Jordan Eberle vs. James Neal
Adam and I disagree on a lot of things. One of the more heated things that we disagree on is which player is better out of Jordan Eberle and James Neal. We decided to have an email thread to argue the merits of each player. This is how it went:
Sam: Hey Adam, what’s going on. In the first episode of No Pucks Given Live, we started to discuss a little bit about which of James Neal or Jordan Eberle is better. I think it’s pretty obvious which side of the fence we’re each on with this issue, but what makes you think that Eberle is a better player than Neal?
Adam: Well, let’s start with last season’s performances. Neal had 81 points in 80 games, while playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin for most of it. Jordan Eberle had 76 in 78 games, an impressive mark for any sophomore, let alone one that had the entire team on his back. Out of these points, 40 were goals for Neal, with 34 for Eberle. Once again, this is with Neal playing with Malkin A LOT and Crosby playing with a bevy of players, most of whom aren’t nearly as talented as Geno, and mind you, being the sophomore he was, Eberle only received 17 minutes per game (to Neal’s 19, big difference in the big picture), as Tom Renney decided to hide the kids from defensive assignments a lot that season. This means, Eberle couldn’t possibly outpoint Neal. Still, in that time he took more efficient shots (18% shooting percentage to Neal’s 12%). This season, Eberle is up to 21 minutes per game, and, despite the Oilers scoring a lot on the power play, still has a +/- of 1 (had 4 last season with the second-to-last team in the NHL). Neal, on the other hand is -3 this season, after going +6 with one of the NHL’s finest. None of these stats are really definitive alone, but when combined with observation, you can see the real picture.
James Neal is a great scorer alongside the likes of Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby. Nobody ever doubted that. 40 goals in a season is nothing to scoff at, even if 18 came on the power play. But I guarantee you, James Neal does not score 40 goals if he’s still with the stars, or hell, with this Oilers team. He’d probably manage around 30, if he was lucky. Jordan Eberle scored 34 goals on one of the worst teams in the NHL, a team where he’d been centred by three different players, a rookie in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam “Inconsistent” Gagner and Shawn Horcoff who’s basically an overpaid third line centre anyway. And he still managed to have an absolutely amazing season at age 22.
This season, Eberle, I feel is slowing start (much like last season). Sure, he has 3 goals, but he’s still getting used to the difference in level between the AHL and the NHL. The skates are there, the reflexes, not yet. He’s missing some open one-timers, and he sometimes drives a bit too hard. And yet, still, he’s absolutely an impact player. Just watch as he enters the zone, how crafty he is with the puck, what insane vision he presents, in his third professional season (4th if you count the AHL). Neal doesn’t really have anything on that kind of impact. Eberle is one of the future headliners in the NHL, Neal is just a side note to two of the best centres in it.
Oh, and also, please call me when James Neal receives the nickname “Captain Clutch.”
Sam: Whoa, not seeing Neal as an impact player in the NHL and as simply a shotgun rider ignores all of the complimentary things he does to make life easier for Evgeni Malkin. After all, writers did vote him as the best right winger in the game last year by awarding him the First-Team All-Star spot. Among the 149 voters last year, 142 of them thought that he was one of the top three players at his position. Eberle only had 17 people vote him among the top three. Some of this can be attributed to one playing on a good team and one playing on an awful team, but I’m not sure that the narrative of that can explain how Neal got over eight times as many votes.
I see plus-minus as pretty much useless because of the fact that it’s far too based on teammates, and Neal is a perfect example of this. For instance, by looking at James Neal’s plus-minus you would think that he is a bad defensive player when nothing could be further from the truth. Neal is at worst the third-best two-way forward on the Pens (other than possibly Brandon Sutter and Sidney Crosby) and he busts his ass up and down the wing every shift. Not to say that Eberle is a deficient defensive player (he’s not by any stretch), but he’s just not better than Neal on that side of the ice. Neal’s fast and he’s almost always the first forward back in the defensive zone.
That’s not all that he brings that is superior to Eberle. Neal is a good physical presence who flies into corners like a kamikaze and punishes defensemen for trying to take the puck from the Penguins on a dump in. Just on Saturday against the Devils he had three massive hits that gave the Pens momentum in the second period after Andy Greene’s short-handed goal. Because of this physicality, Neal fits perfectly within the Penguins’ forecheck-heavy system. Basically, I think that with his heavy shot and toughness in the corners, Neal looks a lot like a younger (admittedly lesser) version of Jarome Iginla on the ice at that right wing spot.
Oh, and that shot I just mentioned? I would argue that few have a better wrist shot than James Neal, if any. It’s extremely heavy and deadly accurate, but that’s not even its best aspect. He might have the fastest release in the game. That’s why his shot on goal totals are so high. His release is so fast that very few of his shots are blocked, meaning more get on net. I mean, just watch this. Is there any defenseman in the league quick enough to get in front of this consistently?
Besides, he’s got every bit as awesome a nickname: “The Real Deal” James Neal. Plus my lady friend finds him extremely attractive, so he’s got that going for him too.
