EDMONTON, AB - An eager Jordan Eberle is ready to put on the uniform and return to the Oilers lineup for the first time this season. The right winger is coming off a shoulder injury suffered in the pre-season but he says it’s time to jump back into the fray.
“I think I’m as ready as I’m going to be. I’m excited to get back,” said Eberle. “I think you can do as much practicing as you want, especially with these, they’re high tempo so they get you ready for the game but once you get in the first couple of shifts, you kind of get settled. I’m excited for that.”
With an optional practice on Wednesday and an injury to Connor McDavid the night before, Thursday was the first look at the coaching staff’s thought process with their top six and how it may look on Friday night against Pittsburgh.
Eberle skated with Leon Draisaitl at centre and Taylor Hall on the left side at practice on Thursday. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins centred Benoit Pouliot and Nail Yakupov on the second line. These combinations keep intact the pair of Draisaitl and Hall, who have been hot for the Oilers these last few games. Draisaitl shifts from the wing to centre, while a responsible Nugent-Hopkins moves to a line with both a good puck retriever and a young, skilled winger who is also producing this season.
“The first thing we do is look at offence and that one line has been playing extremely well,” said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. “Then we’ve got to look at the rest of the team and we can’t rely on one line. We’ve decided to play Leon in his home position, which is centre. Then when that decision was made we looked at the six players we’re using in those slots and I think Nuge has had the most experience in the league, playing through the centre-ice position. I trust him a lot defensively and all over the rink in the three zones to do the right thing and he can help others out. Leon doesn’t have that experience, yet he has two veteran wingers with him who can help him and they’re going to face, not only at home here in a Crosby-Malkin type combination but on the road they’re going to get some tough match-ups.
“We’ll start it that way. It’s looking for trust and reliability more than offence and whether it’s the right thing or not. We’ll find out as we go.”
Eberle won’t be eased back in or protected with minutes or match-ups as he joins Draisaitl and Hall. The duo has played on what has been the club’s most productive line as of late. Draisaitl, since being recalled on October 29, has three goals and four assists for seven points in three games. Hall is riding a six-game point streak, in which the winger has four goals and eight assists. Hall currently leads the Oilers and is, as of Thursday morning, tied with Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler for fourth in NHL scoring.
Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers
“They’re both skilled players, they’re both feeling it right now and I just want to get in there and contribute with them,” said Eberle.
The winger hopes to join the pair and take off right away. Practicing with the team for the last few days has helped prepare him for that challenge.
“I’d like to think I’m going to jump in and be at the top of my game but it’s probably going to take a bit,” said Eberle. “I think that with the tempo of practices that we have and the kind of staff that we have, they’ve made it a lot easier to get as ready as I’ll be. I’m excited and a little nervous for the first game, which is funny. I’m excited to finally get my season going.”
While watching the games from the media catwalk, Eberle has pre-scouted his two linemates. He, of course, is very familiar with Hall and he played with Draisaitl a bit last season. However, Eberle sees a new-and-improved Draisaitl out there now in his sophomore season.
“I think the one thing I’ve noticed with Drai is he looks a lot faster, which is huge,” Eberle said. “I think that’s the one thing they wanted him to work on when they sent him down, was his speed. He’s definitely gotten quicker. As a centreman, that’s obviously a big attribute to be able to drive the middle like that. I think right now, those two are playing with a lot of confidence. Any time you’re putting the puck in the net and creating chances, you’re going to create that. Hopefully, I can jump on the wave with them and continue to play well.”
As Draisaitl shifts back to his natural position, he says it shouldn’t change a lot of how he has been playing the last three contests.
“For me, it’s just a matter of playing my game,” said Draisaitl. “Obviously, I have played with Hallsy for a couple games and I think we worked pretty well. I played with Ebs for a little bit last year and they’re two very skilled guys and my position has changed a little bit but that doesn’t mean my game has to change at all.”
If Draisaitl and Hall can continue to click and Eberle can contribute as well, the Oilers have a solid trio and their top six remains dangerous. The club has missed Eberle since the beginning of the season and now his return is just pending activation from long-term IR. He has 284 points (120-164-284) in 356 NHL games.
“He’s going to bring some experience back in,” said McLellan. “When players return they have an energy level that’s maybe a little higher than the others who have been grinding it out. He’s going to have that little spark in him, that energy. A skill level that is different than the skill we’ve been playing, and what do I mean by that? We have long skill right now. We have lots of speed through the neutral zone, rush-type skill. Jordan is very good in tight areas, cycling, handling pucks and making little plays. He brings that into the lineup. We’ve got an experienced power play performer coming back into the lineup who is a right-handed shot.”
The Oilers lost a skilled player this week but are eager to get another back who is chomping at the bit to get going.