To the lay Oilers fan, Jordan Eberle is the great hope. Renowned for his clutch goals in the World Junior Championships and his exceptional senior season in the Western Hockey League, Eberle is probably Edmonton's greatest "love him or hate him" prospect since Rob Schremp. His detractors have plenty to point at: his mediocre speed, his uninspiring WHL totals before this year, and of course the condemnation of the World Junior Championships as a small sample size and the concept of "clutchness" as a chimera with no place in the modern game.
Evaluating junior prospects can always be difficult. While Eberle's numbers are far short of those of a Sam Gagner, his Regina Pats were also far worse than the teams most blue chip prospects enjoy. Context is everything, and with no known quantities to compare him to we are left to history on one hand and the orgasmic moments he gifts us with during his rare televised appearances on the other. It's sometimes not until a prospect turns professional and plays with and against men of certain ability that we can start to properly evaluate a prospect.
Jordan Eberle may just be one of these. Last season, after the Regina Pats were eliminated from the playoffs, an 18-year-old Eberle played his first games in the American Hockey League with the dreary Springfield Falcons, appearing in a total of nine contests. This year, the Pats have once again fallen out of the playoff picture and Eberle has gotten into one game so far. It is a small sample size, but it is also a teenager leaping straight from junior into second-tier professional hockey without so much as a training camp to find his sea legs.
An examination of each of those ten games follows after the jump.
Jordan Eberle made his American Hockey League debut March 27, 2009 when the Falcons took on the Worcester Ice Cats. He was certainly given an opportunity, thrown onto a line with current NHLers Ryan Potulny and Ryan Stone. Other familiar NHL names in the lineup for the Falcons that night included Devan Dubnyk, Taylor Chorney, Mathieu Roy, and of course Rob Schremp. With all those names it's easy to forget how dreadful the Falcons were, and they were pretty dreadful in Eberle's first game. Worcester outshot them 35 - 27 and Thomas Greiss outduelled Dubnyk for a 3-2 win. Eberle emerged with credit, picking up an assist on Potulny's 31st goal, a +1, and three shots. Those three shots were tied for third on the team with (of all people) Guillaume Lefebvre and behind Mathieu Roy and Ryan O'Marra. It was a weird night.
A day later, with Dany Sabourin in goal, the Falcons travelled to Albany to play the River Rats. Those unfamiliar with the AHL's schedule should be told there's nothing terribly unusual in that, and even three nights in a row in the low minors aren't particularly odd. Sabourin put on a bloody clinic, though, and in spite of 39 Albany shots the Falcons emerged with a 3-1 victory. One-time Carolina Hurricane Shane Willis scored for Springfield, as did Stone and that man Potulny again.
Eberle did one thing that we would grow used to, and two things that we wouldn't. He assisted Potulny's goal, meaning he was on two points in two games, and he would make a habit of that. He was also +2, which he wouldn't make a habit of at all, and for so far the only time in his professional career he did not record a shot on goal.
The next day (see? I told you games three nights in a row wasn't unusual!), the Falcons went back home for a visit from Portland. Springfield, for once, outshot their opponents 36-26 but Dubnyk was bad and Jonas Enroth wasn't as Portland built a 3-0 lead in the first period. Eberle was caught on the ice for one of those goals but got his revenge in the second, scoring his first professional goal at 16:15 with assists from Stone and Potulny to tie the game 3-3. Unfortunately, Eberle was caught again in the third, and Tyler Kennedy's 16th of the season against Eberle's line gave Portland the win and Eberle a -1 in spite of the goal.
Games on April 1 against Worcester and April 3 at Michigan were clearcut failures for Eberle. He went -1 both games and recorded a total of four shots but no points. Springfield lost both and the entire Potulny - Stone - Eberle line was quiet, with only a Potulny powerplay goal against Worcester (where he played with Rob Schremp on the man advantage, not Eberle) to show.
Potulny and Eberle were finally united as a powerplay tandem April 4 at the home of the Lowell Devils. Potulny scored again at even strength mid-change with both Eberle and Stone not yet on the ice, and the Eberle - Potulny tandem finally hooked up for the first time in the three games in the third period, Potulny setting up Eberle for a powerplay goal. But their line had been scalped by Barry Tallackson and Nicklas Bergfors at even strength, so even with the goal and an eventual 4-3 victory thanks to a late Charles Linglet winner Eberle was -2.
