have to start the season. The West is tough, but man this is a murderer’s row of games:

  • at St. Louis
  • at Nashville
  • at Dallas
  • vs. St. Louis
  • at Calgary
  • at Vancouver
  • vs. Detroit
  • vs. Washington
  • vs. Los Angeles
  • at Minnesota
  • vs. Montreal

(FOUR-WEEK CUTOFF)

  • vs. Calgary
  • vs. Philadelphia
  • vs. Pittsburgh
  • at Chicago

(FIVE-WEEK CUTOFF)

  • at Anaheim
  • at Arizona
  • at Los Angeles

(SIX-WEEK CUTOFF)

That’s a tough draw to start the year, no two ways about it. Eight games at home out of 18, and a lot of those home games against very good teams (and rival Calgary). I don’t know how many wins a 100 percent healthy Oilers team pulls out of those 18, but it’s hard to be super optimistic against that slate. The schedulers could have cut them a break, but they didn’t.

What’s interesting is that this at least provides everyone with a credible scapegoat. “We’d be doing a lot better against the iron of the Western Conference if we had Jordan Eberle!” That’s a true thing to say, but also it’s tough to define “a lot”. Overall, just taking a quick look at the numbers, and using some hockey sense, I’m pretty
confident that while losing Eberle hurts, it’s not going to be in any way crippling. Again, the promise of McDavid and what he does for the Oilers’ forward depth in general papers over a lot of problems. Thank goodness for the draft lottery.

But as far as I’m concerned, the bigger worry here should be that nails-tough schedule. It’s tough to game plan for 10 of 18 on the road against some of the best clubs in the league, especially when you’re trying to patch a gaping hole in the lineup.

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  • freelancer

    Nice blog! It hurts no matter what way you look at it but at least this year we have some depth to actually fill some holes when injuries occur.

    Just typing out loud but I haven’t been too impressed with Hall with McDavid (pre-season I know). I wonder if McLellan would consider reuniting Hall-RNH and try Pouliot on McDavid’s wing. Might help the matchups as well and force teams to put their top line against Hall-RNH over McDavid.

  • If losing Eberle means we’re screwed, then our much-vaunted forward depth is just hype.

    If we can’t win without Eberle, it means that we can’t win period, that we’re a bad hockey team.

    Eberle is important, but he’s a winger…the position that at least SHOULD be the most expendable on any team.

    • Danglishish

      Couldn’t agree more. Stupid as it sounds, when I heard Ebs went down all I could think was “thank God it wasn’t McDavid/Hall/Talbot/Nuge!).

      Don’t get me wrong, Ebs is a great player but he is not the key ingredient for this team’s success. With McLellan behind the bench, I actually think we’ll be okay (i.e. not out of the playoffs by November) with or without Ebs.

      Now can we all agree it’s probably best to just sit Hall, McDavid and Nuge until the regular season starts?!!!

  • Spoils

    I stopped reading after “the planet’s premiere left wing”. I will (grudgingly) concede that Eberle is a Top 15 RW (or at least close enough)…. Jamie Benn plays left wing for crying out loud…..

  • Spoils

    Remember when Nuge went down and we had to move Hall to center…

    Top 9 = Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, McDavid, Draisaitl, Pouliot, Purcell, Yakupov, Hat Trick Swedish team first liner Lander, 5 goal Slepy

    sucks to lose ebs, but wow that is a much softer landing.

  • Spoils

    Um, Yak? Seriously, what does the kid have to do to get noticed?

    Also, McDavid will not need soft minutes, especially paired with Hall. McDavid’s two way game is already elite. Hall pushes the play one way. You could put me on that right wing and the team wold still succeed.

  • Soiled Trousers

    I’ve said it before and I will say it again, the oilers will have no success while six rings and bold moves besmirch the good name of this team. Whether through injury, plague, or natural disaster the hockey gods will never allow such the blasphemous site of those two touching another cup.

    • And I thought I was alone in the never forgive and never forget what that pair of incompetent boobs has done to this franchise. When we cut ties and do win the cup I can already hear the the voice of DK uttering the words about all the sacrifices these two made for the good of the team.Threw up a bit in my mouth just writing that.

  • Soiled Trousers

    Sheesh. Ok, the Oilers are without Eberle for a month. It’s not like they have to play a man short and it’s not like he’s a center. Sure they will miss his scoring, but the Oilers have enough depth on the wing and enough firepower in their top 9 to ride this out and look at his return like a boost. Other players will be injured this year and the sky won’t fall then either. How many ‘living without you’ things are you going to need when 97 is the guy on the shelf a while?

  • two smokes

    Why not try Yakupov with McDavid, or even Nuge. Lots of articles mention how bad Yak is with Nuge, but really how much did he play with him last year? Give it a try in these last two preseason games.

    Pouliot – Nuge – Yak

    Hall – McDavid – Draisaitl

    Korpikoski – Lander – Slepyshev

    Klinkhammer – Letestu – Hendricks

    Gazdic

    If Purcell is back try him with Hall McDavid and put Drai with Lander, or leave Drai up and put Purcell with Lander – either way Slepy goes down. This also allows 8 D, which is the silver lining of the injury.

