The 2017 trade of Jordan Eberle by the Edmonton Oilers to the New York Islanders for Ryan Strome sent shockwaves throughout the hockey world. At the time, Eberle was a highly-skilled former 30-goal scorer who was coming off a respectable 20-goal, 50-point 2016-17 campaign. However, the playoffs proved to be one of the more lackluster debuts by a player of his caliber, due to a zero goal and two-assist performance, as the Oilers were bounced in Game 7 of the second round to the Anaheim Ducks.
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With two rising superstars in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers needed some additional scoring punch to achieve playoff success. Therefore, the trade of their third-leading point scorer for an unproven forward with top-six potential was somewhat of a surprise (even with the playoff struggle), although the Eberle trade rumors had been circulating for quite some time due to his six-year, $36 million contract.
Many discussions have been had over the years regarding the Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson trade, but the Eberle trade seems to be often overlooked. However, this trade also had significant implications that have continued to impact the Oilers and had a major impact on their inability to win a playoff series since.
The Eberle Trade and the Rationale Behind It
As discussed earlier, the Eberle trade rumors had begun circulating a couple of years prior, around the same time period that the Hall rumors began. This is relevant because, during this era of Oilers hockey, there was major discussion regarding a trade of either Hall or Eberle for a top-pairing defenseman, which ended up being the Hall for Larsson trade in the offseason following the 2015-16 season.
The results of this Hall trade are well-documented including by The Hockey Writers’ Rob Soria recently, but it was believed by many (including myself) that the Oilers would hold on to Eberle following the Hall deal to provide McDavid or Draisaitl with some much-needed aid on the wing (who had 100 points and 77 points, respectively in 2016-17).
However, the trade rumors continued to percolate into the 2016-17 season and amplified following the aforementioned playoffs. Reports continued to circulate throughout this time that Eberle’s attitude, inconsistency, and one-dimensionality frustrated coaches and general manager Peter Chiarelli, as outlined by THW’s Jim Parsons at the time of the trade. This was further intensified by Eberle’s $6 million per year contract and he was shipped to Long Island for Strome, a 24-year old forward who was drafted fifth overall in 2011.
Strome had major potential to become a top-six forward and a significant contributor offensively who could play as both a centerman or on the wing. Of course, the major implication of this entire trade was the money, as Strome was signed to a very cost-effective contract of two years at $2.5 million annually.
He had achieved one 50-point season with the Islanders but was coming off a modest 30-point season in which he missed 13 games due to injury. It seemed as though the Oilers believed that he could sufficiently fill Eberle’s void and open some significant cap space to retain restricted free agents and potentially sign another solid defenseman.
How the Trade Worked Out
The most important component of this trade is that the Islanders made the deal to provide offensive support for John Tavares at the time, as they were teammates on Canada’s 2009 World Junior team. Yet, the Oilers basically decided to move in the opposite direction and remove a talented offensive piece to support Draisaitl and McDavid.
Since moving to the Islanders, Eberle has become a significant contributor alongside young, talented center Mathew Barzal with 60 goals and 136 points in 217 games. He has also been a key piece in the Islanders’ playoff runs, including this season where they find themselves in the Eastern Conference Final.
Despite Eberle’s solid production, his trading is not even the most frustrating part of this entire ordeal. Strome never got a real opportunity to prove himself with the top six and rarely was given playing time alongside McDavid. In his tenure, there were 10 forwards that received more playing time with McDavid and Draisaitl than Strome.
Former head coach Todd McLellan consistently had Strome as the third, and even fourth, line center or a second-line winger, on occasion due to injury, and he seemingly never got any true chances to be involved as a core piece on the team. The team missed the playoffs due to goaltending, weak defense, and, obviously, a lack of scoring depth, as he still managed to be fourth on the team in scoring despite his struggles.
Of course, Strome hasn’t been a world-beater in his career thus far, but he’s more than capable to be a key contributor and have significant involvement with the offense and on the second power-play unit. He was brought in by Chiarelli to be a potential young and economically efficient secondary scoring and playmaking option, or so we thought, as after just 14 goals and 36 points in 100 games he was shipped to the New York Rangers.
I believe a lot of the issues surrounding the 2017-18 and 2018-19 Oilers could have been rectified with the presence of Eberle and/or Hall, even if that meant losing some pieces to remain under the salary cap. Considerably more baffling is what occurred following the trade of Strome and the aftermath, or trade tree.