April 5, in Portland, was more of the same. This time Eberle was more of a setup specialist, taking advantage of a real firewagon game to set up Potulny's 35th on the powerplay early in the first period and Bryan Young's third at even strength midway through the second. Eberle was the first assist on both and picked up three shots for his trouble. But he was also -1: after Young's goal Eberle and Potulny were twice victimized by Mathieu Darche, once shorthanded with Rob Schremp as their wingman and once by an empty-netter with Schremp as the extra attacker as well as their usual centre Stone. Portland emerged with a 6-4 victory and Darche was first star.
Seven games in, a few things were apparent. First, Eberle was damned lucky to be playing with Ryan Potulny. Second, Eberle was making Potulny better as much as Potulny was helping Eberle. Eberle had two goals and four assists in those seven games, and all four assists had been first assists. Offensively, Stone was effectively a non-factor aside from a second assist here and there but Potulny had seriously picked up the pace when he had Eberle on his opposite wing. Finally, despite those six points Eberle was -3. He was never billed as a defensive stalwart and he was being burned by near-NHL players like Bergfors and Darche rather than bums, but he was still being burned. How much of this was due to the ineptitude of the Falcons and how much of this was due to Eberle is beyond this commentator's ability to assess.
Eberle and the Falcons enjoyed a long rest before taking on the Bridgeport Sound Tigers away on April 10. It was Eberle's first game at even or better since his second way back on March 28, as he picked up his first ever second assist on Potulny's 36th goal to make up for being caught out for a Junior Lessard goal late in a shift when Potulny had already got off.
His final game of the season took place the next night, April 11, in Hartford to take on the Wolfpack. Hartford had a 2-0 lead five minutes in thanks to AHL snipers Patrick Rissmiller and Artem Anisimov - Eberle was on the ice for Anisimov's 37th goal of the season. Eberle picked up a measure of revenge on the power play, setting up Ryan Stone for his first power play marker since Eberle had joined the Falcons to make it 2-1. Dan Urquhart scored for Hartford but again Springfield's special teams pulled them back into the game: first, Potulny scored his 38th on the powerplay with Eberle on the ice but uninvolved in the play, and finally Potulny returned a favour to Eberle, setting up the 18-year-old for a powerplay goal of his own. From there, things got out of hand and the Falcons wound up losing 5-3, all three Springfield goals coming on the man advantage, but Eberle had made his mark. -2, sure, thanks to a Greg Moore empty-netter, but a goal, an assist, and third star from the apparently impressed Hartford press box. Rob Schremp, to pick a name, despite playing a game tailored to his strength on the powerplay was pointless and -2.
That closed the book on Eberle's first taste of professional hockey. Nine games, three goals, six assists, nine points. In those nine games, Potulny had upped his production to eight goals and five assists to lead the Falcons. Of course Eberle had been playing with the best line the Falcons could provide him, but he'd played a major role in making that line as good as it was. Potulny's time with Eberle alone was more productive than any single month of his season. But he'd also been primarly victimized by a rogue's gallery of near-NHLers, 20 and 30-goal scorers. He'd endured two minuses thanks to empty-net goals but had not seen a single empty-netter go his way. The Falcons certainly hadn't gotten worse defensively while he'd been there; they'd always been pretty awful. As many extenuating circumstances as possible were on Eberle's side.
Eberle made his return to the Falcons last night in Wilkes-Barre to take on the minor Penguins. The Falcons are dead last in the American Hockey League at present and played like it. Well, mostly played like it. Eberle's linemates had deteriorated from Potulny and Stone to Chad Wiseman and Charles Linglet but it was still the best the Falcons had to offer and he got started right where he left off, scoring on his first shift and his first shot and then, at 6:19 of the first period, getting the first assist on a Colin Fretter powerplay goal.
Eberle also suffered his inevitable EV-, this time when Konstantin Pushkarev scored his eighth of the year. The Falcons stormed out to a 4-1 lead but collapsed as the Penguins bombarded Jean-Philippe Levasseur with rubber: the shots wound up 55-26. But although the Falcons surrendered the three goal lead Levasseur held on into overtime, where Deryk Engelland scored for Wilkes-Barre with Wiseman and Fretter but no Eberle out, and the game was over.
But a goal, an assist, and even on his first game back. That's a pretty good pace, wouldn't you agree?