• A Final Defence of Shawn Horcoff

    by  • July 5, 2013 • Hockey • 15 Comments

    Shawn Horcoff’s contract never prevented the Oilers from doing a single thing.

    Despite that, it became synonymous with Horcoff and he became synonymous with the 2007-13 Oilers. The contract defined the player and the player defined the era. It was grossly unfair, in that the contract was never a problem for the Oilers and Horcoff was never the problem with the Oilers. Horcoff’s contract ended up coinciding with Tambellini’s reign as GM. You tell me which was the bigger problem: Shawn Horcoff or the guy charged with filling out the roster.

    The first year of Horcoff’s deal was 2009-10. Here’s what his numbers look like with his nine main wingers that season.

    He did just fine with Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner and Mike Comrie. Coincidentally, those guys were all legitimate NHLers at that stage of their career. His numbers with Hemsky and Penner suggest an average NHL first line. That’s a valuable thing – their numbers over the 2007-10 period suggest a pretty good first line. The other six guys are now out of hockey. Horcoff got torched playing with them. It looks even worse than it was because the goaltending was horrific. Was the problem that Horcoff wasn’t good enough to make them into legitimate first line players? Really?

    From that point forward, the rebuild was well and truly on and the best a guy like Horcoff could hope for was that he’d come out the other side of it, something that probably wears on your soul a little bit, particularly when you know you don’t have as many miles of track left as the 18 to 23 year olds who are making mistakes and learning on the job. Tom Renney fed him to the wolves for two years to make the learning curve a little less steep for the young players. Stuff like getting booed by the fans when you’re introduced at the home opener on national TV probably doesn’t make that any easier to live with.

    The media didn’t make things any easier for Horcoff. Many of them behaved in a fundamentally dishonest way, characterizing Horcoff as a $7MM man, or referring to “…the contract that pays Shawn Horcoff an average of $6.5 million over the next four years” without acknowledging that, for a cap team like the Oilers, it didn’t really matter and that the last two years of the deal brought the average down $1MM a year.

    I was forwarded an email exchange that someone had with an Edmonton writer who had made a slippery reference to Horcoff’s contract. My correspondent pointed out that the number that mattered with Horcoff was his cap number and that to call him a $7MM player wasn’t just dishonest, it was insulting and disrespectful to the reader, in that his cap hit was the relevant figure. The response was basically “Who cares, it’s technically accurate because he makes $7MM this year.” It’s disgusting.

    People sometimes ask me why I care about what mainstream guys write. The answer is that they still matter. They still shape opinion. They do it a heck of a lot less than they did a decade ago but it’s still a hell of a lot more than it will be a decade from now. The size of your megaphone matters and there are guys with massive megaphones who used them to continually reference the size of his contract and failed to point out that he got decent results when he played with good players. They poisoned the water against him and they did it for five years and this is the end result.

    If the money he was making was irrelevant – and it was, and he was never the most overpaid player on the team in his time here – it shouldn’t factor into the analysis of him at all. Imagine a world in which the Oilers let Shawn Horcoff walk before the 2009-10 season. Would anything have been different? Were there players on whom the Oilers would have spent that money that would have prevented a season in the cellar?

    I don’t think that the media owes the team a thing in terms of coverage beyond fairness. I support the existence of a nasty, snarly media that seizes on weakness and failure in an organization and is relentless in shining a spotlight on it. There’s a difference though, between that and finding a lazy narrative with which to beat up on someone who isn’t popular. They owe it to their readers to be truthful and accurate. Using facts selectively to create an impression, rather than providing something with proper context falls far short of doing that.

    The shame of it all is that it overshadowed the fine career that Horcoff’s had with the OIlers. He leaves town fifth in games played, ninth in goals scored and ninth in points. He was a hard worker who represented the organization and city well. The size of his paycheque is relevant to precisely none of that and yet you won’t read a story in the Edmonton media as Horcoff exits that doesn’t harp on it.

    If you’re my age, or much younger, the glory days Oilers kind of belong to a different generation. As I’ve mentioned on occasion, I didn’t grow up an Oiler fan, so that team from the 1980s wasn’t my team at all and I was ten when they stopped winning Cups. For me, and people who are younger, my version of the Oilers is the one that became relevant in 1997, when the made the playoffs for the first time in five years. A year later, they drafted Horcoff 99th overall.

