Eberle criticism latest in disturbing pattern for Chiarelli-led teams

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The 2016–17 season was a major leap forward for the Edmonton Oilers.

They ended the longest postseason drought in the NHL, won their first playoff series since 2005–06 and were a one-goal loss in a Game 7 from reaching the Western Conference Final. Yet they still have some work to do this offseason when it comes to getting over the hump in the Western Conference and getting back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Even though their offseason has barely begun, there is already speculation that for the second year in a row a key piece of their core could be on the move. After trading Taylor Hall a year ago to the New Jersey Devils for defenseman Adam Larsson, winger Jordan Eberle now seems to have the target on his back and has been on the receiving end of some scathing criticism the past few days.

He had his practice habits questioned and criticized by Sportsnet analyst Drew Remenda (Oilers coach Todd McLellan defended Eberle in response to those comments), while Craig Button recently went on Edmonton radio and suggested it would be really difficult to move Eberle’s $6 million per year contract that has two years remaining on it. Given that Eberle is coming off of a postseason performance (his first in the NHL) in which he did not score a single goal in 11 games, it should probably be expected that he would be subject to criticism.

Professional sports is the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, and playoff performances are always magnified, whether they be good or bad. That is not always the best way to evaluate a player or make a decision on their future with the team.

There is a lot to potentially unwrap here.

First, there seems to be plenty of smoke regarding a potential Eberle trade coming this summer, and if it comes to that, it would be continuing a rather bizarre trend in the career of general manager Peter Chiarelli of jettisoning talented players during their prime years.

It happened with Phil Kessel in Boston.

It happened again a few years later with Tyler Seguin.

It has already happened in Edmonton with Hall.

Players that productive and young do not typically get traded. Chiarelli has taken part in more of those trades than just about any other general manager in the league. It is not only that the trades have been completed, but they have almost always been accompanied by some sort of criticism of the player.

With Seguin it was that he didn’t fit the Bruins’ crash-and-bang style of play at the time (the Behind The B video that showed the front office discussion of Seguin was quite revealing). Hall’s trade was preceded — and followed — by extensive talk about needing to change the culture in Edmonton.

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The Seguin and Hall deals were somewhat controversial in terms of the return each player brought. The Seguin trade in particular has been a woefully underwhelming one for the Bruins.

Now we get speculation that Eberle could potentially be on the move following harsh criticism regarding his work ethic. Again, it needs to be stressed that the Oilers, specifically McLellan, defended Eberle from that criticism. This isn’t meant to suggest the Oilers can’t possibly find an Eberle trade that would improve them, because they almost certainly could.

But Chiarelli has shown throughout his career that he is not fearful of dealing talented players whether the return works out in the long run or not. And there’s a disturbing trend of negative media surrounding that player right before a trade happens.

Chiarelli and the Oilers shouldn’t be desperate to unload Eberle. Even in a down year, Eberle was still among the 20-most productive right wingers in the NHL. He’s easily a top-six winger on any team in the league and a borderline top-line guy. That isn’t something to just give away.

But if the Oilers want to make a trade to improve an area of weakness (forward depth, defense), Eberle would be the logical candidate to be on the move. Obviously you are not going to trade Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. Even though he had a bit of a down year offensively, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is still extremely valuable as a second-line center.

Eberle is a proven commodity, signed for two more years, and even though his salary cap hit isn’t exactly small, it is not out of line for a player who scores the way he does.

Keep in mind that he has been a pretty consistent 25-goal, 60-point winger for several years, and even during this season’s “down” output he had 20 goals and 51 points.

The Oilers were perfectly content to pay Milan Lucic the exact same salary for almost the exact same level of production. And Eberle is probably capable of more, and perhaps even likely to do it next season. Andrew Ladd, coming off of a 25-goal, 48-point season a year ago, ended up getting $5.5 million a year in free agency (over seven years!) this past summer. So there is really no justifiable reason to think Eberle’s contract would be all that difficult to move.

Teams are clearly willing to spend that sort of money on a player that can produce the way he can.

Criticize his playoff performance all you want, he is still a top-six winger playing in what should still be his prime years while still under contract for two more years. That is not an asset the Oilers should be in a hurry to move unless it is for a return that fills a major weakness.