Ales Hemsky and the Edmonton Oilers' rebuild

Jonathan Willis
March 10 2014 02:37PM

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Ales Hemsky didn't pretend that he knew how to fix the Edmonton Oilers when he was asked about his former team. But he did tell reporters in Ottawa that it was time for the young stars on the team to shoulder the load.

Hemsky's Comments

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I don’t know how to explain it. If somebody knew, they should step up and help them, but they haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe it’s just the kids. They have to step up and lead the team to the playoffs. They’ve been there for a long time and it’s their time, you know. They can’t only blame older guys or change their fourth line. They’ve got to start leading the team to the playoffs. Be leaders. That’s probably the one thing. But they are all great guys and I had a great time and hopefully they will turn it around and get into the playoffs. People deserve it there, you know. It’s a hockey city. People love their hockey and it’s painful.

via Ken Warren of the Ottawa Citizen

It's funny the degree to which Hemsky sounds like so many average Oilers fans. While everybody seemingly has their pet theory on how to improve the Oilers, there does seem to be a definite sense of confusion as to how the team can still be so bad given various improvements on the roster. With that confusion has come a firm belief for many that the old habits - complaining about the fourth line, using players like Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff as scapegoats - simply don't address the problem.

Culture

Hemsky's well clear of that scapegoat role now. Part of the Oilers problem may have been revealed in his answer to a question after he recorded three assists in a win over Winnipeg. 

"Like I said, it's fun again to be in the race," Hemsky said, when asked whether it was easier to get excited about games in Ottawa. "I wasn't in the race for a long time. I love those type of games, you play for something and it's a lot of fun."

Craig MacTavish made it clear over the summer that he was going to move both Hemsky and Horcoff to other teams if he could (ultimately he dealt Horcoff to Dallas but retained Hemsky until this year's deadline). Prior to either deal, the Oilers' general manager told TSN 1260 that "sometimes change is good" for a player, and it's not difficult to imagine how years of playing out the string could grind down a player. 

His predecessor, Steve Tambellini, had hoped to bring a "culture change" to the Oilers organization. He did: he brought a culture where players had to suffer through long stretches of essentially pointless hockey. It's not hard to see the moves to acquire people like Andrew Ference and David Perron and Boyd Gordon and Matt Hendricks as MacTavish's attempt to bring in fresh voices, players who weren't weighed down by years of trying to find the motivation to give everything in meaningless games.

However...

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While Hemsky's comments about the Oilers' young players needing to drive the team are accurate, that's not enough. Neither is the addition of veteran players who haven't suffered through years of losing. 

The last time the Oilers made the playoffs, the team's defensive depth chart in the post-season looked like this:

  • Chris Pronger (averaged 30:57 TOI)
  • Jaroslav Spacek (averaged 25:52 TOI)
  • Jason Smith (averaged 22:28 TOI)
  • Steve Staios (averaged 21:31 TOI)
  • Marc-Andre Bergeron (averaged 14:55 TOI)
  • Dick Tarnstrom (averaged 13:59 TOI)
  • Matt Greene (averaged 10:03 TOI)

The current incarnation of the group doesn't have a Pronger, obviously. But it also doesn't have a Spacek or a Smith and there's a pretty decent case it doesn't even have a Staios, who at the time was a physical defender who could chip in 25+ points and handle tough minutes.

It's disappointing that the Oilers keep losing games, and when a team is so bad for so long there's no question that the problems are myriad. But the main problem isn't the one Hemsky pointed to directly, or the one I've drawn from his comment on playing for Ottawa. 

The main problem is that the Oilers don't have a single top-pairing defenceman, play the guys they have over their heads and have rounded out the current group with a bottom pair comprised of AHL-calibre defencmen. There was a pretty decent group of defenceman even when Tambellini inherited the team; he traded them down to nothing and MacTavish hasn't done nearly enough yet to fix that hole.

Until he does, the Oilers will keep losing. 

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 Bonvie
March 10 2014, 11:35PM
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@Oilanderp wrote:

I disagree J.W. I'll post this again.

As much as everyone likes to talk about how bad our d-men are, I would bet $$$ that even if we had a hall of famer at every position in our top 6 defence we would still not be a playoff team.

Why? Well, imagine the puck is dumped into our zone and YOU are the first d-man on the scene. You have 2 real options:

1. Pass to your d-partner behind the net.

2. Pass to your winger on the half-wall.

3. Pass to your center in front of your own net.

4. Try a stretch pass through many opposition players or ice the puck or put it hard off the glass and out and hope it's not icing.

5. Deke a guy.

If you choose #1, then you are simply restarting this process, and THAT d-man has the same 2 choices.

So pretty much, it is option #2 ALL DAY: move it along the boards to your winger.

And here is where the problems begin. Most of the time the strong-side winger isn't even there. Even when he is there he is usually at a stand-still and easy pickings for a forechecker, or worse the winger is on the wrong side of the puck and is cheating for offence resulting in an easy pickoff and odd-man rush against.

But let's pretend the winger gets the puck on the half-wall. He has 1 real option:

1. Kick it square across to the center.

2. Chip it past the opposing d-man and out, icing it or otherwise relinquishing posession.

3. Try a risky stretch pass cross-ice to the other winger which even if successful will only result in a 1 on 2 attack.

4. Deke a guy.

5. Drop it back to the d-man in which case we repeat the first process all over.

Not many choices are there? The solution? Puck support.The Oilers break out too far apart from each other, leaving the puck carrier with few options. These young forwards seem to think that the only way to score is on the rush and by leaving the zone early.

Until these top 6ers, the core of our team, realize how to defend and support the puck together in their own zone, little progress is going to be made. Until that time, Eakins is going to have to spank these kids and put them to bed without their supper for not doing their homework.

THIS is why teams focus on defense. All the firepower in the world can't help you get out of your own zone. Ekblad or Ehrhoff or both won't change that.

All of what you said is exactly on point. I think people still want to blame the third and fourth lines and or defensive depth. Although I feel we definitely need one Defenseman maybe two, but the Defenseman that needs to be added is right on the very top of the depth chart. Anybody that has played defense knows when you are paired with a very good Defenseman everything becomes easy you always have a safe out, its clear we lack this guy.

I believe the makeup of our top 6 needs to be overhauled to place some size and grit in the top of our lineup. Watching that game with the kings that 2nd line was targeted all game long by the LA coach even more so then our fourth line. The lineup of Eberle, Nugent, and Yakapov was absolutely terrible giving up several grade A chances on every shift they stepped on the ice. They are absolutely overwhelmed when playing against the other teams top players very soft on both walls and baby Nuge also struggled in finding his man in the high slot, and winning his battles.

Just to add an important point as far as the Hemsky comment the bottom spots of our roster matters very little, yet people on most of these fan sites are fixated on the play of the likes of Jones, Gadzic, and our depth Dmen. In reality it boils down to our top 6 forwards and top 3 Defenseman. When these 9 players can be better than the other teams top players we will win games. All the other spots can be filled and refilled off waivers, minor league call ups whatever doesn't even matter, the difference will be insignificant and incremental.

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#52 Slanto
March 11 2014, 07:58AM
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I hear that there is a ton of room on the bandwagon of that NHL team on the west coast!

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#53 gcw_rocks
March 11 2014, 11:34AM
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JW: Earlier this year you did, I believe, a comparison of Renney, Krueger, and Eakins, west vs west only.

In light of your findings on the Oilers Fenwick trend, what are the chances of an update?

That would be very interesting with a bigger sample size for Eakins.

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