Jordan Eberle made his return to Edmonton on March 8 after being traded to the Islanders this past off-season. Eberle has been productive on his new team, like he was during his time here. He was always a smart, skilled player and was a part of the core that entered the fold in 2010. Of course, Oilers fans are familiar with the narrative of his time here. He was never able to match his impressive 76 point sophomore season, and the team lost consistently.
In his first few seasons, the Oilers were a small team competing against big teams in the Western Conference, and they got pushed around. Like most of the Oilers’ young forwards of that time, he didn’t hit a lot, and it drove Oilers fans crazy. They’d say “Imagine if Lucic was on the team! He would hit people because he’s so big! Then we would win more games” (That’s going well for us now, isn’t it?). While fore-checking, Eberle would get in passing lanes along the wall rather than try to hit someone, which I had no problem with because there was usually a teammate in the other passing lane along the wall. Eberle was considered a fairly smart defensive player in his first few seasons. Then last season, that changed a little bit. He lost his man in his own zone on game-winning goals a few times. That made him quickly fall out of favour with Oilers fans and apparently Oilers management as well. Eberle only managed 2 points in the playoffs last year, which was a disappointment.
Peter Chiarelli said that the biggest reason that Eberle was moved for the much cheaper Strome was because Chiarelli needed to have the cap room available in case Leon Draisaitl received an offer sheet from another team. Chiarelli could have traded Eberle after matching Draisaitl’s offer sheet had it happened. They could have kept Eberle this season, which might have been smart considering the fact that the Oilers are so weak at the wing spot right now. However, Chiarelli traded Eberle before the draft. Considering Eberle was placed down in the lineup towards the end of the regular season and most of the playoffs, it was clear to me that Todd McLellan had a problem with Eberle’s play last year and Chiarelli didn’t see enough to think he was worth keeping.
Ryan Strome is not as good of a player as Eberle. It was another big trade where Chiarelli got the worst player in the deal, and Oilers fans were not impressed. While he does not produce as many points as Eberle does, Strome does bring some good things to the table. He was the 5th overall pick in 2011, so it’s not like he’s a total plug. He has the ability to play centre and wing, which is important on a team that likes to have their top 2 centres playing on the same line. He’s an upgrade as a 3rd line centre for those nights where Draisaitl plays with McDavid, and he can play on Nugent-Hopkins’ wing when Draisaitl centres his own line. He is a right-handed centre that can play in the top 9, which is something the Oilers did not have before this trade. He’s also bigger, stronger, and more responsible defensively than Eberle was last season (WHICH IS EXACTLY WHY OILERS FANS AND MEDIA WERE HATING ON EBERLE). He had a very slow start offensively, including a streak where he went 21 games without a goal and 12 games without a point; but he has picked up his play recently. He has found a home as the Oilers’ 3rd line centre. He is now on pace for 38 points, which is a slight improvement from last season in terms of points per game. There are no other guys that can score 35-40 points as a 3rd line centre that are as young as he is available via free-agency this off-season, so Strome is a valuable piece that the Oilers would have otherwise had a tough time finding.
The other asset that the Oilers got in this trade was valuable cap space. I do think that Chiarelli could have kept Eberle for this season; but if this move wouldn’t have happened then, it would’ve happened this off-season due to McDavid and Draisaitl’s contracts. Some people have criticized Chiarelli for not using that cap space to load up for a deep run at the playoffs during McDavid’s last year of his ELC. Keeping Eberle would’ve been the only feasible way that he could’ve loaded up for this one season. None of the big free agents that signed last year would have been an upgrade on Eberle. Given the uncertainty of the salary cap and neither McDavid nor Draisaitl having signed their contracts prior to July 1, committing to a big name unrestricted free agent last off-season would have been irresponsible. That cap space will likely be used over the next couple of seasons since the Oilers will have to re-sign Darnell Nurse and Cam Talbot in addition to attempting to find a new top line winger and a right-handed puck moving defenceman in that time.
I loved Eberle as an Oiler, but when Chiarelli was hired and McDavid was drafted, it was the start of yet another re-build. That dreaded ‘r’ word was never uttered by Oilers management, but that’s what it has been. It involves getting rid of the old players and bringing in new ones. Eberle was a big part of the core that could never win here, and I as I mentioned earlier, I believe that he would have been dealt eventually. This trade didn’t make the Oilers better immediately, but it gave Chiarelli some flexibility to add other important pieces down the road. It’s a process that takes time (I know that’s the last thing that any Oilers fan wants to hear at this point), and it is still early in the new re-build. It is what it is. For now, I’ll welcome Eberle back to Rogers Place excitedly with open arms.