He is, by most accounts, the captain in waiting, a special player with the right attitude who has set the standard for these youthful Edmonton Oilers. In one season, Jordan Eberle went from a fine, promising rookie forward to a certifiable star by almost doubling his goal scoring.
It was a seismic shift that resulted in the 22-year-old Eberle finishing 16th in NHL scoring, ahead of such luminaries as Martin St. Louis, Zach Parise, Henrik Zetterberg, Scott Hartnell, Daniel Sedin, Pavel Datsyuk, Patrick Kane and Alex Ovechkin. And for that, the Oilers not only signed Eberle to a six-year, $36-million (U.S.) contract extension this past summer, they recently named him a fulltime assistant to captain Shawn Horcoff.
For the Oilers, it was a way to reward a guiding light. For Eberle, it was a sign he can do more yet, and so can his teammates.
"I feel this is really a big year for a lot of guys – Taylor (Hall), Sam (Gagner), Nuge (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins)," Eberle said before Sunday's season opener in Vancouver against the Canucks. "We have a lot of skilled players. It's just a matter of putting it altogether, worrying what's best for the team, and that can translate into a lot of wins."
You can tell from reading that quote how clearly Eberle has adopted captain's speak. Throughout training camp, he has spoken at length about what the Oilers need to do this season to make the jump from Western Conference bottom dwellers to playoff contenders. As expected, it's not about scoring a gallery full of artful goals; it's about playing a strong positional game and using their speed to fore-check and defend.
The talk is becoming contagious. So, too, are Eberle's on-ice habits.
"The thing about Jordan is he takes advantage of every opportunity," explained Gagner, about to begin his sixth NHL season at age 23. "If you look at him, he doesn't ever have a couple of bad games in a row. When he does have games where he doesn't feel he's at his best, he jumps right back on the horse. To be a great player in this game you need to have that consistency, and he did that really well last year."
Eberle's rise can be charted: he played out his full WHL career with the Regina Pats and wasn't rushed into the NHL meatgrinder. Twice when the Pats' season ended, he did a short stint with Springfield of the AHL. He played in the world juniors, the world championships. When he finally cracked the Oilers' lineup, he was comfortable with his game and vowed to keep improving on it.
It was all about confidence, he admitted, and being good more often than being lousy.
"If you look at some of the best players in the NHL – Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin – maybe they're not scoring every night or getting points but, if you watch, they're always making the right play," said Eberle, who had 25 goals and was plus 11 in 34 games in the AHL during the lockout. "They're always in the right spot and if they have bad game they don't dwell on it. I think if you limit the mistakes – and I've always been a player who tries to make the right play – that's the most important thing."
It certainly is for the Oilers, whose speed and exuberance may be enough to cloak the questionable parts of their game, from their defensive commitment to their ability to be as effective on the road as they are at Rexall Place. While the bulk of NHL pundits outside of Edmonton view the Oilers as 13th- to 14th-place finishers, the players say they aren't thinking of that or even some of the hype that's billed them as arguably the most exciting team to watch in the NHL – Hall on one line, Nail Yakupov on another, newcomer Justin Schultz on defence.
Instead, the Oilers, under new head coach Ralph Krueger, are about attention to detail, solid execution of the game plan and a lot of fast skating. Underlining those points is a third-year winger who has accepted a leadership role in his natural evolution.
"It's just getting older, more experienced. You just keep building your confidence," Eberle said before switching back to assistant captain's speak. "The biggest thing for us is going to be defensive play. If we can keep the puck out of our end, we're going to get the offensive chances we need."