Sometimes when I walk down the street, people stop and ask me, “Aren’t you that guy who once compared Dion Phaneuf to the Elephant Man? Didn’t you once coin the phrase “Wasting away in Jani Rita-ville?” I immodestly hang my head and pretend to be embarrassed. Then they say “Why did you take your talents away from us? Why good sir, why!!”
OK, the only parts of that anecdote that are true is that I really did make those jokes and it has been a long time since I contributed anything to this space other than the mathematically funereal scoring chances logs; or, as Flames fans call it, porn. Dear Jesus, those can be painful. The whole scoring chance experiment was something I mused aloud about back in the early aughties when the Oilers at least made the playoffs every second year and I wondered where all the bodies were really buried.
By the time Vic Ferrari – online hockey stats legend – sent me a link to make this possible the Oilers were freefalling like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Owning Mahoney. But just like my rotund friend, I was already in deep so Vic and I started a project that has now eventually been aped by fans throughout the league and I’d like to think we’re closer to understanding what truly matters then we were before. Along the way, however, I became so apathetic towards the way the Oilers operated that I could no longer muster any longform thoughts on the debacle.
Apathy is a a really formidable enemy towards any productivity or progress; be it in a professional life or personal relationship or even a hobby that you once looked forward to losing yourself in. There were times when Oilers games were so labourious and ultimately fruitless that the exercise of logging the futility imbued me with such a level of apathy as to preclude any of my once frequent rants.
But I have kept soldiering on just because I knew that outside of championing a billionaire owner’s quest to build an arena with mostly public funds David Staples could always use someone’s ideas to rip off.
The timing of my pretty much going underground couldn’t have been worse because the writing that I now see – and sometimes like – comes across as the same as I was did five and six years ago when you mixed jokes and pop culture references with points and opinions. So, I figured the timing has never been better for me to return to operating in my customary way of getting my point across and poking fun at the same time and once Beyonce and Jay-Z had their baby, I knew I was ready to come back!
Well, honestly, no. I was spurred back into action once I saw Van Halen make their return and I thought of how much magnetic frontman David Lee Roth and I had in common: in the 80′s we both had great hair, we both got a lot of pussy and we also could rock a high-kick like no one else’s business. Note: onIy one of those things is true. Seriously, I sent along something a couple of days ago regarding Mike Comrie’s retirement because I wanted to be the first person to say that we can learn from the past – I’m not serious obviously – but before Comrie hung them up and sent me once again sulking down memory lane my Irish had previously risen when I started to think of the way Ales Hemsky is about to exit the Oilers organization.
Yes, folks, it’s that time again when the Oilers management and in-pocket press corps put on their oldest pair of pants, their longest pair of black socks and hike them up to their knees before slipping on their sandals and mowing that old familiar grassy knoll in preparation for yet another character assassination.
This time it’s Ales Hemsky in the crosshairs and he’s easy to isolate because he always leaves practice early. This is the way it always ends with the Oilers and having three kids who look to be already ahead of the counting stats curve provides the perfect time for yet another stupid move where the Oilers are walking around with their tongues hanging out, exhausted by their ever present search for yet another hill to die on.
But, first, some history.
Ales Hemsky is an old man now; he turned the ripe old age of 28 this past August. As winning NHL rosters are only weighed down and not buoyed by players of Ales’s vintage it’s easy and understandable for the Oilers to think of him in terms of nothing more than his DOB. An old hand like myself, however, is prone to harken back to him being the result of an extra first round pick acquired in the Bill Guerin/Anson Carter trade so many years ago; over 11 if you’re keeping score.
His first season was in 2002-03, where he earned some early bones playing with the ultra-talented combo of Ethan Moreau and Marty Reasoner before eventually landing on a line with Smyth and Marchant. I can’t remember exactly when this happened but I know that I was home visiting my mother during the Christmas holidays in December of 2002 and Smyth scored a goal vs the Leafs on basically an empty net after Hemsky made what was quickly becoming one of his trademark jaw-dropping passes. In hindsight a beautiful Hemsky pass when perhaps the traditionalist or cretin would demand a shot on goal provided an ominous harbinger for the divide between fantasy and reality that would eventually exist concerning his true value and replaceability.
Hemsky didn’t log a point in the 2003 playoffs and after having posted a .51 PPG in 2003, I don’t think I was alone in being disappointed that he pretty much ran in place with a .49 PPG mark in 2004.