    He was one of the best parts of that 2006 Stanley Cup team, the team that defines the Oilers for as long as I’ve been a fan. He blocked a shot with his throat to close out a game in which he scored the winning goal against Detroit. Six goals in the playoffs, all in games that the Oilers won. Two of them were game winners, including the game winner in what’s probably the most enthralling game the Oilers have played in the last twenty years.

    When it ended, it was about as close as you can come to winning the Stanley Cup without doing so and after the Cup was lost, he gave us as visceral a description of what it feels like to come that close and lose as I’ve ever heard: “It’s everything that you feared rushing right at you.”

    Edmonton was lucky to have him, and whether his contract was for $24MM over six years or $33MM over six years doesn’t change that at all. Hopefully in time, people come to gain some perspective on that by reflecting on a pretty simple question: “What did Shawn Horcoff’s contract stop the Oilers from doing that they otherwise could or would have done?” If the answer to that is “Nothing” – and it is – then it’s pointless to take it into account in evaluating his time as an Oiler. He’s a major part of their history and one of the seven or eight best centremen the club’s ever had.

    Maybe a decade from now, people will recognize it. In the meantime, I hope that he and Dallas do well this season.

    Email Tyler Dellow at tyler@mc79hockey.com

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    15 Responses to A Final Defence of Shawn Horcoff

    1. Scott
      July 5, 2013 at

      Glad you wrote this… nice change of pace and does some justice to the value he had and still has.

    2. Doogie2K
      July 5, 2013 at

      It’s worth pointing out that Horc’s numbers with Robert Nilsson in a small sample are actually pretty good: 55% Corsi, but +4/-7 for goals. Heck, Nilsson’s full BTN entry for 2009-10 was fairly decent. Middling Corsi QoC/ZoneStart (but low CorsiRel QoC), 6.9 CorsiRel, garbage goaltending behind him (though didn’t everyone?). I remember thinking at the time that he was just turning into a hockey player when the Oilers gave up on him.

      Anyway, in looking at Dallas’s centre situation for a Grabovski fit, there’s a need for that player type. Fiddler got destroyed in tough minutes the last two years, Peverly wasn’t any great shakes on an excellent team, Eakin is young and was sheltered last year, and Seguin rode shotgun for Bergeron. Horc’s a bit older, but if he has decent linemates, he should do the job just fine for the balance of his contract.

    3. Chris C
      July 5, 2013 at

      That was a very heartfelt and excellent post. As a Toronto fan I know all too well how helpless it feels to see people around you turn against a great player based on what the MSM is saying.
      It actually is a pretty good testament to Mac’s drive to change this team that he was able to pull off a trade after the organization and media absolutely trashed his value.
      As you said, it seemed like Horcoff was being used to shelter the young guys. It will be interesting to see what happens now that the training wheels are off…

    4. Chris
      July 5, 2013 at

      I’ve also thought it was massively unfair to Horcoff that people don’t seem to acknowledge that his contract was signed after the cup run and the following season he was playing at an all star clip (he made the all star team that year) that he suffered the first of several severe injuries and sucess in the offensive zone never seemed to recover. I’ve always found it incredibly petty that people wanted to damn the man for bad luck with injuries. He always played hard and was a good defensive player his whole time here. That he was under appreciated is unfortunate.

    5. Jon K
      July 5, 2013 at

      I agree with many of your thoughts here, Tyler. Horcoff for me will always be the centre that shut down top opposition in the 2006 Cup run, while also anchoring one of the league’s most prolific scoring lines in the regular season. He’s had a fine career that could have been a great one, if not for the team’s poor management during the first salary cap CBA.

      I will say no more about certain members of the Edmonton media other than to note that they can be an absolute embarrassment to the city and the team. It’s possible to be critical while maintaining some semblance of tact. I have no use whatsoever for individuals who lack both tact and useful insight.

      Keep up the good work calling out those individuals.

