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Jordan Eberle: To the Top of the Mountain

Eberle poised to reach his potential in 2013-2104.

At a recent event in Halifax, a fundraiser to assist a local youth program, Sidney Crosby was introduced and walked up on the stage to join a host of other Nova Scotians who had some connection to the Stanley Cup. When it was his turn to talk, the hostess promptly asked how it felt to be living his dream and inspiring children at the same time.

Crosby smiled and acknowledged the compliments that preceeded the question by saying, "That's nice."

Then he paused for just a split second and, still smiling, said, "I think you realize that there's a little bit of pressure that comes with that, too."

Jordan Eberle of the Edmonton Oilers must see things like that and exhale loudly enough to move papers off a table ten feet away. 

Nathan MacKinnon, this year's top draft pick, was at the same event in Halifax and although his team and the hockey world in general have very high expectations for the young man from Cole Harbour, he has yet to set his own bar and he's still in a "wait and see" place, cocooned from criticism and over-analysis by not yet doing anything, noteworthy or otherwise, in the big league. I hope he appreciates this period, these are his halcyon days, like the gap year between high school and university. Everyone wants to talk to him, everyone's interested, many are hopeful and some are anticipatory, but he has yet to do or not do anything that would lead to difficult questions.

No one will ask MacKinnon, for instance, why his team was swept in the conference finals or whether he can get back to his 2011-2012, 34 goal, 76 point, 18.9 shot percentage high ground.

Of all the gin joints ...

While I would not want to argue the matter of who has the most pressure placed upon them, I would put forth that Jordan Eberle is a young man sitting in a very hot seat. Crosby only has the entire hockey world to please in that general sort of way we want the "best" to be up to the title, and an entire country absolutely besotted with the potential to win another gold at the 2014 Olympics and his potential role in that, and a large and savvy group of fans of Mario Lemieux' team that expects him to not quite walk on water, but to perform a few minor in-season miracles.

Eberle has the Edmonton Oiler fans.

Gretzky's old fans.

People who remember Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri and Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky. People who remember hockey's most famous and most often referred to dynasty. People who want another season in the sun. People who have a legacy to protect, a future to get to. As Chic Anderson once famously said about Secretariat, "He's going for the lead – and it's RIGHT NOW he's looking for it."

Eberle is a little like Secretariat. Oiler fans are a little like Ron Turcotte. And the rest of us are like Chic Anderson. Eberle is running, the fans are riding him and we're all calling the race from the stands.

Toronto Maple Leafs' fans will tell you that the longest wait, the most intensely uncomfortable thing in the world, is the time between the last time you were great and the next time you can smell the possibility of being great again. And then, when you think it can't be any more uncomfortable or painful, it is. Because then there's the time period where the faint odor of possiblity wafts tantalizingly through the air from the kitchen and you're waiting in the dining room.

Which is where the Oilers fans are all uncomfortably seated at the moment. Some are haranguing the staff, some are waiting patiently, some are waiting from habit without any real belief the food is ever coming and some are excited because they have never had food before but they've heard great things about how cool food is.

The odor of possibility was most strongly noticed in 2011-2012. And it clung to Jordan Eberle. He was the standout on the team.

In 2011-2012, Eberle placed 16th in league goals and 15th in league points. He had a surreal, team leading, shooting percentage of 18.9%. To put this in context, the only comparable player that season, in terms of games played and shots taken, was Steven Stamkos who took 303 shots on goal and got 19.8% of them in for 60 goals and 97 points. Eberle took 180 shots on goal and got in 18.9% of them for 34 goals and 76 points. Calgary's Curtis Glencross had a "is that a typo?" shot percentage of 23.6% on 110 shots for 26 goals in the same season. David Perron, also of the Oilers, had an 18.4% shooting percentage on 144 shots for 21 goals. That's closer to SOP for Stamkos whose career aggregate is 17.2 ... the others, not so much. Must have been something in the water running down through the Alberta foothills that year.

