EDMONTON - Like all rookies, Jordan Eberle wasn’t ready for the NHL.
Oh, he could deal with the size and strength and speed of the players, but everything else that comes with being a pro? There’s no preparing for it until you’ve actually been through it once.
Even if you couldn’t tell from looking, or from his 43 points in 69 games, the big leagues wore him down. The seemingly endless air travel, checking into hotels at 2 a.m., playing three games in three different cities in four days, knowing that at every stop there’s another 230-pound defenceman who lists “rookie hurting” as his favourite hobby.
With 82 games in 184 days, no wonder he wondered where his energy went.
“You have to maintain the intensity for an 82-game schedule,” he said. “But I went through a bit of a lull three-quarters of the way through the season; I think most rookies do.
“You just don’t realize how much of a grind it is. You’re on a flight every day and that takes a toll on your body. You have to take care of yourself so you’re physically ready to go when the season starts.”
So Eberle took about a week off after the World Championships and got right to it. With the help of a trainer and nutritionist, he’s reporting to camp leaner and stronger than he did as a rookie.
“When you get a year in the NHL you learn a lot more about how hard you need to train to be at the top,” he said. “And you also have a lot of resources.”
He dropped about four or five pounds, but the decrease in body fat (from 12% to nine) means he essentially traded fat for muscle.
“I got up to 190, 192 last year and felt heavy and a little sluggish. I dropped down to 185, 187 somewhere around there. It’s the weight I feel most comfortable with.”
Eberle’s awakening is a common one, although it happened sooner than it does for a lot of other sophomores.
“It amazing the naivete of young people in their first, or first two, off-seasons,” said head coach Tom Renney. “Nutrition is huge. What they don’t understand is that when the season is over, within a couple of weeks they have to be working again. A lot of times young guys have the tendency to reward themselves for surviving that first year, never mind having some good numbers. They do their thing for a month or so and they’ve lost valuable time in building that base.”
Eberle’s summer paid off — his training camp numbers were all up.
“More strength, more fit and more professional,” said Renney. “And I think more professional is the common denominator.”
When a team finishes 30th everybody on the roster needs to take it personally, says Eberle.
“Obviously we need a lot of improvement on this team, we finished last,” he said. “We want to move up and it starts with every single guy. You’re only as good as your weakest player.”
What’s does head coach Tom Renney want from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in his first pre-season game Tuesday night in Saskatoon?
“Maybe a hat-trick and a couple of assists would be good,” laughed Renney. “No, just navigate the game, play 200x85 with the presence he does have. Show me that he can play against bigger stronger competition. And that has nothing to do with his size, but with his mental toughness. I’m not looking for him to rack up points, I’m looking for him to be a good play maker, a good two-way guy and I’m looking for him to show me that there’s even more to like than I do so far, and give me every reason to keep playing him.”
Renney will accompany one of the split-squad Oilers teams to Saskatoon for Chicago game while the other squad hosts Minnesota at Rexall Place.
Expect Nikolai Khabibulin to get a lot of work in the pre-season in his quest to rediscover the top of his game.
“He’ll probably play three full games,” said Renney. “He’s got to play, he’s got to get back in the saddle.”