I really enjoyed having Ales Hemsky back the other night. There was a moment, where he skated down the ice, circled the net, gave the puck to the defenceman at the point, got it back and then made a simply outrageous move around the Penguins’ player that involved Hemsky playing the puck off his left foot and then back up to his skate. “Motherfucker,” I exclaimed, greatly impressing my girlfriend’s mother, who was here for Thanksgiving dinner.
It’s good to have that back because it’s so much fun to watch. I really, really like watching him carry the puck, the way he has his hands impossibly close together, which gives him extra reach when he’s stickhandling. There aren’t a lot of guys in the NHL who just beat guys with tricks with the puck and it’s awfully fun, on a gut level, to have a guy like that around.
I wonder though, just how valuable it is. I accept that Hemsky’s a valuable player at ES. I’m increasingly less certain about the PP though. I’m not sure what evidence can be produced for that beyond his scoring rates, which are impressive. The problem though, is that the Oilers have never produced goals at an elite rate on the PP with Hemsky and that’s more important than his personal points.
Gabe Desjardins has done some fine work in the past, showing how important generating shots is on the PP to predicting future PP success. We don’t always see it in the short term – s% is a killer – but if you’re generating 42 shots per hour of 5v5, you aren’t going to have a good NHL PP. You might experience brief periods of success when everything goes in, but that’s it. This has been the Oilers’ (was going to write “Achilles’ heel” here, but not sure what you call it when someone’s entire body is rotten) over the past six years.
Jason Gregor pursued this point about the Oilers’ shot rate with Tom Renney after some discussion prompted by an earlier post of his about the Oilers’ abysmal PP shooting rates:
I spoke with Renney regarding the Oilers’ PP woes and their horrific shots/PP ratio. He said he was aware it was an issue, but didnt’ know they’d been the worst in the league for four consecutive seasons.
We talked about the importance of establishing a shot on the point, so the PK forwards would cheat up high, thus opening more room down below, but he talked about a switch he made 25 games into his first season coaching Jaromir Jagr.
“Jags always set up on the sidewall. Every team knew he set up there and our PP became too predictable. So I got him to move off the wall and roam around like Brett Hull did. By giving him freedom to roam it opened up a lot of room for everyone else. Teams still focused on him because of his skill, but that focus freed up our other guys and our PP took off.”
The Rangers finished with the 8th best PP that year. Of course the following two years they were just middle of the pack, but it did work well that year. Once Renney finished telling me that story I asked him if he’d urge Hemsky to move around more, rather than just set up on the halfboards.
He smiled at me and said, “We might look at that.”
I’ve gotten to know Renney well the past few years, and when he gives you that grin it means you’re onto something. I doubt Hemsky will roam as much as Hull did, and probably not as much as Jagr, but Renney promised that there would be more motion on the PP this year. Look for them to swing the puck side-to-side with Hemsky on one side and Nugent-Hopkins on the other.
Did Hemsky try this roaming last year? I don’t particularly recall him doing much differently but these Oiler seasons are starting to blur together. Wouldn’t Renney have diagnosed this problem and taken a shot at fixing it by adding “roaming” to Hemsky’s repetoire of “stand on the half boards and pass it to the point” by now? I don’t know. (If the Open Source Oilers Project had existed for the past couple years, we could answer this quite easily.) It seems like the sort of thing you’d have tried some time in the 69 games you’d had him already.
I’m a little distressed that Renney hasn’t wallowed in the putridity of the Oilers’ PP to quite the same extent that those of us who have lived the 99:04 that Ladislav Smid has spent manning the PP point in the last four years have. This is critical stuff, particularly since he was there for two of those years. Given that a lot of the personnel on the PP was the same in 2009-10 as it was in 2007-08, I’d have assumed that he’d be familiar with what went on then; it just seems to me like it might be helpful stuff to understand, so that you know what’s been tried and what’s failed. Obviously, I’m not an NHL coach. Still. Seems strange.
Here’s the thing though: there are a lot of arguments against re-signing Hemsky. His health hasn’t been the greatest, he plays the sort of game that gets him hit hard quite frequently, and, with a new CBA coming and young players who will require big contracts, decisions are going to have to be made. If the Oilers are going to commit a significant amount of resources to Hemsky, you want to be reasonably certain that he makes you a better hockey team. Funny thing: in the games that Hemsky missed last year, the Oilers’ PP sucked at generating shots. They actually did slightly better than they did with Hemsky in the lineup though. Odd.
Now, you can argue that a million different ways. Hemsky missed more games later in the year, after some of the younger guys had 40 games to get their feet wet, for one. Except that the same thing happened in 2009-10. When Hemsky departed for the season, the PP got about 1 5v4 S/60 better. Two years in a row.
I don’t know why the Oilers PP got better at producing shots without Hemsky. For all I know, it’s stuff completely unrelated to him. It seems odd though. Lots of things change on the PP, he’s the constant and it goes nowhere. When he leaves, it doesn’t get appreciable worse. Does this mean that this is his fault? Not necessarily. For one thing, 1 S/60 isn’t a huge thing and it’s entirely possible that he’s simply been surrounded by so much PP crap that he can’t make a material difference. For another, you assume that they’ve been receiving good coaching about how to operate the PP, which may or may not be the case. There are all sorts of potentially confounding factors. It’s strange though, and something worth paying close attention to this year.
If the Oilers PP can’t generate shots this year (and they had 9 5v4 shots in 7:44 against Pittsburgh, so maybe this is all moot), I think you need to ask whether Hemsky’s price tag makes sense for a player with the various drawbacks that he comes with and the circumstances that the Oilers are in. As much fun as it is watching him beat a guy and then circle around the net to do it again, if there aren’t any positive signs this year and the organization can’t figure out why, maybe this is the right time to move him.