They should have bottled some of it, maybe.

Eberle ended the 2012-2013 season in 38th place overall, behind teammates Taylor Hall and Sam Ganger, with 37 points over 48 games and a shot percentage of 12%. In 2010-2011, his rookie year, he ended with 43 points in 69 games, just ahead of Gagner and Hall who each had 42, with 158 shots on goal and a shot percentage of 11.4%.

Eberle was playing hurt for a portion of 2012-2013, a hand injury possibly impeding his play, and his center, Nugent-Hopkins, was playing with a shoulder injury. It is entirely possible that these two factors contributed to the sharp decline in shot percentage from one year to the next. But the fact remains that 2011-2012 stands out like a neon light inside of his small, three year NHL record, being sandwiched as it is between two very NHL average years.

Will the Real Jordan Eberle Please Stand Up

It is important to keep in mind that Jordan Eberle came into the NHL riding a very shiny white horse. As Adam Kimelman of NHL.com put it, "At the 2009 and '10 World Junior Championships, Eberle scored three of the most heart-stopping, breathtaking goals in Canadian junior hockey history." He wasn't just another kid with hockey dreams and some skill. He was a bona fide national hero.

While saying one player is actually personally responsible for a win might be considered over the top, the gold medal the Canadians took home from the 2009 World Juniors belongs to Eberle as much as anyone. Maybe more. Behind the Russian team by one goal, Eberle and Tavares, who took the shot that set up a rebound, showed why he was so highly regarded as a draft prospect and why Edmonton took him with their first pick in the 22nd spot in 2008. Eberle came up big when big counted. As Kimelman says, "Eberle pounced, moved the puck from his forehand to his backhand in front of the net and slid it under Russia goalie Vadim Zhelobnyuk with just 5.4 seconds left."

"To complete his magical evening," Kimelman wrote, "Eberle scored the winning goal in the shootout as Canada beat Russia, 6-5. And two days later, in the gold-medal game, he had a goal and 2 assists as Canada routed Sweden, 5-1."

Although he did not make the final cut at the Oilers 2009-2010 training camp that same year and played out the year with his junior team, the Regina Pats, in a truly spectacular fashion, when he did get his NHL chance the next year, he made it count. In his first NHL goal, which came in his first NHL game, against Calgary, Eberle made the highlight reels with a stunning shorthanded goal that had all the bells and whistles. It included taking a seeing eye, banked pass, stepping over the defenseman's stick at full speed, an edge change, a toe drag and a backhand top shelf finish.

Whoosh, went the Oiler fanbase.

Every Edmonton Oilers fan on the planet, and there are a lot of them, danced a happy dance around the television and the Edmonton press whistled a sprightly tune for days. In addition to producing a very funny joke segment based on the goal, TSN pondered whether the goal of the year had been scored on the opening night of the season. Crosby said, "no one should be surprised".

As a fan, you never forget goals like that. Or the moment you lived them. You anchor them. They anchor you. They become part of the baseline upon which you pin your hopes and dreams. Because if a player can do that, in his first NHL game ... well, that's when you drift off into happy dreams about your team hauling itself out of the basement, where your team has no business being in the first place.

Goals like that give fans hope.

Of course, Edmonton has much to be hopeful about. Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are stellar, exciting players. Sam Gagner is a great player. And the list goes on. Jordan Eberle added another layer to that hope and the Oiler faithful started imagining the good things to come.

Eberle's perfectly respectable but not stellar first season of 43 points didn't much bother anyone. It was good, it was his first season, he was young, the team was working out its kinks, he only played 69 games, he was playing well, if not converting at a stand-out rate. So the fans shrugged off their basement dwelling finish to the 2010-2011 season, watched "the goal" on Youtube one more time and waited for next year.

One more year in the basement wasn't going to kill anyone.

