The Oil Kings, I'm sorry to say, have not been inspiring me to get up off my couch this year. I made a mental note around the time they acquired Cameron Abney that I should try to get out to see them before the end of the season -- coming soon to an arena near you! -- preferably when another Oilers' prospect might be passing through town. Tonight it was Jordan Eberle's turn which proved impossible to resist, so I headed down to Rexall, my son and a couple of his friends in tow. A lot of people had the same idea, there were probably 5,000 or so people there which the PA shills let slip a couple times was a pretty good turnout.
No wonder attendance has been poor, considering the sorry state of the home team. Having now witnessed them first hand I can confirm that any rumours as to the suckitude of the Oil Kings are entirely Founded.
It was men against boys, almost literally. The Oil Kings dressed four 16-year-olds, the Pats just one. One of those youngsters for the home side was Keegan Lowe, wearing the familiar #4 and resembling his dad both with his skating stride and (unfortunately) his shot. Disappointingly, the Kings were missing hotshot prospect Mark Pysyk as well as a couple of vets on the blue, and I believe they even ran a man short on the bench. It was a mismatch. Moreover, while the Oil Kings were playing for next year, Regina -- 6 points out of the last playoff berth with not enough season left to be giving away points -- were playing for right now, and it showed.
The Pats broke the ice late in the first, the Oil Kings tied it up oh-so-briefly early in the second, but Regina scored 10 seconds later -- shades of the Oilers! -- to reestablish the lead and cruised from there to an easy 6-1 win. The Pats had two lines that were several cuts above anything the Oil Kings could counter with, Matt Strueby between Brett Leffler and Hampus Gustafsson, and Jordan Weal between Carter Ashton and fan favourite Eberle. Strueby, whose dad Todd was a second round pick of the Oilers in 1981 and got a few cups o' coffee in this building, earned first star honours with 2-1-3, while Eberle and Weal each posted 1-2-3 to sweep second and third star as well. Meanwhile, as Lowetide might say, the Edmonton Oil Kings are a team in the Western Hockey League.
More on Eberle (and Abney) after the jump:
I made a point to focus on Eberle as much as possible. As an ex-goalie whose default position is to track the puck, to isolate on a single skater requires more focus than I am capable of at times, especially given one of Eberle's strengths is to make himself disappear until just the crucial moment. Offensively he's a strong player both with and without the puck. Without it I noticed he was always in motion, not quite zipping about the O-zone in the manner or Marty St.Louis, more swirling around from one soft spot to another. Like a good running back reading off his blocks, he understands holes, not just the where but the when. I was further impressed with his patience, how he wouldn't try to force something that wasn't there, but dish the puck or take the play back outside and keep up the pressure. He used his linemates and his rearguards very effectively indeed. But when the opening was big enough he would explode into it, as he did on his goal when he took a pass behind the net and beat the goalie with a quick wraparound and stuff play on his backhand side for his 40th of the season. (I'm trying to remember the last player to reach that milestone in any league while a member of the Oilers organization)
I was pleasantly surprised to see Eberle on the PK unit, although as my son pointed out, Regina's at that point of the season where they can't afford to dick around. Of course Jordan was a staple on the PP, where he notched his first point of the night, a second assist on the 3-1 goal. Eberle showed elite instincts on that one, holding the puck for an extra split-second, freezing the defenceman before slipping a pass through to the guy on the goal line with just enough time to feed it across the goal mouth to the finisher.
It was a little tougher to evaluate Eberle's defence, given he didn't have to do a lot of it, but he seemed suitably conscientious and adequate. Anticipation and stick skills are useful in all three zones, of course, but not all players seem to realize that. I think Eberle does. He's not a banger by any means but seems to be a very strong positional player.
Jordan picked up a cheap second assist on the game's final goal which as I understand it, tied him for the WHL scoring lead. Impressive for a guy who missed a month at the WJHC.
A final note on Eberle, courtesy Ron "Scoreboard" Johnston of Regina Pats History, whose game report of tonight's affair included this tidbit:
The flu bug has hit the Regina Pats. Jordan Eberle played last night, only because he wants to help the club get into the play-offs and will be playing tonight, after tonights game he will get three days rest.
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As self-proclaimed President and Only Member of the Cameron Abney Defence League, my words must be taken with a pound of salt, but I can honestly say I was somewhat impressed by this kid. At 6'4 he was hard to miss, and what struck me most positively was his skating speed. I was expecting a plodder, and while he is by no means graceful he seemed to be an effective skater with a pretty darn decent top gear. I expected him to be a competitive bastard and he didn't disappoint in this respect, playing the body at any opportunity and getting into an ongoing war of words with Pats' captain Colten Teubert including an open invitation at one point which Teubert - who played a real solid game - wisely declined. Abney didn't find anybody else willing to engage, but I didn't get the impression he was going out of his way to look for anything either, he just played a hard-skating, physical game. Not at all good with the puck, though, he would battle along the boards and bash it out of his end for the most part. To put it as kindly as possible, any offence is still in his future. Still, I could see that tip of the iceberg which sufficiently tantalized Stu MacGregor to take a third-round flier on the kid.
Another encouraging aspect of Abney is that on Friday night with the defence corps severely depleted, he volunteered to fill in on the blue and by all accounts played well for decent minutes, finishing +1 in a 5-2 Oil Kings loss. As was reported in Saturday's Edmonton Journal:
With a depleted defensive unit, Coach Steve Pleau shifted forwards Cameron Abney and and Robin Soudek onto the blue-line. The coach was pleased with how they fared.
"We had Abney back there (Thursday) practicing, to work on his feet," Pleau said. "We knew he was OK one-on-one defensively."
Abney was particulalry impressive, getting his body between a setup pass on a two-on-one break in the third period.