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 firstname.lastname@example.org