I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I like Shawn Horcoff a lot. I think that, in his prime, he was the sort of hockey player who was good at everything, which is kind of unfortunate for him in a way. Guys who are good at everything and great at nothing tend to get hammered for being great at nothing. Nobody complains if Alex Ovechkin’s bad at killing penalties or doesn’t back check too hard if he’s putting up 100 points. If you’re just kind of good at everything though, people tend to pick away at you. There’s a chunk of the fanbase that has never really liked Horcoff all that much. They see only that he isn’t great at things and moan away about him. They moan about his contract. And, tonight, they booed when he was introduced.
Booing Shawn Horcoff in Edmonton is indefensible. If nothing else, he has been, to use an expression I’ve picked up following soccer, a good and loyal servant of the club. This is twelfth season with the team and he’s never done anything that reflects poorly on the team or on Edmonton. There’s never been a question about his work ethic. He’s chosen to stay in Edmonton; yes, he was paid well for doing so, but he could quite easily have said that he wanted to see what was out there and still made enough money out of hockey that he’d never have to work again. As a hockey player, he is what Edmonton likes to tell itself it is: a hard working, honest, blue collar player.
Of course, that isn’t all there is to Horcoff. He was a huge piece of the best Oilers team since I was in grade five. He blocked a shot with his throat to finish off a win against Detroit. He scored the overtime goal against San Jose in G3 that brought the Oilers back into that series in the course of going toe to toe with Joe Thornton and doing well. By the end of this season he will be fifth all-time in games played for the Oilers and, if I’m right that he doesn’t get bought out this summer (I’m convinced he’s a New York Islander on July 1, 2014), he’ll likely be third all-time in games played for the Oilers when he leaves town. He’s currently tied for tenth all-time in goals for the Oilers with Craig MacTavish, just two behind Doug Weight. He could conceivably be in seventh all-time by the time the 2013-14 season ends – he’d need thirty goals to get there in his next 128 games. The only Oilers ahead of him in career ES goals with the Oilers will probably be Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Mark Messier and Ryan Smyth. He’ll pass Esa Tikkanen for points, although Hemsky will overtake them both, likely in the next week.
During the 2004-05 lockout, I spent some time on HFBoards singing the praises of Shawn Horcoff on the basis of his 03-04 season and compared him favourably to Brendan Morrison, something that wasn’t particularly well received at the time. I’ve always sort of thought that Horcoff kind of had some misfortune not to get to put up some counting numbers in that 2003-04 season. He scored 40 points, which doesn’t sound that impressive, until you look at his time on ice. Horcoff was third in TOI amongst Oiler forwards that year but just eighth in PP TOI. The Oilers PP finished 29th, while all sorts of guys sucked up time. The Oilers PP could hardly have been any worse with Horcoff but his counting numbers were held back while other guys got the PP gravy.
Like all NHLers, Horcoff proceeded to have the next year of his career wiped out. Unlike most, Horcoff spent the season having a big year in a pretty decent professional league, finishing third in the SEL in scoring. Amongst the guys who finished behind him in the scoring race were *cough* Brendan Morrison. He came back to Edmonton, had a big year in 2005-06 with 73 points in 79 games, in both the regular season and playoffs and then had a down year in 2006-07, as did most of the OIlers. His final stat line’s a bit deceptive though. Horcoff had 45 points through his first 63 games.
His 64th game was unusual, in that it was the first game of his career that he played without having Ryan Smyth as a teammate. Ales Hemsky was banged up and barely played the rest of the way. The Oilers went 2-16-1 with a lineup that featured all sorts of guys you’ve never hear of and Horcoff scored 6 points in 17 games. I say that’s deceptive because the Smyth trade was kind of the wheezing death of the 2006 Oilers, who’d had a ton of injuries to key players all year long and had fought and fought and fought and just couldn’t fight any more. And so they lay there for 19 games and took their whippings and Sebastien Bisaillon gets to tell people he played in the NHL.
2007-08 was famously a big year for Horcoff, with a visit to the Mexican stick factory and an 18.3% shooting percentage for a guy who has a 12.3% career shooting percentage and 50 points in 53 games, before shoulder surgery stopped his season. Horcoff had a year remaining on the deal he’d signed after the 2005-06 season but Kevin Lowe had seen enough (and was still stinging from the trauma of losing Ryan Smyth in a contract squabble and being rejected by half the NHL in the summer of 2007) that he decided that he needed to get Horcoff signed then and there. And so he did, for six years and $33MM.
It’s kind of funny how things work. I think you can make a very good argument that Horcoff’s had some bad luck that has prevented him from putting together the sort of career in counting numbers that people who take counting numbers seriously are used to seeing. The abundance of centres who had reputations as guys who could play the PP in 2003-04 and who you definitely didn’t really want on the ice at ES in Petr Nedved and Adam Oates. The 2004-05 lockout. The 2006-07 death march. The 2007-08 shoulder surgery. If Horcoff got to play out those five seasons in an alternate reality where all of the same hockey players in the NHL world existed but there was no lockout and the teams were randomized, I suspect that there’s a reasonable chance that his counting numbers from his prime look considerably different.
