August 13 2009 09:35AM
With just 26 candles on his birthday cake and six NHL seasons on his resume, Ales Hemsky somehow makes whiners of even the most ardent fan of the Edmonton Oilers.
"Sure, he's good, but he should be better," and "When will he take it to the next level?" Thankfully, the once tried-and-true "He should shoot more" has pretty much been put to rest. Still, the passionate-and-seldom-satisfied Oiler fan grumbles, like it's birthright.
Better? Sure, it's possible. The next level? What, exactly, is the "next level," aside from overused jargon? I'm always amused, given that Hemsky is only now entering the prime years of his NHL career, that "very good" somehow isn't good enough when it comes to No. 83.
Outside of a couple of examples -- Ilya Kovalchuk and, arguably, Jason Spezza come to mind -- the Oilers couldn't have done much better at the 2001 Entry Draft than taking a baby-faced kid named Hemsky from the Hull Olympiques 13th overall. Edmonton's scouting staff hasn't been more right in the last 20 years.
Still, the critics bray.
By the numbers
In six seasons since the Oilers called his name, Hemsky has produced 93 goals and 238 assists for 331 points through 421 regular season games and 6-11-17 in 30 playoff games.
In terms of regular season numbers, only Kovalchuk, with 297-260-557 in 545 games, and Spezza, with 148-270-418 in 404 games, have been more prolific.
In his last four seasons, Hemsky has tallied 66, 71, 53 and 77 points. The 53 points, by the way, came in just 64 games in 2006-07. I'm not thinking chopped liver when I see those numbers, especially considering Hemsky has played every minute of his NHL career on the watch of offensive guru Craig MacTavish and without linemates to match his skill.
Numbers aside, there aren't more than a dozen or so players who can lift fans out of their seats the way Hemsky does when he starts dangling with the puck. Of course, that's part of the problem -- more than a "dozen or so" players produce more points than Hemsky, spawning arguments he's style over substance. Look at Hemsky hang fire. There must be more, right?
The big bow on all of it is Hemsky still has three years left on a contract that will pay him $4.4 million this season. He's a $4.1 million cap hit on the deal Kevin Lowe inked him to three years ago. By comparison, Kovalchuk will earn $7.5 million this season and Spezza gets $8 million.
From where I sit, all the above makes it utterly ridiculous that some fans talk about trading Hemsky because he'll never get any better, or because a numbers guy can come up with less-than-flattering statistics about how he's propped up defensively by Shawn Horcoff. Or because he complained about wanting to play a bigger role last season. How dare he.
All I know, as Hemsky celebrates his 26th birthday in the Czech Republic after a summer of tooling around in his Ferrari, is he's a magnificent talent and the best player the Oilers have by a fair margin. For my money, even if Hemsky doesn't "get better," he's not going anywhere during the term of this contract.
Instead of bitching about what Hemsky isn't, fans should be applauding what he is. That, and demanding that GM Steve Tambellini get the birthday boy some help.
-- Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on Team 1260.