Thursday, January 05, 2012

Jordan Eberle and life without Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on sidelines with an injured shoulder, all indications are pointing to the rookie centre being out of the Oilers lineup for the foreseeable future. While it doesn't appear to be as serious is it could have been, I would be stunned to see him back on the ice until just before or right after the NHL All-Star Game. If he is healthy, I am sure the league, the Oilers and RNH himself would love for the youngster to be at the game but we shall see. Having said all that, what is of much greater concern to fans of the Edmonton Oilers, is what happens now? How does this club replace what the rookie centre brought to the table? Those are tough questions for any team that is lacking depth to answer but there is one thing this coaching staff must make sure doesn't happen...and that is to forget about Jordan Eberle.

When the 2011-2012 campaign began, the Edmonton Oilers decided to start Eberle on a line with Ryan Smyth and Eric Belanger in five-on-five situations and had him on the second power play unit. Now while this setup lasted only a couple of games, it was very clear that the second year winger was being wasted by playing with players that were unable to get him the puck where and when he needed it. Not surprisingly, last seasons leading point scorer looked lost to start the season and did not get his first goal until game number eight. You would have thought that the lesson would have been learned but apparently no one was paying attention.

This is why I found it so troubling to watch Eberle skating on a line with Smyth and Anton Lander on Tuesday night in Buffalo. Not only did the line combination make little sense but it looked as though they were, once again, not making the youngster a priority. Unless I am missing something here, I believe Eberle is this teams leading scorer and it could easily be argued that he has been their best player this season. So why would he have received just over eleven minutes of ice time five-on-five and play just a hair over fifteen minutes against the Sabres? Was the plan to see how this team would react to playing without both their leading scorers?

Don't get me wrong, I fully understand the predicament Edmonton is in. They lack scoring depth at the best of times, they just lost their top centre and they have a player in Ales Hemsky, that seems to only give his all when he is playing on a line with Taylor Hall. I had no problem whatsoever, with them going with the Hemsky- Gagner - Hall line in Buffalo but what I did take issue with, was not having the foresight to ensure Eberle would have linemates that would compliment his skill set.

Obviously, no one they could put in between Eberle and Smyth would bring what Nugent-Hopkins does but putting Lander or Eric Belanger there makes no sense.The Belanger experiment already failed once and Lander...really? This is the best these guys could come up with? I know they like to play safe hockey as much as possible but would not the easy and most logical choice have been to put Shawn Horcoff on that line?  While he has never centred the two on a line before, the captain has played well with both players in the past and it is a role he is comfortable playing in. Makes sense to me but instead they decided to have Horcoff babysit two AHL callups, in Josh Green and Teemu Hartikainen, and that line was downright awful in going a combined -10 on the night. To confuse the situation even further, Hartikainen played more five-on-five then Eberle and Green played twenty-one seconds less then the Oilers top scorer...a head scratcher, to say the least.

The exclamation point on the night, came when Edmonton was "attempting" to tie the game up in the final minute. With Nikolai Khabibulin on the bench for an extra attacker, the Oilers sent out six players and not one of them had the number 14 on their back. Confused? Join the club because I was absolutely stunned. What team leaves their leading scorer on the bench when they are trying to tie things up in the final minute?

This is now the second time this season that the Edmonton Oilers have looked at Jordan Eberle as being nothing more then a piece in the overall puzzle. When in reality, he should be looked upon as being one of the primary, if not key piece, in making this puzzle all fit together.  

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