    6. Mr DeBakey
      July 5, 2013 at

      I read, or started reading, MacKinnon’s piece in the EJ this morning.
      First time I’ve read the guy in months.
      Stopped when I got to the part where he totally fucked up the Cap/Actual Salary thing.
      “The deal saw his cap hit and salary sit at $7 million in Year 1″

      I wonder on which wing MacKinnon had Ovechkin?

    7. Henry
      July 5, 2013 at

      I remember an interview of Ryan Whitney last summer in which he was asked to speculate on whether Eberle or Hall would take over the C from Horcoff last year. Whitney said that they would turn it down because there was far too much respect for Horc in the room.

      This post mortem of Horcoff’s tenure was nicely written. Horcoff was a superb Oiler that did a hard job. Maybe the contract hurt him with Spector and some embarrassing fans, but it set his family for a pretty nice life. His brutal linemates through the very lean years are out of hockey, but true hockey guys like Nill like Horcoff at his cap hit despite having lost a step. That shows his worth. Good for him.

    8. Lewis Grant
      July 5, 2013 at

      Tyler,

      You’re spot-on here. I’m the same age and I remember very well both the shot-block on Lidstrom and the San Jose G3 OT goal.

      It is a sad day saying goodbye to an Edmonton-drafted and -trained player, one I hoped would be a career Oiler. Perhaps MacT is right and there needs to be culture change in the locker room. But we will have a hard time replacing him, even with Boyd Gordon around. Dallas is getting a good player. I wish him well.

    9. Derek
      July 5, 2013 at

      Penner-Horcoff-Hemsky was a GaG line in their time together.

    10. PDO
      July 6, 2013 at

      Own a Horcoff signed jersey.

      Sadly… my biggest memory is him being absolutely stoned at the end of G1 by Cam Ward. Sigh.

      Gonna miss him well, but as a 1997 Oiler Fan… I can’t wish any good will to Dallas. I hope Horcoff plays great and is flipped to a contender at the deadline and wins a Stanley somewhere though.

    11. PDO
      July 6, 2013 at

      Also, if anyone wants to feel suicidal, feel free to re-watch the G1 highlites.

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    13. Bill
      July 6, 2013 at

      Horcoff leaves with the same class and integrity he displayed throughout his career. It’s a shame none of his integrity rubbed off on the arrogant MSM clowns we endure daily in Edmonton. I’m surprised any sports figure in Edmonton will talk to most of the morons in MSM. Will the Oilers win in the near future? I doubt it but that’s no reason to perpetually crucify players.

      Question: Who did Phoenix bring in to replace Eric Belanger when he signed with Edmonton? Was it perhaps Boyd Gordon?

    14. DB
      July 8, 2013 at

      I know an awful lot of oiler fans and most of them are somewhat delusional about where the team is and where it’s headed. I suppose that’s part of being a fan. Objectivity escapes you. Tyler also relies on advanced stats which often just records the result of a system. It’s not baseball. Theres 5 batters in a hockey game not one. It’s a tougher game to measure but I certainly admit advanced stats can be a useful tool. I was looking forward to poking fun at this piece after I saw the title. Less interested in doing so after reading it. Made some great points about Shawn and his career in Edmonton. I almost felt bad for Horcoff after reading it as I’m sure I ridiculed his contract at some point. Probably more than once. I felt bad up until the moment the reality of his insane contract smacked me in the face. Most of us speak about contracts in terms of its cap hit. The average annual salary a player gets. The cap hit is his value. Nobody cares if Edmonton could afford the bad contract. What did Shawn do relative to his peers with similar avg salary/cap hit. Horcoff scored 42 goals in his last 4 years with the oilers.Corsi%? Relcorsi? Nope. don’t care. Trim a few goals off if he’s a Bergeron. Playmaker, defensively superior,face off master etc. That centermen for the bruins has an avg salary of $5m per. Now, he plays on a vastly superior team but there’s lots of highly paid players on bad teams that perform well. And guess what if they dont? They get blasted by the media and fans alike. A Forward making $700,000 a goal can also cause problems in the dressing room. All of a sudden, management is fielding calls from agents. $6m per year contracts are being handed out to your 20 yr old first rounders. Bridge contracts? No chance, pay up now. Anyway, I thought Tyler made a great attempt at justifying Horcoff’s pay cheque. More so, that the contract didn’t necessarily hurt Edmomton.

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