by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Blink and you could have missed it. That’s what Springfield coach Rob Daum thought about Jordan Eberle‘s first pro goal, Mar. 29, 2009, vs. Portland.
But it’s Daum’s job to pay close attention to these things. So he saw his top prospect fight his way to the slot, beat a Pirates defender and rip a shot into the back of the net.
The play showed the coach three ingredients of a star-in-the-making. Eberle had the guts to go to the dangerous spots, the guile to slip away from a shadow and the release to baffle a pro goalie.
"He just blends in. You don’t really see him until he makes a great play," Daum said. "When he goes to those tough areas, he just kind of slides there. He has the hands to make a play when he gets in those positions."
Blink again and you might miss Eberle’s AHL career. Right now it’s guaranteed on little more than a shift-to-shift basis as Edmonton tries to wipe the drool from its scouting reports of the brilliant rookie forward. The 22nd pick in the 2008 draft is toying with the league, posting three goals and six assists in nine games last season and three goals and five assists in his first six Falcons games this season.
Kevin Predergast, assistant GM for the Oilers, committed to Eberle playing with the Falcons through at least the weekend just past. After that? Well, is that the faint sounds of hoopla ringing out on the approaching horizon?
"A lot of our fans in Edmonton are expecting a lot out of him," Prendergast said. "We certainly want to have some patience with him instead of rushing him to the NHL. We don’t want to put a lot of pressure on him as far as him being a savior."
If he saw that type of burden rolling his way, chances are that Eberle, 19, would just laugh. He does that a lot, especially right after he’s asked a question, just before he answers. It’s one of those can-you-believe-this lilts, a mixture of joy and bemusement.
"It hasn’t been that tough of a transition," he said. "But, obviously, it’s a tough league. I kind of know what to expect because I was here last year. You come in with more confidence. A lot of scoring is confidence. When you start to do things at a high level, you feel good, you realize you can do things at this level."
That’s dawned on Eberle wherever he’s gone the past several months. He pushed for a job with the Oilers this preseason, but Edmonton looked at his 5-foot-11, 184-pound frame and decided some more ripening in Regina was a better idea. He chuckled through a 57-game season that included 50 goals and 56 assists.
Eberle took time out in that busy schedule to collect eight goals and five assists in six games for Canada at the World Junior Championships. That dominance earned him honors as the tournament’s best forward and Most Valuable Player.
"You get nervous. But those are the situations you want to play in," he said. "When you step up and rise to those occasions, teams want that. Those are the times when it’s fun. Those are the times games get exciting."
Edmonton could have tested him in the ultimate spotlight when Regina was done, but instead the Oilers decided to bring Eberle out of juniors and back into the AHL. Eberle just went on his — what else? — merry way to Springfield.
"He doesn’t have any bad days. He’s magnetic," Prendergast said.
"You know what? The positive is I get to come here and play some hockey. It’s going to make me a better player," Eberle said. "When you go into training camp (next year), you feel better because you’ve played pro hockey."
The refinements Eberle must make to punch a one-way ticket to Edmonton are small and sometimes hard to identify. When Daum deconstructs his game bit-by-bit, no one skill ranks high on the "wow" factor. When he assembles the pieces and steps back to assess the whole puzzle, he doesn’t see a lot of gaps.
"He doesn’t overpower people. He doesn’t blow by people. I wouldn’t say he has a blistering shot," Daum said. "It’s all the sum of his parts. He just very subtlety gets the job done. That makes him sound too ordinary. He makes the extraordinary look ordinary."
Sometimes deceivingly so. Eberle knows a little extra flash might help appearances, but fluff doesn’t interest him.
"People criticize my speed and size. But the game helps little guys like me make it in tough areas," Eberle said. "I realize there is a lot of work to be done. Being here in Springfield is going to help me a lot. I think a lot of people, they see the offensive ability. But something I’ve worked on (in) my game this year is defense. As a teammate, when you see a player who is doing that, you get excited. I want to be known as a two-way player."
The quick detour with the Falcons could also freshen him up a bit. While Eberle appreciated the passion of fans in Regina, he also likes the more low-key surroundings of his new place of employment.
"It’s fun. You go from being a big fish in a little pond. It’s crazy how quickly things change," he said. "It’s kind of nice to come here. It gets a little easier. People don’t know who you are. You can go out and have a meal."
Eberle needs to eat up in near-anonymity while he can. The Oilers can’t promise how much longer he’ll have the chance.
"At some point, we think he’s going to be a big goal-scorer for us," Prendergast said. "Come September, he’s going to put a lot of pressure on us as far as whether he’s going to go back to the [AHL] or go to the NHL. For the most part, it’s up to Jordan. He’ll dictate what we do with him."
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday during the season, and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.