Of course, his bank balance might look a little bit different too – if PP “specialists” who weren’t much at ES and labour problems and death marches and surgery held his counting numbers back, Daryl Katz deciding to buy the Oilers and the Smyth fiasco and Kevin Lowe’s Unfortunate Summer Realization in 2007 kind of put Horcoff in a position where the Oilers were desperate to pay someone – anyone – to show that hockey players who would take large paycheques would take them in Edmonton certainly helped him. Maybe the hockey gods have a sense of humour – upon those talented enough to put up numbers who they would deny the counting numbers that the masses crave, they bestow riches beyond reason.
The Oilers have undeniably paid big bucks for the fag end of Horcoff’s offensive production and that sucks. I’m a fan of the team and I want them to be good and having a banged up guy who can’t do what he once did sucks. He’s still a useful top nine forward though. More than that, as I’ve set out, he’s been a wonderful representative of Edmonton who’s easy to cheer for and was a massive part of the best Oilers team of the past twenty years. He deserves better from the people buying the tickets in Edmonton than boos at the mere mention of his name.
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As if the hockey gods were angry, there was some karmic retribution for Oiler fans for the booing of Horcoff that came in the form of a first period that ended San Jose 6 Edmonton 1. Fear the Fin noticed something else:
Shawn Horcoff’s line played just two measly even-strength shifts against the Thornton line yet the Oilers outchanced the Sharks 1-0 in those minutes. In all other even-strength situations combined, the Sharks outchanced Edmonton 8-0.
The unfortunate thing about a game like this is that it’s tough to get anything out of it in terms of how Ralph Krueger intends to coach this year. With that being said, I mentioned in my pre-game post that I was pretty interested in seeing how Krueger intended to run his lines. The Oilers matched Horcoff’s line against Thornton’s line pretty consistently in Edmonton last year and I was hoping for some insight into how Krueger intended to do things this year.
I don’t know that we got a lot out of this game. Horcoff certainly wasn’t given near the matchup with Thornton that he’s had in the past; both he and RNH played about the same proportion of their ES TOI against him but Horcoff played 8:48 at ES and RNH played 16:45. Two notes worth mentioning. First, Todd McLellan started the game with Thornton on the ice and Krueger came out with the Horcoff line. My thought was “Oh, Krueger’s going to run the same matchup that Renney did.” Thornton’s line left the ice at 0:37. They came back out at the 1:32 mark though and Krueger didn’t bother trying to maintain the Horcoff matchup. McLellan next threw the Thornton line onto the ice at ES at the 7:03 mark of the first, as Horcoff’s line was at the end of a shift.
There was then a funny little sequence at 13:13, with the score 4-1, where the Thornton line came out as RNH’s line was wrapping up a shift. Krueger threw out Belanger and, after twenty seconds, there was a whistle. McLellan pulled the Thornton line off after a short shift, (correctly) guessing that they weren’t going to get the fourth line. After the Horcoff line played a shift and Gagner’s line had been on the ice for 30 seconds, out came the Thornton line again. Krueger responded with the RNH line. The Thornton line’s second last appearance of the period came 35 seconds into a Horcoff shift towards the end of the period and they made one final 26 second appearance against each other after the Sharks finished putting the nails into the Oiler coffin with the 6-1 goal.
I doubt there’s much profit in looking too seriously at what happened the rest of the way. I took the time that each of the four centres played in the final 40 minutes and converted it to a 60 minute time. I come up with RNH playing a pro-rated 21.46 minutes, Gagner playing a pro-rated 18.16, Horcoff at 11.44 minutes and Belanger at 8.93 minutes. I would seriously doubt that we’re going to see anything like that – Horcoff played 19 minutes the other night in Vancouver, so there’s not much to be gained from examining it, I suspect. The game was a blowout, so let the guys who score goals see if they can make a miracle happen and let the old guys have an easy night at the office.
One final point on this: if Krueger does move away from using Horcoff/Smyth as a matchup line at home, it will be interesting to see how the scoring chances break down at the end of the year. When I took a look last year, Horcoff/Smyth were performing at or better than Eberle/Hall/RNH against the opposition’s best. Hall was lighting up lesser competition. It suggested a certain way to run the bench to start this season, at least until Horcoff and Smyth proved they couldn’t handle it anymore, or Hall and Co. proved that they could. Early returns suggest that Krueger isn’t married to this idea. It will be something to watch against Los Angeles.
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One of the things I do enjoy about having a blog is the ability to go back and see what I thought about stuff so I wanted to make a note about Nail Yakupov scoring his first goal. Watching him tonight kind of reminded me of a very specific aspect of the 2007-08 Oilers season. That team wasn’t very good but, in Sheldon Souray and Geoff Sanderson, they had two guys who had a specific skill that was amazing to watch. Souray could absolutely unload a slap shot from the point and Sanderson could just fly. It was amazing to watch them do it, quite apart from the hockey.
Yakupov unloaded a shot from the point tonight that reminded me of Souray and elicited a sort of muffled gasp from the crowd. The finish on his goal was sublime and he came close a second time. That PP unit, with Gagner and Hemsky playing pass and waiting for an opening is going to be something to watch. More than anything though, I loved Yakupov’s celebration when he scored. Playing in the NHL seems like a pretty cool job and there’s something awesome about seeing guys who get to do it expressing some joy about the whole thing. I get that it’s a job for the players and once you’ve scored a few goals, it’s probably less exciting but still. You just scored an NHL goal. Celebrate it.
Nail’s going to take some shots from the media for expressing that joy when he scores (as he did when he celebrated playfully in the Oilers’ rookie camp); hopefully he doesn’t change.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org