In the 2005-06 season Hemsky went on a run that over the next four years would see him average .95, .83, .96 and .92 PPG. He missed a total of 37 games in those four seasons. Just as importantly, there began a process by which Craig Mactavish – especially beginning in the 2006-07 season and certainly in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons when kids like Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson were to be sheltered like flu-ridden kittens in February and of course the parallel is easily uncovered – turned Hemsky into a two-way player who would be asked to backcheck and do it against the other team’s top lines to boot.
But before this happens we have something quite remarkable: Kevin Lowe inks a player to a contract that shows foresight and winds up holding incredible value. In August of 2006, with Hemsky having played just three full seasons and one where he looked like he could go full throttle, Lowe signed him to a six year deal worth $24.6MM. So, here you have Lowe finally coming to terms on a great deal and with a kid who was A: happy to be here B: worth the price of admission C: able to play against the other team’s top lines.
Were there warts? Well, maybe one or two. There were some soft whispers about his lack of goal-scoring prowess, his propensity to turn over the puck not waning as his games played piled up and also the idea that he didn’t practice hard enough and could be better player if he cared a little more. Still, the fan and pundit with good sense never really subscribed to these newsletters and thanked their value-contract stars.
In the 2009-10 season, Hemsky started off with seven goals and a PPG pace through the first 22 games but a Micheal Handzus check from behind in November ended his season and may be looked at as the beginning of the end of his Oilers career. In 2010-11, Hemsky put up 14 goals and 42 points in 47 games but had three major injuries: first a groin problem, then suffering a concussion and finally suffering another shoulder injury to finish the season.
In the middle of this Oilers puppet GM Steve Tambellini appeared during the intermission of the first game after Dustin Penner was dealt and addressed some rumours surrounding the club. This was the first time that Hemsky’s name had been linked to the trading block. Tambellini fielded the question and asked how close Hemsky had been to being moved and beamed – and yes I’m paraphrasing, “I’m open to trading anyone.”
Now, as Oilers fans and having gone through the Gretzky move we are all aware that anyone could be moved at any time. So, yes, theoretically anyone could be dealt but would all those decisions make sense? For instance, right now I could physically shit my pants: there is no one here to stop me. The ladyfriend is out buying groceries and I am here all alone and if I wanted to I could just let it fly.
Now, is that a good move? Absolutely not. But Tambellini seemed to revel in the bigger question of how everything was possible and no one was safe and the idotic look that radiated from the top of his bagged eyes screamed of a man with no plan outside of accumlating as many top picks as possible.
And here we have the rub.
While there is a pricepoint at which I would not support bringing back Hemsky, I’d make sure all options were exhausted and I would lose a little bit of sleep about a summarily dispatching a proven entity. Most especially if I was running a team that’s the doormat of the league. Personally I would propose a four year deal at $5.75MM annually and I would go to $6 mill if I was assured that Katz would take some of the public’s money and in the worst case stash Hemsky in the minors if his injury troubles continue. Yes, that contract will run into the next deals for the three kids but who knows what the next CBA will bring. There’s the possibility of there being an amensty clause like the one included in the recent NBA labour agreement and let’s say that happens. Well, if you have older versions of Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner down the middle you could easily walk away from the remainder of Horcoff’s money and there’s your money for Hemsky.
Or you could just commit to going barebones with the last four or five forwards on your roster and putting the money into your top six and having them carry the load of matching while the bottom two lines are there to keep things even and drive your penalty kill. There is a way to make it work and especially for the first two years of a long deal. After that? Well, you get creative. You don’t build a winning hockey club by discarding useful pieces because it might take a little bit of work to fit them all together. Finally, if you believe Hemsky can stay healthy – and make sure you have the opinions of doctors as your basis – then there will always be a trade market for a useful player.
The point is there’s still a place for Hemsky on this club but as we’ve seen in the past more and more smoke signals are being released to prepare fans for his dismissal. Over the weeks the following narratives have built up steam and I’ll list them in no particular order and then highlight the one that makes a fool of anyone who supports it. The list of grievences are as follows: he leaves practice early, he’s inconsistent and doesn’t care and the Oilers really don’t need him. Guys with a lot of a cachet like Ray Ferraro have recently parroted the idea that Hemsky isn’t consistent and doesn’t care enough.
Excuse me? Heading into but excluding this season the guy had 331 points in his last 360 games so I’d say that’s quite consistent. It’s also quite good. Note: one of the most integrity-bereft displays I ever witnessed from the press – because I have seen a lot from my friends – was during the second intermission of the Leafs game when Mark Spector was forced to admit Hemsky was having an effective night. The press has been building this anti-Hemsky snowman based on a perceived lack of effectiveness from Hemsky and with Ales pissing all over it with no less than two goal posts all Spector could mutter was, “he makes these moves and they are good but it’s never enough for him.”
