PHILADELPHIA — Doug Weight never minced words as a player and hasn’t changed during his first full season as the New York Islanders’ coach.
His assessment of Jordan Eberle, a pivotal off-season acquisition, is dead-on.
“Jordan was coming from a situation where, not blaming the Oilers, but he was in a beaten-down, lack-of-confidence situation,” Weight said. “I wanted to get him in here and let him know how we felt about him.”
Weight feels rather positive about Eberle these days. The 27-year-old right wing has eight goals over the past 12 games.
The Isles swept a home-and-home series with Flyers this week, finishing off a Black Friday matinee with a 5-4 overtime victory. Eberle’s third period power-play goal ignited a two-goal comeback.
“Not a lot of people can put the puck where Ebs did,” Weight remarked of the forward’s strong move off the boards, then tucking the puck inside the post on goalie Brian Elliott.
The 27-year-old from Regina, Sask., seems reborn as an Islander with 16 points in 22 games.
Truth is, Eberle’s past six seasons (throw out lockout-shortened 2012-13) were remarkably consistent from an offensive standpoint: Twenty-plus goals and 60 points every year, albeit, he was a minus player (-48) as an Oiler.
Many pegged Eberle as a perimeter, second-line winger. During his time in Edmonton, Eberle played mostly with four centremen: Shawn Horcoff, Sam Gagner, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Connor McDavid.
Twice a regular first-line winger, but he didn’t deliver enough splash for a $6 million forward. Throw in zero goals in 13 playoffs games last spring, plus the re-signings of Leon Draisaitl and Milan Lucic looming in the immediate future, and Eberle sensed he was a goner.
He was right.
Oiler general manager Peter Chiarelli, facing a salary cap crisis, traded Eberle the day before the NHL Draft in Chicago for the far less expensive Ryan Strome.
“Definitely didn’t play up to my standards, especially in the playoffs,” Eberle admitted. “It has to do with points. I had a really good first series and it didn’t show on the scoresheet. Those are times you have to score and I got demoted in the lineup and beaten up a bit, too.”
Not necessarily on the ice, either.
“The Edmonton media can be pretty brutal and your confidence goes and this is a game you can’t play if you don’t have confidence,” Eberle said. “It’s that simple. It’s the Edmonton Oilers and everything around it. When you read articles every day about how much you suck, it’s tough.”
“You can’t,” Eberle replied. “It affects you and I lost my confidence. The biggest thing for me since I got here with the Islanders, is trying to get that back.”
And forgetting the perimeter tag from the past, too.
“We don’t see that,” said Isles GM Garth Snow. “I have seen Jordan go to the net and pay a price to score a goal. As for a net-front presence on the power play, we have guys who can do that … I see Jordan crashing and creating goals.”
His goal against the Flyers was just that. Centred by dazzling 20-year-old rookie Mathew Barzal and banger Andrew Ladd, they’ve given the Isles a second No. 1 unit behind John Tavares’ group with Anders Lee and Josh Bailey.
“It’s not like they’re good one game and go to lunch two games,” Weight said of Barzal’s line. “They’ve been consistent. That, to me, is what a first line does. They bring it every night.”
During training camp, Weight paired Eberle with Tavares, then changed his mind.
“It wasn’t that it didn’t work, but I thought we’d be a better team with him and Barzy,” he said.
Barzal and Eberle are Western Canada products. Both played in the Western Hockey League. Both played World Juniors.
“Identical backgrounds,” Eberle smiled.
There’s a mentor relationship between them.
“I can remember watching him when I was in world juniors and scoring the big goal and all and Jordan is such a nice, humble guy,” Barzal said. “He has taken me under his wing a little bit. It’s cool to play with a guy who has been through a lot.
“I’m always trying to find him. He’s going to make plays with the puck. I want to give it to him in a good spot because he’s going to score. I know what it’s like to have that trust with him on the ice.”
While things haven’t gone quite as planned for Strome in Edmonton, they’re working just fine for Eberle. His game mirrors what he’s always been: a slick, quiet player, who you don’t notice that much until you see the final scoresheet.
“Jordan creates offence,” Snow said. “I like the fact he has a shoot-first mentality, especially, when you look at our forward group.”
The Isles are heavy on puck distributors, as opposed to shooters.
“For us,” Snow added, “It’s a perfect fit.”
Yep, Eberle is fourth on the club with 51 shots.
“The biggest high I get is winning and scoring goals,” Eberle said. “Being in the playoffs last year was an eye-opener. You have to score goals to have a shot at the Stanley Cup. Get with a guy like Mathew Barzal with that pass mentality, you have shooters with him.”
Keeping pace with Barzal can be challenging.
“You see [Barzal’s] speed and he’s dynamic. I didn’t have that speed at his young age,” Eberle said. “The knock was I was a bad skater. He can turn on the dime and make plays.”
Confidence can be fleeting in hockey because there are so many games. Eberle says his confidence level is growing. He points to a possible ancillary reason for such.
“We don’t get as much media coverage and don’t have to deal with that sort of element and maybe can play looser and freer and it helps our game,” Eberle said. “Doug lets us play. I feel I have lots to give them here.”