As it turns out, Connor McDavid is very good at a variety of hockey-related things.
He’s absurdly fast on his feet, has the ability to think the game and execute offensively at that elite speed, and has the vision to utilize his linemates’ specific skills to their maximum potential.
That’s wonderful news for Edmonton Oilers winger Jordan Eberle, as the 26-year-old drew the plum gig of skating on McDavid’s wing, and is primed for a career year on the team’s top line as a result.
Through the first nine games of the season, the Oilers look like they’ve finally turned the corner, posting a dominant 7-2 record that has them leading the Western Conference and inspiring plenty of comparisons to the days of the dynasties.
It might be too early to crown the Oilers as champions or even contenders at this point, but one thing is certain – McDavid is going to be challenging for the scoring title for the foreseeable future, and whoever is skating with him is sure to see all their offensive totals rise as a result.
Eberle isn’t exactly a bag of pucks being dragged up ice by his young centreman either. The 2008 first-round pick has led the Oilers in scoring on three different occasions – a notable feat considering the other potent scorers on the roster – topping out at 34 goals and 76 points back in 2011-12.
While his production has dipped in recent years, Eberle still managed 25 goals and 47 points last season, remaining a dynamic offensive force even on an Oilers team that found themselves repeatedly pushed back into their own zone and held their consistently.
It’s been a different story this year. Alongside McDavid, who leads the league with 12 points through eight games, Eberle has posted three goals and six points, ranking third on the team in both categories. Second place is currently held by the duo’s linemate Milan Lucic, who’s served as a dutiful trigger on McDavid’s other wing.
The biggest change for Eberle, besides the McDavid factor, has been the young winger’s shooting tendencies.
After working with a shooting coach during the offseason and looking to hone his one-timer skill, Eberle has been making a concerted effort to shoot more often, and the results have come. He’s averaging 3.13 shots per game so far, a career high and significant improvement over his mark of 2.51 last season.
That total could surely dip as the campaign progresses, but with one of the league’s craftiest centremen feeding him the puck, Eberle is unlikely to run out of open space or good looks at the cage.
Head coach Todd McLellan has also been putting Eberle in a position to succeed thus far this year, allotting more ice-time for his fellow Saskatchewan native (18:13 minutes per game, up from 17:51 per game last season) and sending Eberle out for far more offensive zone starts (57.5 percent, up from 52.5 last season).
Despite all of that, there’s no denying that the core reason Eberle will very likely match or in fact top his career numbers in 2016-17 is the fact that he’ll absorb increased totals due to McDavid’s dominance.
The first handful of games this season has proven that, as Eberle is recording points in a variety of ways. Some are the result of the winger’s own offensive creativity working in unison with his new linemates. However, some have fallen into his lap from simply handing the puck off to McDavid and watching him cut through the opposition and go to work.
And goals will undoubtedly come to Eberle by simply finding open ice and waiting for McDavid to do what he does best, just as was the case with the linemates who played with history’s previous greats.
It’s a perfect storm for the former Oilers scoring leader. An ideal situation in terms of role, an improved supporting cast around him (not just up front but on the blue line and in net as well), and a reason to prove he’s worth keeping around. After seeing former running mate Taylor Hall get shipped out of town right before the franchise rebirth, it’s fair to assume Eberle is pushing to prove his skill fits well with what has now become the McDavid show.
Simply riding his linemates’ coattails won’t allow him to top his previous best, not with a sterling 76-point effort on his resume. But Eberle’s skill has never been in question, and it’s hard to imagine a better environment in which that skill could flourish once again and in fact reach the next level.
He’s set up for a fine season regardless, but if he can put it all together and continue to build dangeroud chemistry with his new captain, Eberle could be well on his way to re-establishing himself as one of the game’s most promising offensive threats in his own right.