Jordan Eberle was a star before he played a single game in the National Hockey League.
Eberle has twice played a starring role for Canada at the IIHF U-20 World Junior Championship, and his penchant for goals in the dying seconds of games has earned him a reputation as a 'clutch' performer. Up until this season, I have argued that Oilers fans as a group had overrated the player based on those few games, and that he'd have difficulty living up to their expectations when he did make the jump to the NHL.
So far, however, it's been my expectations that have needed revising.
It's been interesting to watch Eberle move up and down individual rankings. Last year, I had him ranked seventh on this list; he moved up to five in the summer, and I've been so enamoured with his NHL performance so far this season that I've bumped him up to second overall. Derek has been less enamoured; he started him in the sixth spot, moved him down to eight in the summer edition of this list, and now has him sitting tied for fifth (with Jeff Petry). Scott and Bruce have been consistent, with Scott ranking Eberle either 3rd and 4th each time, and Bruce ranking him either 2nd or 3rd. Only Ben has been unchanged over the full course of the year, keeping the wheel steady at #2.
If Tom Renney were voting on this list, I think we'd find him agreeing with Ben, at least based on how he's used Eberle so far this season:
Even-strength: 14:34 per game (first line)
Penalty-kill: 1:13 per game (third unit)
Power-play: 2:24 per game (second unit)
Even on a team as bad as the 2010-11 Edmonton Oilers, there aren't a lot of rookies who turn up playing a key role in all situations. It tells us that there's more to Eberle than offence, and ice-time data isn't the only thing that tells us that.
Eberle ranks second among Oilers forwards in Quality of Competition (even as he ranks middle of the pack in quality of teammates). He starts in the offensive zone just 48.2% of the time - less than any other rookie or skill player, and ahead of only the fourth line and Gilbert Brule. Despite that, at even-strength he leads the team in Relative Corsi and his 1.77 PTS/60 sits behind only Hemsky (2.97), Penner (2.01) and Hall (1.80). To recap: while facing tough opposition and starting most of his shifts in the defensive end, not only is Eberle remaining an effective scorer but he's also winning the possession battle. That's truly remarkable, and indicative of a player who in his prime is going to be a star in all three zones.
What about special teams?
Eberle's powerplay results have been encouraging. We're dealing with a small sample here (nine goals total) but over that span Eberle's been the team's third-most effective scorer (3.58 PTS/60, which is a middling number elsewhere but good for the Oilers) and the team's been far better on the powerplay with him on the ice (+6.45 goals/60) than off it (+2.97 goals/60). It's more difficult to evaluate penalty-killing effectiveness; by eye I've like what he has done, but given sample sizes, the difficulty of seperating teammate impacts and Quality of Competition variances (i.e. where the first unit PK sees far tougher PP opposition than the second unit PK), and the failure rate of the Oilers PK overall, I can't back that up with numbers.
In any case, what the Oilers have in Eberle is a player who can seemingly do it all at the NHL level in his first season. That's exceptionally rare. Perhaps even more rare, Eberle's an example of a player who was kept in junior or the minors by the Oilers until he was ready to be an impact player.
Generally, I'm cynical when it comes to reviewing these players. In Eberle's case, though, I can't help but picture a player who is going to be a franchise mainstay for the next decade.