    To me that’s the best way to preserve 2 elite line combinations and a serviceable 3rd line. And I don’t know if anyone else has noticed that Yak’s forechecking is insane this year, and he’s got much better defensive positioning which can probably be credited to his aging a year and the new coaching staff. If they give him a chance he might show he isn’t out of place in the top 6.

  • DaveChamp

    I think this will be remembered as the time Oiler fans started to see Eberle as expendable.

    One of Yak, Shlepyshev, or Draisaitl are going to make such an impact with this chance, Oiler fans are going to wonder what else they could get for Ebs 6 million dollar contract.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s worth the money, but it’s not like any one of those three are not capable of contributing his points.

    • DaveChamp

      I have to chime in here and say that while those three seem to have potential ceilings, they’ve yet to prove that they can achieve what Eberle has consistently achieved. Scoring 37 goals in an NHL season and consistently scoring 60 points is not such an easy task.

      • NJ

        Eberle’s 5 seasons have him scoring 18, 34, 16 (shortened), 28 and 24 goals. He’s eclipsed 60 points 3x.

        I would suggest then that he is a 25 goal scorer, 60 point guy. Never a 37 goal guy. The facts are, if we can fill the Eberle void, with Yak, Drai or both stepping up, then yes, he is expendable IF we have a top 2 dman coming back.

        Anyhow, its for a month of regular season. All teams deal with injuries, so we are gonna find out sooner rather then later how this season is gonna go!

    • CMG30

      One of the factors that doesn’t get enough consideration from fans when evaluating players is who they’re playing against.

      Fans see players like Slepeshev or Draisaitl ripping it up, scoring crazy goals and it becomes difficult to accurately evaluate just what they’re capable of. It’s difficult to factor in just how much of a difference not having to face the opposition’s top players improves their performance. Fans don’t always see the little pushes that a good coach gives to these guys.

      When a truly top tier player like Eberle goes down and these types of players a thrust into roles that they’re not quite ready for that’s when problems crop up. Suddenly the competition they face goes up dramatically. The coach is unable to provide that little extra boost and then their production dries up. Eventually the fans are calling this formerly productive player a bum and trying to ship him out of town for a bag of pucks.

      One can hope a player like Yak is ready to take the next step and it would be fantastic if he can. But make no mistake, the loss of Eberle is a huge blow, especially on a team still loaded with rookies.

      • two smokes

        Fair reminder that it’s only pre season.

        But even knowing that I’m truly not worried about McDavid lining up against like Kessler. Also, it’s not like Shlepyshev is coming from junior. He’s coming from the KHL. His largest difficulty is not adjusting to good players, it’s adjusting to North America and he seems to be doing that a lot quicker than originally planned.

        As for Draisaitl, he’s had a taste of the NHL already. If he finds himself on the top line with Nuge or the second line with McDavid, I don’t care who he’s going up against, he’s still not going to be a defensive liability. He can protect the puck, make great passes, win draws, win corner battles, and has the wheels to get back.

        Yes, losing Eberle is a big blow. But lets also be realistic. We’re losing Eberle. Let me aks, in losing Eberle, what are we really losing? A top six winger who can score. I think Shlep or Drai can adequately fill in for a month.

    • bradleypi

      Holy. Settle down. One of the worst teams in the league last year loses there top right winger and all of a sudden he’s “expendable” because a couple rookies are having a decent preseason? Time to reel it in a bit I think. You might be underestimating what ebs brings to the table.

  • DaveChamp

    (1A)POULIOT- NUGE – DRAI

    (1B)HALL – MCDAVID – YAK

    KORPI – LANDER – PURCELL/SLEPPY

    KLINK – LETESTU – HENDRICKS

    KLEFBOM – SEKERA

    FAYNE – SCHULTZ

    REINHART – GRYBA

    TALBOT

    SCRIV / NILLSSON

    Still pretty solid if you ask me. If we can stay around .500 for the first month or so I will be very content. Schedule will lighten up right when ebs is back and nurse is ready to push. Then there’s no looking back from that point on. Go oil we can do it

    • Harry2

      1B has a bit too much defensive liability exposure for me. Especially given that list of competition, but with Lander playing so well maybe a reward is in order

      (1A)POULIOT- NUGE – YAK

      (1B)HALL – MCDAVID – LANDER

      KORPI – DRAI – PURCELL/SLEPPY

      Would have a lot more balance and would take a bit of pressure off McD especially given “old” Hall’s habits and propensity to cheat for offence

  • Harry2

    It amazes me how everyone outside of Oilerville still thinks the line was going to be 4-97-14.

    Does anyone pay attention! Especially a “professional” writer.

    Pou-Nuge-Ebs…..Hall-McD-Draisaitl/Purcell

    These have been the lines since day 1 of camp. Your welcome. Now send me half your paycheck you HACK

    • two smokes

      Totally thought the same thing. Stopped reading immediately after I read that and just assumed the rest of this article was awful. I don’t think eberle has even practised one time on a line with mcdavid. Who the hell let this guy on here.

  • smith

    Wow. This is the most positive article Lambert may have ever written. Well done. Agree with the premise. Eberle is a big loss but not insurmountable. Disagree with the rhetoric. Eberle is a good player for sure. Suggesting that he is better than Perry? Hall is the best lw in the game? No. Keep trying.