During the 2011-12 season Jordan Eberle had an amazing run of good luck and finished the season with 34 goals, 42, assists, and 76 points; all of those are still career bests. And following that season he signed a six-year contract extension. I argued at the time that an extension was unnecessary and that the Oilers were paying based on the assumption that he would build upon that 76-point season when in fact it was more likely that we would never reach that plateau again.
During the 2016-17 season Jordan Eberle had an amazing run of bad luck and finished the season with 20 goals, 31 assists, and 51 points; his goals per game and points per game were both career lows. And following the season he was traded to the New York Islanders for Ryan Strome and $3.5M of cap space. I argued at the time (yesterday) that this was unnecessary given the Oilers cap situation - $20.5M of space and four roster spots – and that they were selling low based on an off year when his production was likely to rebound to something more resembling his career average next season.
In both cases I was on the opposite side of popular opinion in Edmonton. I don’t think my opinion of Jordan Eberle has changed much in the last five years, instead it’s been everyone else that’s changed. I was never a Jordan Eberle hater, and I don’t think I’m a fanboy now. My Twitter mentions disagree though.
So, what changed? How does Jordan Eberle go from being a player that is going to score 70 points on a consistent basis to a player now believe by many to not rebound from a career worst season? Shooting percentage, folks, it’s a powerful drug. Eberle’s season by season numbers are presented in the table below, the data has been taken from stats.hockeyanalysis.com.
Jordan Eberle 5-on-5 Scoring
That last column tells quite a story. A career high shooting percentage, followed by four fairly similar years, and then a career low shooting percentage. Remind me again what years were the most divisive within the fan base? If Eberle had scored on the same percentage of shots as he did through the previous four seasons he’d have finished the season with 26 goals instead of 21. Now he’s tied for 40th league wide in goals, are we having this same conversation? I have my doubts.
And no, that drop in his shooting percentage isn’t the result of him taking nothing but perimeter shots this season. Looking at expected goals, which is an estimate based on the quality of chances the player generates, he had the third best of his career behind 2012-13 and 2015-16. The problem is the puck didn’t go in for him. It’s frustrating that the goals weren’t there but that happens sometimes. Just think back to how many great chances Eberle didn’t cash in on this season. It seemed as if there was one or two almost every game.
This isn’t to say that Eberle couldn’t be a better hockey player. He could absolutely play a stronger game against the boards, something that might make him seem a little less invisible when he doesn’t have the puck on his stick, but this flaw probably gets overlooked if a few more pucks find their way behind the opposition’s netminder. He’s not a perfect player, just like virtually every other player in the NHL. That he’s not perfect doesn’t mean he doesn’t have value.
Over the last three seasons Eberle scoring at 5-on-5 ranks him 55th league wide (minimum 2,500 minutes played), and even last year in a down year he ranked 67th (minimum 1,000 minutes played). There are plenty of things that Eberle might not be, but generally speaking he puts the puck in the net, aside from last season of course. So, from that perspective it can be hard to understand why the team would trade him for a player whose best season saw him record fewer points (50) than Eberle did in a down year. Obviously, the Oilers believe that what Strome brings plus what they can do with the extra $3.5M will add up to be more than what Eberle brought to the table.
Being just 23 years old it’s not impossible that Strome could still grow as a player. He’s had one good season, and had to deal with injuries last year, so perhaps the Oilers bought low on Strome. That said, they almost certainly sold low on Eberle, unless of course you believe that a player whose shooting percentage was 13% through the first six years of his career is now a 9% shooter. I don’t know about you but I’d bet a lot more money on Eberle bouncing back than I would on Strome reaching 50 points again, at least not without a lot of assistance from Connor McDavid.
Even though it’s a step down in terms of the player, there is still the extra $3.5M in cap space floating out there. Salary cap management is all about efficiency, every dollar spent on x is a dollar not spent on y, so if the Oilers use this space wisely (even if they didn’t appear to need it) they could still break even, or come out ahead, on this deal. As a rule I like to evaluate deals more or less in isolation. In this case though the is so clearly a first step towards something else that I am willing wait a couple weeks for the other shoe to drop before saying definitively that this is a bad deal. So far, with the re-signing of Kris Russell, they’re not off to a great start in terms of making me change my mind though.