Next year, 2011-2012, still remembering "the goal", the fans anxiously awaited the return to the ice of a more mature, slightly more seasoned Eberle. And he did NOT disappoint. He ended the season 15th in the league in points, had that amazing, preternatural 18.9 shot percentage, was mentioned in the same breath with Steven Stamkos and was part of a gelling chemistry with Hall and Nugent-Hopkins. It was a little like a refill on the oxygen tank. After two solid years of holding their breath and rationing the air, the Oiler fans took the one step up from the basement as a sign of things to come.

Next year was going to be awesome!

We're Ready for You. Are You Ready for Us?

Clunk.

That's the weight of expectation falling on Jordan Eberle's shoulders.

When you inherit Gretzky's old fans, even the ones who weren't alive then, but have the vicarious sense of it from their older relatives and friends, the weight of expectation enters a rarefied part of the atmosphere where few people could breathe. The only other team I can think of which regularly suffers under the weight of its fans' memory-laden expectations, are the Montreal Canadiens. Can you imagine being a goal tender in Montreal?

Or a goal scorer in Edmonton?

During the lockout, Eberle played in Oklahoma and told Mike Damante in an interview in November of 2012 that he wasn't paying much attention to the whole matter and was, instead, concentrating on his game and creating some chemistry with his Oiler team mates, some of whom were also playing in Oklahoma while the labour dispute dragged on.

Meanwhile, the Edmonton Journal, mirroring or creating (who can tell these days?) the fan expectations and sense of unfolding destiny, had conducted a poll for the Oilers faithful. Weigh in, they asked, on how many goals and points you think Jordan Eberle will get in 2012-2013. Buoyed and expectant from his 2011-2012 performance, they weighed in with more than 75% of the 1,252 respondents believing he would have a point total exceeding 70, with 36+% believing he would exceed 80 points.

I counted 24 separate places on the internet where this very thing was discussed. Everyone, all the usual suspects, TSN, ESPN, Bleacher Report, NHL.com had something to say about Eberle and some query as to how his year was going to unfold. In the terrible dark days of the lockout, we heard about his impressive performance in Oklahoma where he was an AHL superstar, putting up 51 points in 34 games with 25 goals and was AHL player of the month in both November and December.

I don't know that players read polls or Google themselves at the end of every day. I don't know that they listen to what is said or tune out in the interest of sanity, but you would have had to be living under a rock not to hear the name Eberle as the lockout created a hole in the news that had to be filled somehow. The NHL should give every hockey writer a bonus, it was they who helped keep the fans from revolting by digging deep and finding things to say - even if those things had already been said.

When Eberle did finally step back onto the ice in an Oiler uniform, the expectations had reached a fever pitch.

It wasn't quite a case of the "Mighty Casey struck out" but he certainly didn't hit the ball out of the park. He had a very average season. Not a bad one. But it was not an extension of the AHL heroics during the lockout or even an extension of the previous season when he'd been touted as "someone to watch - really watch" and in whom the Oiler fans had placed a great deal of their hopes and dreams.

His actual totals, pro-rated to account for the shortened season, would be around 63 (at 37 actual points over 48 games). Which means 75% of those 1,252 people were not only wrong, but disappointed. With Eberle's shot percentage falling to 12%, a drop of 6.8 pecentage points, you could almost hear the breaking hearts around Oiler City.

Sure, they'd move up another two spots in the standings, the basement was further behind them, no one had played particularly badly. But they'd believed their own press a little, fallen victim to their own expectations and were bitterly disappointed. Eberle's stock fell a little and a more cautious tone overtook the bravado his 2011-2012 campaign had created.

Now, it's true, and a lot of people pointed this out, that a "sophomore slump" is a thing that can happen. Of course, he wasn't in his sophomore year, he was in his third year. Or it could be like a "Stanley Cup hangover". Or it could be an anomaly. Or it could be because the season was so messed up that nothing that happened in it should "count". Or because he was injured, as was Nugent-Hopkins for a part of 2012-2013. Or ... something.

