It’s well known by now that the New York Islanders are somewhat in the midst of an offseason of uncertainty. With three key unrestricted free agents left, the Isles could look anywhere from similar to vastly different once the team hits the ice next season. Most of the discussion has understandably centered around Anders Lee and Robin Lehner, but the team has a third key contributor who may hit the open market come July 1: Jordan Eberle.
As we’ve done for the other free agents, the following will explore the case for looking to re-sign Eberle, as well as the one where the team lets him sail for different pastures.
The Case For Jordan Eberle
The Islanders acquired Jordan Eberle in June of 2017 in a one-for-one trade with the Edmonton Oilers that sent Ryan Strome to Alberta. In the two years that followed on Long Island, Eberle played 159 games, scoring 44 goals and finishing with 96 points. Meshing almost perfectly with the budding stardom of Mathew Barzal, Eberle also added 9 points in 8 games during the 2019 playoffs. In short, he’s been objectively productive in the aggregate during his tenure.
But what makes Eberle such a valuable player is his ability to be a possession driver along with his productivity. Those two things are important for a player who doesn’t necessarily fit the “hockey prototype” — he’s not very big, he’s not very fast, and he’s not very outwardly physical. The things he does do well are what drives his production and possession rates: he’s incredibly intelligent, he’s got great hands, and he’s able to find soft areas in the ice to get his shot off.
In fact, Eberle is pretty consistently strong in these regards. The chart below shows a time series of Eberle’s goals per hour against his relative on-ice shot attempt share (in other words, the percentage of shot attempts Eberle’s team takes while he’s on the ice).
There’s some fluctuation within, but what we can discern from this is that, overall, Jordan Eberle has been a consistently positive player from both perspectives. That’s helpful for a team that needs consistency in production, and while Eberle missed the 20-goal mark for the first time since the lockout shortened 2013 season (he would have easily gotten there in 82 games), there’s still plenty of reason to believe that he could rebound in future seasons.
We saw a glimpse of that during the 2019 postseason, where Eberle scored in each game of the sweep against Pittsburgh. While he did not score any goals against Carolina, Eberle still managed three assists in four games against the Hurricanes.
There’s also the notion that removing Eberle from the lineup would take away one of the team’s best overall players. If we look at the above scatter plot, despite Eberle’s downward regular season production, he still is firmly in the top right quadrant, which measures team-relative production and possession based on Game Score and relative shot share.
On top of that, Eberle plays really well with Mathew Barzal. Over the course of their 1100+ minutes together since 2017-18, the Barzal/Eberle combination has played to a 53.30% shot share, 52.55% expected goal share, and 54.27% high danger chance share. Relative to the team at large, these numbers are astoundingly strong, and keeping Eberle with the team’s budding star on a line that objectively works seems like inherently smart thinking.
Moreover, Eberle’s with-or-without-you metrics play well pretty much across the board with all of the forwards he’s played significant time with. Play drivers are typically hard to come by, and at the very least, Eberle’s objectively contributing in positive ways outside of scoring goals with basically anyone he plays with.
Finally, positional needs have to be taken into account, as well. Eberle has been the team’s strongest right wing over the last two seasons. During this past season, Eberle was typically joined by Josh Bailey, Leo Komarov, and Cal Clutterbuck down the right side. This is a pretty sub-optimal situation - both Bailey and Komarov are left-handed shots, and Clutterbuck has enough back injuries where his availability for at least some of next season must be in question.
That leaves a crater-sized hole on the right side with no very little foreseeable replacements on the way. The one internal option is Josh Ho-Sang, who has been productive in his time in the NHL. But he’s a restricted free agent and it’s unknown if the Islanders will even want him in the organization next season.
This all means the Islanders will need to go shopping for at least one, if not two, right wings for their 2019-20 roster. Occam’s razor states that simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones. The simple solution is to solve one of those problems by just extending Jordan Eberle as a continuous piece on the Islanders.
The Case Against Jordan Eberle
As mentioned above, it’s not much of a secret that Eberle’s production was down this year. That, in itself, is not overly alarming. Hockey has a lot of volatile facets to it, and goal scoring certainly is one of them. What’s important, then, is ensuring the process to enabling goal scoring is optimal. Eberle’s process this year was a bit concerning.
The last time Eberle struggled from a “process” perspective like this was in 2014-15, which was a season where he still produced 63 points on a dreadful Oilers team. There’s no question the then 25-year old Eberle rebounded from that in 2015-16. Now approaching 30, the team has to be more skeptical that he will be able to rebound again. And not just for next year, but the following five, given the likelihood that Eberle has earned himself a long-term contract.
This is also where some of his flaws potentially become more pronounced, especially on the skating side. The game is becoming ever faster, and even highly intelligent players like Eberle will need to adapt to that. Whether it is the Islanders or another team that signs him, the investment they’ll be making is substantial, and how Eberle adjusts to “hockey aging” will be a enormous factor in the efficacy of his next contract.
We all know by now that Barry Trotz preaches shot quality over shot quantity. It’s to a point where it might be drilled into our heads, as followers of the team, at a similar intensity as the team itself (okay, not really). Eberle’s underlying shot metrics show the inverse of that, as we can see above, as his more “quality” based relative metrics are less positive than his overall shot metrics. This is potentially a case of a system adjustment, lack of fit, or more likely a combination of many factors that the team is privy to. Either way, considerations towards if Eberle can fit the mold of what the team is looking for need to be part of the decision making process.
Perhaps primary to the debate comes down to cost. Using the Evolving Wild contract projections, Eberle is projected to make the same $6 million he makes now, but over 7 more years. That’s certainly a lot of term for a player who will be 36 once the life of the contract is over, especially if there are concerns he may not be a long-term fit for the system Trotz wants to play.
Practically, there are cheaper options via trade and free agency that can replace the 19 goals Eberle scored last season. Given that the team is going to need to pay Mathew Barzal, Ryan Pulock, and Devon Toews after next season, budgeting a tangible portion of the salary cap to a player who may or may not be on the downswing/overall fit is risky and could cause more harm than good in the long run.
This case is perhaps the most interesting of the four (well, now three) UFAs-to-be. So much of what makes Eberle effective was shown during this year’s playoffs, yet it never felt like the team saw enough of it during the season. Whether that is due to adaptation to a new system, the linemates Eberle was playing with, or other circumstances there were definitely highs and lows over the course of this season.
Realistically, the Islanders should be able to replace a player that scored 37 points last season for less than $7 million per year. But what the team needs to weigh is if Eberle is really that player going forward, or if the rekindled magic we all saw with Mathew Barzal is the future Eberle that we’ll see going forward.
It’s a tough spot for Lou Lamoriello, who by all accounts could be looking to make an offensive splash this season. Eberle himself may want to explore his own market between the draft and free agency to get a sense of which teams would be interested (and, of course how interested they would be). It might even be in the Islanders’ best interest to let him do that so that they don’t end up bidding against themselves for a player who is good, but not appreciably great.
Ultimately, this is an area where I do think it would be in the Islanders best interest to try and extend Eberle. But of the four players Eberle is probably the most interchangeable, which also makes it possible he is in another sweater next season.
All data for this piece is from NaturalStatTrick.com