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
- vs. Calgary
- vs. Philadelphia
- vs. Pittsburgh
- at Chicago
- at Anaheim
- at Arizona
- at Los Angeles
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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