I doubt that the pressure of the fan base got to him, per se. He's a young man who is very used to pressure and has played under it, exceedingly well. But one does wonder whether the spectre of playing on Wayne Gretzky's old ice, in the hallowed Northlands Coliseum (now called Rexall Place) has any bearing on how these young players deal with pressure - and, for that matter, how well the fans handle defeats and disappointments.

How do you live with the notion that no matter what you do, you will likely be "disappointing" in the "compared to the old team" way. Other teams with storied pasts have the same problem, but none in the modern age were quite so dominant as the Edmonton Oilers (with apologies to the Penguins of the early nineties and the Islanders of the early eighties) and none had Gretzky in his prime. Gretzky never again played for a team that could properly be called a "juggernaut" or "the greatest team ever assembled".

You wonder whether players like Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins wander the halls of the arena thinking things like "this is Gretzky's rink". Gretzky's rink. Maybe by the time you reach the NHL you've gone past that sort of distraction and sense of wonder.

Real Fans NEVER Give Up.

In an Edmonton Journal post (some of the best hockey writing on the internet happens there) dated August 3 and titled "Oilers fans gearing up for annual fret-o-mania over Jordan Eberle's point production" another poll has been created.

While 36+% fans thought he was going to earn more than 80 points in the 2012-2013 poll, only 17% think that will happen this year. While 38+% thought he was going to earn between 70 and 80 points last year, 50% think so this year. While 18% thought he would earn between 60 and 70 last year, this year 26+% think this is the magic number.

It's a VERY interesting set of data points, actually.The polls are very likely contributed to by a largely overlapping respondent base. Lots of people who voted last year, will have voted this year. It's not often that you get to compare two sets of fan expectations which have a high likelihood of carrying some actual relevance.

Fewer people have very high expectations. Many of those with high expectations last year have tempered them with the reality of last year's performance and 268 of them (about 23% of total averaged respondents) concluded they had hoped for too much and were riding the high from his standout 2011 season. Those people, probably the very epitome of "the reasonable fan", have likely fallen into the one lower category (70-80) and contribute to its significant increase. I like to play with numbers but I will spare you the many ways in which this data could be reformed to inform.

Suffice to say that because there has been no real change in the lower categories, the fans have not lost faith, by and large. Because the big changes are in the second and third categories, it means the fans have lowered expectations but still expect top performance. Because the bottom category is cut in half, it means the fans, generally speaking, are feeling less pessimestic about the team in general and the gun-shy after-effects of injuries has healed a little.

Sidenote: this analysis could well change if the poll gets many more participants and/or changes in any significant way. I have been watching it since it went up and it has not changed in substance in a long enough time frame that I feel somewhat comfortable in saying the flavour of it will not change much, even if it gains a lot more respondents. I will keep checking.

In short: Eberle has a great fanbase. If ever there was a city that was anxious to get back to their Glory Days, it's Edmonton. If ever there was a city that loves its hockey, it's Edmonton. If ever there was a city that could find a way to temper expectations with fairness, it seems to be Edmonton. It's like they understand what it must mean for a player to play there, in the shadow of Gretzky. You have to admire them for it.

And Eberle, meanwhile, remains the unaffected, charming, young man that he is, regularly tweeting such mundane things as a query as to whether they're picking up recylcing bins in Calgary and a comment about the torture of the motor vehicle registration process. This morning he tweeted about a trip up Sulphur Mountain.

Hiked to the top of Sulphur Mountain this morning pic.twitter.com/udq9kMHfNW
— Jordan Eberle (@ebs_14) August 4, 2013

So, we know he's a guy who CAN get to the top of the mountain.

I am one of the 17% who voted 80-plus.

I predict this will be Eberle's defining year. I believe this will be his benchmark season. And I believe it will be a positively stellar one.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Gretzky ...

Previously on Sidelines:
Rink Burgers: A Bruins Fan Remembers Life Through a Hockey Porthole

Next on Sidelines:
Nathan MacKinnon: Already A Mile Higher

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