If we watch 0:19 to 0:35 of this video clip, we’ll see Eberle seemingly give up on a back-check, which leads to Calgary’s first (short-handed) goal.
After the turnover, Eberle was hustling hard until he believed Oesterle had taken control of the puck, then slowed down with the assumption that play was going to turn around. It’s a split-second decision. His willingness to persist on the back-check, even if it puts him out of position for a quick transition, is what he didn’t show. Is this a pattern? Does he routinely give up on back-checks because of an apparent offense-first mentality? I don’t know.
Other questions: Is Eberle simply a poor reader of plays from the defensive side of things? Is it a lack of effort and/or persistence issue? Can these things be learned, or is Eberle too inflexible in not learning them? We all know if that we don’t practice something regularly, it doesn’t become automatic in a game situation. Is Eberle not practicing hard backchecking? Is more prone to transitioning to offense “too early”? Tonnes of questions and you need a lot of video data, let’s say a 20-game sample (1 in 4 games, for e.g.,) to be clear on what’s going on.
We need to be careful of bias and sample size. In this case, recency bias and a sample size of one! To make radical roster-altering decisions on these irrational bases is asking for trouble. We need to look at a player’s body of work over a season. Are the problem areas–patterns that have been meticulously tracked each game–consistent? That is, is the player repeating the same problem despite coaching and video feedback? If so, why is that? The “why” is the key. The why will tell us whether it’s time to trade the player, or if the problems (clearly defined and persistent over time), can be fixed.
David Staples of the Edmonton Journal does analysis along these lines by tracking contributions to Grade A scoring chances, as well as mistakes on Grade A scoring chances against. According to Staples’ tracking, Eberle’s mistakes measure is on the lower side, relative to the other Oilers’ forwards.
Outside of video-tracked data, like that of Staples’s, we don’t have reliable measures of a player’s defensive abilities, but we a few have rough ones. One of them is Shot Attempts Against Relative-to-Teammates. This metric tells us, relative to his teammates, how many more, or fewer, shot attempts occur while the player is on the ice. From 2013-16 (3 seasons), Eberle’s ranking on this measure relative to the Oilers’ other forwards is 8th (+.78) out of 14 forwards. In other words, this suggests Eberle is a middling defensive forward relative to his teammates. Half the Oilers’ forwards are better and half are worse.
As fans, we watch only what the cameras show us. We don’t fixate on a single player and watch his every move. Because of that, I don’t have the knowledge or confidence to answer the questions I posed above. One failed back-check may suggest a pattern; a pattern that needs to be checked with thorough analysis. Or it may be simply a mental error that the player rarely makes. In this case, it turns out to be a goal and an opportunity for Kelly Hrudey (on Hockey Night in Canada) to rant about Eberle’s failure as a complete hockey player.
As always, I welcome your feedback.