Adam: Oh, the All-Star card. Well, let me go back to our basketball roots and remind you that a load of writers thought Kobe Bryant deserved an all-defensive second team nod, when he’s been pretty much the worst off-ball defender in the league. Reputation and exposure matters, and Neal, thanks to being on the Penguins has a reputation that Eberle lacked being on an absolutely terrible Oilers team. Has he really evolved that much in one season away from Dallas, that suddenly he’s an all-star, or is he just a second stick to Malkin’s genius? I say the latter.
As for Eberle’s defence, it’s growing. This season, more and more you see him hustle down the ice. He’s not a prototypical two-way guy, but he does have incredible defensive fundamentals that help him pick up the right guy at the right time. As for the forechecking? Eberle will never deliver huge hits, he’s not that type of player. But he will outwork the opponent to get the puck. Where Neal crazily launches himself at his opponents (costing him penalty minutes, no less), Eberle outwits them. Where Neal uses his release much like Alex Ovechkin, just ripping shots left and right because he can, Jordan Eberle dangles through like Pavel Datsyuk, just looking for opportunities. That’s the difference right here.
And finally, I’d never said Neal is not an impact player. I’d just said his impact pales in comparison to what Eberle brings on the ice. Eberle is the leader of the Oilers, Eberle is the guy they go to when they need a big goal. Eberle is the guy who they always can count on, and he nearly always shows that that trust is something he deserves. Neal is the 3rd best forward on his team, and you can’t deny that he benefits a lot
from the fact that everyone focuses on Evgeni Malkin. Eberle is the Oilers’ Evgeni Malkin, and he still manages to make a huge difference. And while Neal might have the fastest release in the NHL, Eberle might have the sneakiest backhand.
I have no comment in terms of the attractiveness competition, though. Neal can win that one for all I care.
Sam: I will definitely admit to you that Eberle is the more creative player. I have no doubt there. Some of the stick-handling-in-a-phone-booth-type of moves that he is capable of pulling off are incredible to watch. He’s definitely a better passer too. He has great vision and is really smart both with and without the puck. They accumulated a similar amount of assists last season, but in reality Eberle is much stronger there. Amazingly, 28 of Eberle’s 42 assists last season were primary assists. If two-thirds of your assists are primary assists, it means you’re setting up your teammates in prime position to score.
But I would actually argue that I think Neal DID evolve that much in one season. Let’s not forget here, it’s not like Neal was playing with chopped liver in Dallas. His most common linemate while there was a pretty damn good playmaker in his own right in Brad Richards. Plus, most of the time they played with Loui Eriksson on the right side. I’d argue that may actually be a more complete line than the one he’s a part of now with Malkin and a revolving door of Tanner Glass, Tyler Kennedy, Eric Tangradi and now Zach Boychuk. Those players have combined to play over 800 career games and only have 92 career goals between them (71 of which are by Kennedy). To add to that, it’s not like we should be surprised that Neal made a career leap after turning 24 years old right before last season, right? Just because he’s not the best player on his line doesn’t mean that he isn’t effective at what his specializations are.
The difference we see with Neal as a Penguin in comparison to his days as a Star is that he switched sides of the ice. He went from playing on his strong wing to playing his off wing, which allows him to better utilize that fast release. Playing with Malkin helps too, don’t get me wrong. But I think that Neal is still a 35 goal, 70 point man even without Malkin. If you combine everything else he does away from the puck, I’d rather have that guy than have Eberle.
How about this: I’d probably be willing to admit that I’d rather have Jordan Eberle as the best player on a line. His creativity, brains and leadership make him more likely to be the straw that stirs the drink of a line. But when I’m a mad scientist trying to build a winger for a star center, I’m not sure I could possibly build a complimentary player better than James Neal. Basically, Neal does everything away from the puck that someone could ask of a player. He plays responsibly defensively, which allows Malkin to lurk in the neutral zone looking for interceptions. He does dirty work in the corners retrieving pucks and punishes defensemen for coming around. And he has an innate sense of finding space in order to get that quick shot off. I definitely wouldn’t trade Neal for Eberle, just as I imagine you wouldn’t trade Eberle for Neal since Eberle is the future captain of this team once Shawn Horcoff gets amnestied/bought out this offseason.
Adam: Ok, I can agree with that to an extent. Neal is a perfect supplement to Malkin. Would he be a perfect supplement, to say, Jonathan Toews, or Claude Giroux? I’m not sure. Whatever the case, Eberle has way more versatility, something that I feel that Neal often shows to lack, and as such, in a vacuum, I’d choose Eberle, if only because he’s the playmaker, he’s the leader, he’s the creator. And I’m pretty sure that as this (and next) season progresses, Eberle will develop into an evidently better player than Neal.
There, I hope we can agree on this final line.
Sam: Eh, I think that he’d still probably be a better compliment to those two guys than Eberle (especially a great creator like Giroux), but that’s neither here nor there and that’s a semantics-based argument I don’t really feel like getting into.
Either way, there is certainly a good chance that if Eberle continues to develop that this question will become laughable in your favor. I definitely agree with that.
We need to do arguments like this more often.