I’m certainly not about to suggest Canadian junior hero Jordan Eberle will be a bust in the NHL, but it would be wise to look at the history of this tournament before coming to the foregone conclusion that it’s only a matter of (short) time before he’s filling the nets for the Edmonton Oilers and filling their fans’ hearts with promise and hope.
Will Eberle be an NHL player? He undoubtedly will, but people who are predicting superstardom for the young man are getting way ahead of themselves and are doing a disservice both to Eberle and the Oilers.
After all, Eberle is not the first player in the history of this tournament to star at the WJC. A lot of them have been terrific players and gone on to great NHL careers. Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov were lights-out in Anchorage, Alaska in 1989; Peter Forsberg is the all-time leading scorer in tournament history and prior to Eberle accepting the mantle, Eric Lindros was probably Canada’s best player in the history of the tournament.
But for every Forsberg and Lindros, the championship is littered with players who were tops in the tournament and had NHL scouts leaving the rink with dropped jaws. Then they went on to have middling NHL careers and in some cases, weren’t even that good.
In 1988, Jimmy Waite turned in one of the greatest goaltending performances in WJC history and almost singlehandedly led Canada to the gold medal. Two years later, Stephane Fiset was spectacular in leading Canada to another title. It’s safe to say for both those players, their performances represented the pinnacle of their hockey careers.
Scouts left the 1985 and ’86 world juniors convinced Michal Pivonka was going to be a superstar. In 1992, Michael Nylander scored 17 points in seven games for Sweden, which prompted THN to run a story accompanied by the headline, “The G Word,” in which scouts were quoted as saying Nylander reminded them of Wayne Gretzky.
And in 1995 in Red Deer, Alta., Marty Murray was the captain and by far the best player on a team that included future NHL players Ryan Smyth, Jason Allison, Jeff O’Neill, Darcy Tucker, Wade Redden and Bryan McCabe. Murray was named the top forward in the tournament and to the all-star team, but has been a journeyman ever since.
The most important thing to remember with Eberle or any other young player is how he is developed by the NHL team that drafted him is more important than what he accomplished in a two-week tournament.
If the Oilers see what Eberle did at the WJC and rush him into the NHL on a bad team and heighten the expectations on him immediately, they’re flirting with disaster. If they bring him along at a reasonable pace and allow him to adjust to life as a pro early in his career, the chances he’ll succeed in the NHL will be greatly enhanced. The only problem is the Oilers’ recent history in such matters isn’t promising. Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner are two prime examples.
Will Eberle be a star in the NHL? Perhaps. Will he be a superstar? Probably not. Will he be a consistent 20-30 goal-scorer at the NHL level? You’d have to think he can be at least that and given his ability to score in important situations, he’s certainly developing a reputation as a player who can deliver when the game is on the line.
But just because he has been a savior for Canada at two WJCs doesn’t necessarily mean that will come to pass. What he did in Ottawa last year and Saskatoon this time around certainly won’t hurt, but the next couple of seasons will go a lot further toward determining Eberle’s future as an NHL player than the past two.
STILL WITH THE YOUNG GUYS
After Team USA won the World Junior Championship over Canada, much was made of the fact the American team also won the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. Some observers took those two results as a portent that Canada’s perch atop the hockey world in terms of supremacy is in peril.
That may be the case, but there are a couple of flaws in making that kind of blanket assumption. First of all, if Canada and the U.S. had been given access to all of their best under-20 talent, there’s a good chance Canada would have rolled over everyone in this year’s tournament, including the Americans.
With respect to the under-17 tournament, we would all be well advised to realize Canada’s best 16-year-old players were parceled into five regional teams that were thrown together for a week-long tournament. The American team, on the other hand, is a collection of the best 16-year-old players in the country who play on a team that is hothoused with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, a squad that plays and lives together for an entire season.
So when you compare apples to apples, things might take on a slightly different look.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.