That’s such a stupid point because good is enough and value is enough. At this age it’s true that Hemsky will never be broken from plays like carrying the puck too much and turning it over and he’ll never shoot as much as anyone wants him to. But, at season’s end, he’ll be worth the time and money and however he gets it done the reality is that it always gets done.
Another Edmonton MSM meme with the strength of a thousand ignorant shoulder shrugs is the idea that the kids should see more time-on-ice and it’s time to let them run. That’s all well and good but with more EV TOI comes a helluva lot more responsibility and it means that every shift the kids will play will feature top quality opposition. Not just on the road when the Oilers can’t get the last change but also at home because the more Hemsky-types you let walk the worse your depth and options become.
So we’re left with the impression of a press that either doesn’t know how to watch hockey or has an implicit belief that not only are the kids good, they are ready to be matchup-good and that using them in this fashion doesn’t ensure yet another lower five finish in 2013. But are they alone? Do the Oilers really know what they have in Hemsky? Or are they so blind to think he’s easily replaced; emboldened by one paltry set of half-season’s stats when the previous nearly 400 GP paint a different picture? One thing that’s clear is he’s either that grossly underrated or he’s worn out his welcome.
Jason Gregor had to actually start the ball rolling on contract talks by asking Hemsky point blank if anything was happening; only when that was reported did everyone else pick up the idea that yes they were talking. In fact the Oilers lack of interest was so galling that Hemsky even moaned to the CBC’s Mark Lee, “I just wish they’d let me know either way if they want me or not.” Dear Jesus, can you imagine confiding in Mark Lee? I wouldn’t tell Mark Lee if I had an ingrown toenail and here’s Hemsky practically begging to have the situation addressed. Since then talks have apparently heated up but the fires actually had to be stoked from outside and what can we make of this?
To veer just for a second but to promise to bring you back, I know the Eagles get a lot of heat for being light rock but let me tell you something: if you don’t appreciate the harmonies of that group then when you listen to music you don’t even know what you’re hearing. For as much as I love Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, the wolves are already starving themselves for next year because without Hemsky in the top six these kids will see the other team’s top lines each and every night and there’s a good chance they will get eaten. Maybe they still put up the counting stats and maybe they drive a top ranked PP but how will the goal differential look at season’s end and what will the Oilers look like in the standings? Sure, I know that maybe the press can’t be bothered to learn new tricks over how to watch a game but surely the Oilers know about line matching right? Ignoring Hemsky’s value in this measure is akin to a music producer sitting down in a studio and exclaiming, “holy fuck, what is this devilry? How can one person do a five part harmony”?
You might object that I am citing stats of old and 2012 Hemsky has just 24 points this season thus far and is -15 and maybe he’s lost his matching-jam. OK, well what did he do before when he wasn’t feeling his way back from shoulder surgeries? Hemsky the first three years post-lockout: a combined -21. Hemsky the last three years: a combined +11. The Oilers for the last five years of that timeframe? Goddamn terrible. BTW, the only time he doesn’t see tough competition is when the opposing coach turns himself inside out to run his best at the kids. Check out the scoring chances for the Oilers win last Saturday vs Ott; check out who Renney elected to play the kids against in Wed’s OTL to the Leafs. Eberle and the kids need the help and Hemsky’s able to provide it. And this is what it comes down to. If Hemsky’s asking for the moon or his shoulders are actually brittle then try and take him for a value contract or let him walk. But has due dilligence been done in this regard? Is Hemsky expendable because he’s older? Because the Oilers think Paajarvi or Jones can take his place?
The Oilers are drunk on highlight reel goals and top ten picks with never a thought given towards balance. Cam Barker skates away from criticism with a deftness that doesn’t translate to the ice and Andy Sutton’s continued presence in Edmonton is trumpeted as requested and desired from someone who sees a bright future for the organization. Both are bottom pairing defencemen at best. Hemsky’s a guy who has played tough minutes for forever and the media guys in Edmonton take shot after shot based on his lone unproductive season and keep track of his practice time like they’re monitoring their wives’ contractions.
The old knives are out, greased so as to let the public know why yet another useful player isn’t long for the city. The fans shouldn’t be worried because just as the Eagles replaced Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon with Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh, people are just dying to play in the Oilers’ band.