At this time last year many Oiler fans thought that Gilbert Brule had finally figured out how to take the skill that made him a number six overall pick and make it work effectively in an NHL. Last season Brule set new personal bests in goals, assists, and points. Add to his point production physical play and the ability to win a faceoff and there was reason for optimism. Here at the Copper and Blue he ranked eighth in the Top 25 Under 25. Management bought into the buzz too and rewarded Brule with a new two year contract worth $1.85M per season. Everyone thought Brule would be a fixture on the Oilers top three lines this season, now most aren't even sure if he belongs on the team anymore. How could so much change in year?
For starters the production dried up. A year after recording 17 goals and 20 assists, Brule registered only 7 goals and 2 assists. His points per 60 minutes dropped from 2.36 to 0.96, a reduction of nearly 60%. Last season he was a leader on the Oilers in this measure trailing only Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner, this season he lead only J.F. Jacques, Colin Fraser, and Steve MacIntyre. I would assume this wasn't the kind of company the Oilers were hoping that Brule would have been keeping given his new contract.
So why the dramatic change? Shooting percentage played a small role. Concerns with Brule's shooting percentage were raised by Jonathon Willis almost as soon as last season ended. As predicted his shooting percentage regressed but that alone doesn't account for the full drop in goals and does nothing to explain where the assists went. The scoring chance data posted by Derek doesn't have much in the way of answers given the small amount of data available but it does identify one obvious thing, that Brule wasn't very good this season and almost everyone was better without him.
Bruce McCurdy 's look at Brule for the Cult of Hockey included a breakdown of possession numbers for the Oiler forwards on a per 60 minute basis. Again not good news for Brule where he finished second last, ahead of only MacIntyre, with a -2.12 takeaway/giveaway differential per 60 minutes. Considering the scoring chance data I think we can safely assume that all those turnovers weren't deep in the oppositions end. The combination of terrible puck protection with a complete lack of production isn't something a team can accept from any player, other than perhaps a raw rookie, which Brule is not.
The mystery illness that limited Brule to just 41 games could be the biggest factor in his game going off a cliff. The Oilers injury report lists Brule five times for a total of 38 games. Two trips and seven games are attributed to an illness, eight more games and two trips to the injured list are the result of concussions, the remaining 23 games are listed as an upper body injury. That no injury was ever reported and I think it's a safe bet that the upper body injury is the same illness that sidelined him on two separate occasions. I don't know what the illness was but it seems to me that it must have something pretty significant.
If this illness is the biggest reason why Brule's game took a nose dive this season then I hope for his sake that he's got everything squared away for the start of training camp. With just one year left on his deal Brule will be playing for his next contract but the arrival of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Linus Omark, and Magnus Paajarvi has pushed him further down the depth chart and could cost him ice time (although the same thing didn't happen this season as his ice time was nearly identical to last season) and opportunities should his game not return to form. Reclaiming his spot in the Oilers top nine seems like a long shot at this point.
Brule will be a resticted free agent at the end of the upcoming season. Given his likely role this season and what he's making on this contract he won't be back in Edmonton after next season unless it's at a greatly reduced rate. If Brule can't establish himself on the top three lines and with his inability to stay in the lineup would the Oilers even want him on the team in a fourth line role? Would he want to play that role? Perhaps the best option for both sides is a trade and a fresh start.
That might be the best option but Brule is going to have to prove he can still play before that's a realistic option. I can't see team lining up to acquire him right now given his contract and his most recent season. It is true that teams are often willing to take a chance on a former top ten draft pick like Brule but if that player can't establish himself on the leagues worst roster and spends half the year not playing as the result of an undisclosed illness, more than a few would likely shy away. If he can't get things back on track a one-way contract could be a long shot. Brule might just be playing for his career this season.
Prediction: Brule appears to be a genuinely good person and I really hope this season works out for him so I'm going to predict that he finds a way to crack the Oilers top nine and gets his game back. With that in mind I see 15 goals and 20 assists in his future. Whether that's enough to keep him here or not remains to be seen but it'll be enough to keep him in the NHL for sure.