Ryan Strome Trade to the Rangers and Aftermath
As described above, Eberle has performed quite well in both the regular season and playoffs on the top line of the Islanders alongside Barzal and Anders Lee. He has been a key reason for the Islanders’ continued success even after Tavares’ departure. He recently signed a five-year contract worth $5.5 million per season, which is quite similar to the contract that led the Oilers to deal him away in the first place. Following Strome’s struggles and, quite frankly, the Oilers’ mismanagement, he was dealt to the Rangers for career third-liner Ryan Spooner in November of the 2018.
Strome became a restricted free agent following the season, but this trade couldn’t really be considered a salary cap clearing move because Spooner was making $4 million per season himself. The shocking part of the trade was that Strome, who had been written off by many due to his Edmonton tenure, has become a very respectable top-six forward on an up-and-coming Rangers squad. He has been their consistent second-line center with Kaapo Kakko and Chris Kreider.
Since joining New York, he has compiled 92 points in 133 games, including 59 points in 70 games last season. He has been relied upon by coach David Quinn increasingly in high-leverage offensive and defensive situations (plus-21 plus/minus in 2019-20), unlike in Edmonton.
Spooner, on the other hand, lasted 25 games and had three points as a third-line center. He was a decent penalty killer before being shipped to the Vancouver Canucks during the 2018-19 season where he was bought out. Clearly he was not the answer the Oilers were looking for offensively or defensively, especially at his price tag, and the trade brought back Sam Gagner, who had been a solid contributor for nearly seven seasons in Edmonton previously and played up and down the Oilers lineup.
Gagner was definitely not the player he was during his original stint in Edmonton, as he split time between the minors and the NHL in 2018-19 and entailed a cap hit of $3.15 million annually. He played a total of 61 games over two seasons in the NHL (along with four games for the Bakersfield Condors in the minors) where they attempted to utilize him with a variety of different line combinations which resulted in just 22 points and consistently lackluster defensive performance.
Gagner was no longer able to be a constant contributor on the power play, was not involved with the penalty kill, and seemed to have a difficult time adapting to playing on the various Oiler lines and was eventually traded to the Detroit Red Wings in February 2020.
Current and Future Implications of the Eberle Trade
Although this entire article has been negative towards the Eberle trade and subsequent trades associated (deservedly so, in my opinion), there is still hope to salvage something from it following the trade of Gagner and two second-round picks for Andreas Athanasiou.
In terms of the Islanders, Eberle is signed until the 2023-24 season, along with Barzal, Lee, and other core pieces who are locked up for the foreseeable future. As a result, they seem poised to make consistent playoff runs similar to the ones they have made the previous two seasons.
This article has been quite critical of the Oilers’ decision-making and it’s quite evident that the wide-held belief is that the Islanders won the trade significantly, however, the acquisition of Athanasiou may be a minor silver-lining to this entire process. As outlined above, Gagner and two-second rounders were dealt to Detroit for the former 30-goal scoring winger who is expected to provide a major contribution alongside Draisaitl on the second line.
At 26, Athanasiou could generate and finish scoring chances due to his large frame, power finishing, and high-risk, high-reward throwback style of play. Athanasiou had struggled prior to arriving in Edmonton and in his short time with the squad, but that was likely due to the frustration and lack of skill or depth in Detroit and an inability to mesh with his new team due to the pandemic.
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Offensively, I believe Athanasiou fits extremely well with Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto due to his ability to battle in the corners and dig out loose pucks, get to the front of the net, and create and finish chances with a solid shot and passing capabilities.
The major issues involved with this deal are that Athanasiou is an RFA, whose contract needs to get done and fit well within Edmonton’s current cap structure, and that he has had a tendency to relax on defense on occasion. This is a problem that may be amplified with players like Draisaitl and Yamamoto who can leave a lot to be desired defensively, as well, at times.
Despite this final trade from the 2019-20 season, the Eberle trade was complete mismanagement by Chiarelli and McLellan. They have never been able to recapture what was lost in Eberle, have mishandled the players involved, and made head-scratching decisions with the players associated with this trade.
Current general manager Ken Holland has seemed to salvage something with Athanasiou, but it is very likely that he will never become an Eberle-caliber player and the lack of scoring depth that was compounded with the trading of Eberle, have persisted ever since.