Jordan Eberle. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jordan Eberle acknowledges things are grim for his Edmonton Oilers right now, but he's convinced they will bounce back. Why?
Could anyone have drawn up the Edmonton Oilers' 2015-16 season worse to this point? Expectations weren't particularly high for the struggling franchise, yet the hockey gods have still managed to crush its dreams again.
Few prognosticators had the Oilers making the playoffs after nine consecutive misses, but this season was still supposed to be different in its own way. New GM Peter Chiarelli instantly put his stamp on the team. Coach Todd McLellan replaced Todd Nelson. The Oilers signed blueliner Andrej Sekera and defensive pivot Mark Letestu. They traded for D-man Griffin Reinhart, goaltender Cam Talbot and left winger Lauri Korpikoski. Most importantly, they drafted Connor McDavid. And then…
Right winger Jordan Eberle injured his shoulder at the end of the pre-season. Edmonton started the season 0-4. Top puck-moving defenseman Justin Schultz injured his back Oct. 25. Korpikoski sustained an undisclosed head injury, clearly a concussion, the game after that on a hit from Minnesota's Matt Dumba. Neither Oiler has played since then, though both are close to returning.
And then, just as Eberle prepared to rejoin the lineup and seriously bolster Edmonton's top six, McDavid went down with a broken collarbone two weeks ago.
"He went in really hard, and you knew he was struggling, but he got up and picked up his stick, and I didn’t really think much of it," Eberle said. "It was the end of the period, and you expect him to come out the next, and then he didn't. And then you get down there and you find out the severity of the injury. It's tough. Connor has shown he's that player who's been touted. It definitely hurts our team."
McDavid spoke to the media Monday for the first time since the hit. He wouldn't condemn Philadelphia's Michael Del Zotto and Brandon Manning for the collision that hurt him. McDavid did say he was already doing upper body workouts, and he healed quickly from a broken hand last season in the OHL. Still, his absence has stung badly. The Oilers are 1-4-0 since losing him and 6-12-0 overall, tied for last in the NHL with 12 points. Amazingly, a team with four No. 1 overall picks in six years has a legit shot at five in seven. To top it all off, the Oilers have been ravaged by flu bug of late. Its most recent victim is No. 1 center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Laying out all those depressing facts isn't meant to harp on the Oilers. It's to evoke a bit of sympathy for a franchise so consistently governed by Murphy's Law that the expression should become Oilers' Law. Katz's Law?
The season looks grim from an outsider's perspective. The Oilers rank 28th in goals against per game, 22nd in penalty killing and 26th in save percentage. In the all-important possession stat, score-adjusted 5-on-5 Corsi, they rank 27th. The very bugaboos they were supposed to correct under McLellan remain major problems. Sports Club Stats puts their playoff odds at 12.8 percent. Should the Oilers pack in their season already? The numbers say yes.
But Eberle, now 25 and a veteran alternate captain, says no. For one, in his mind, his contributions haven't "returned" to the team yet, even if he's been physically in the lineup. He's only just feeling back to normal after his first five games.
"Yeah, it’s getting close," he said. "I’ve had a couple things nagging me a little bit. Definitely a tough start to the season. You train all summer to get ready for the season, you get into training camp, you’re feeling good, and then you get an injury late in camp, and then you’re really set back for six weeks. When you jump in, you’re behind.
"Lately for me it's just been trying to catch up, and you’re doing it while not at a hundred percent. So it's been tough, but it's only going get better. The speed of the game is slowing down for me, which is great."
Eberle doesn't like to make excuses but, at the same time, it's hard for him or anyone to ignore the illness and injuries. It's only logical for him to predict many more wins now that he's healthy and once Nugent-Hopkins and Schultz return, not to mention McDavid a few months from now. Eberle also raves about Edmonton's other promising prospect center, Leon Draisaitl, who has been unbelievable in relief of McDavid, racking up 13 points in eight games. Draisaitl will cool down, but he's no fluke as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft.
Eberle also looks at the five tough games he's played so far – at home to Pittsburgh, in Chicago, in Anaheim, in Arizona, in Los Angeles – and sees signs of progress. He points out that they were right with the Kings on the road this past Saturday before Nick Shore scored the go-ahead goal with 1:37 left.
"We’re in every game," he said. "We’re definitely a better team. I don't think our record shows the way that we’ve been playing. There are easily three, four games that could have changed things around for us, but we have to get over this losing mentality. It's just finding a way to believe we're a good team and not be so intimidated by some of the teams that have beat us in the past."
Is Eberle just saying what any player is supposed to say when his team struggles? It's fair to wonder. Speaking to him, though, he's full of energy, talking a mile a minute, sounding nothing like a mentally broken player on a team going nowhere. Maybe he's right, and maybe the Oilers will become a much more competitive team as they get healthy. Now it's time to see if he'll back up his beliefs on the ice – or if it's just wishful thinking on a sinking ship.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin