Shawn Horcoff’s a player that I have some difficulty discussing objectively. He’s a good player with a wide range of skills and an underrated offensive game; in point of fact, his offensive game has been of first-line quality since the lockout. Horcoff is also a player that the majority of the Oilers’ fan-base don’t seem to appreciate; despite the mess on left wing this season, “a real first line centre” is routinely listed as a major team need on the message boards and in the hallowed halls (if I’m not allowed to use hackneyed phrases than I’m quitting to work for the Sun) of the comment sections here.
The disdain for such a useful player drives me nuts; I’ve overreacted more than once while defending Horcoff’s performance, and as a result it’s difficult for me to be objective. So I’m not going to get hung up on what his exact value to the team is here. I’m going to use some basic logic to make a point about team needs.
First off, the ages of the current group of Oilers’ centre-men:
- Shawn Horcoff: 30
- Sam Gagner: 19
- Andrew Cogliano: 21
- Kyle Brodziak: 24
Other players used include Marc Pouliot (23), Liam Reddox (23) and Patrick O’Sullivan (24). In other words, there’s exactly one guy in the position over the age of 25. This isn’t rocket science; there’s a very young group here and Horcoff is the only player currently in the prime of his career.
Secondly, let’s look at professional experience. The current group by total number of NHL games played:
- Shawn Horcoff: 560
- Sam Gagner: 155
- Andrew Cogliano: 164
- Kyle Brodziak: 175
Other players used include Marc Pouliot (141GP), Liam Reddox (47GP) and Patrick O’Sullivan (207GP). If I wanted to really drive the point home I’d list the number of games these guys had managed prior to the start of this season; it’s not only a young group, it’s an inexperienced one.
Thirdly, let’s look at faceoff ability. Here’s the faceoff percentage of the various Oilers’ centres this past season:
- Shawn Horcoff: 53.9% (1756 taken)
- Sam Gagner: 42.0% (690 taken)
- Andrew Cogliano: 37.2% (702 taken)
- Kyle Brodziak: 51.6% (947 taken)
Other players used include Marc Pouliot (48.3% – 211 taken), Liam Reddox (44% – 25 taken) and Patrick O’Sullivan (41.4% – 99 taken).
Now we’re going to consider game situations. The fourth item is actually a question: with one minute left in the third period, with the goaltender pulled and the Oilers down by one, a faceoff occurs in the offensive zone – which player should be sent out to take the faceoff against the other team’s best defensive players? Looking at this roster, I only see one viable option. Cogliano, Gagner and O’Sullivan have some offensive ability, but Shawn Horcoff is the only player with both the offensive acumen and faceoff savvy to be on the ice in that position. He’s not a perfect player; obviously as a coach I’d rather see a player with more high-end offensive talent out there, but he’s the best option currently on the roster. If he were (hypothetically) to be dealt, this team would need a new player for those sorts of situations.
The fifth item for consideration is almost the opposite of that: with one minute left in the third period, with the opposition net empty and the Oilers up by one, a faceoff occurs in the defensive zone – which player should be sent out to take the faceoff against the other team’s best offensive players? Looking at this roster, I only see one viable option. Kyle Brodziak can win faceoffs, but he doesn’t have the defensive acumen to contain the best players in the game – Shawn Horcoff does. He’s the perfect player for the situation; if he were (again hypothetically) to be dealt, this team would need a new player for those sorts of situations.
So, looking at this list, what conclusion do we come to? I know the conclusion I come to – that if the Oilers dealt Shawn Horcoff, they’d need to find a player who has a) NHL experience, b) is in the prime of his career, c) is a faceoff expert, d) averages at least .75 points per game and e) can contain the best players in the NHL when the game is on the line. Maybe they could fill that hole with two players; they’re very unlikely to fill it with one.
This team is young down the middle; eventually Gagner, Cogliano and perhaps others can fill some of the roles that Shawn Horcoff now plays. For now though, he’s far too valuable to the team offensively and defensively to be traded except for a complete player of a higher caliber, and those sort of players aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. This isn’t a defense of Horcoff’s contract, an evaluation of his worth league-wide, or anything of the sort – it’s a practical look at the holes this roster has down the middle, and an explanation that if this team wants to develop it’s young centres (and it should!) they need players like Shawn Horcoff to carry the burden until those players are ready.