Let’s get something straight off the top: this is not a post to rehash how awful Shawn Horcoff’s contract is, or to revisit the same tired battles that get fought every time someone mentions his name.
In retrospect, however, it’s pretty clear that the Oilers made a mistake paying Horcoff like he was going to maintain his 2007-08 form forever.
Even at the time, the statistical data should have made this obvious.
Horcoff’s shooting percentage was off-the-charts good in 2007-08. Many credited his trip down to Mexico during the summer to ensure that he got a stick built to his exact needs with the change, but the reality is that it was an aberration: sometimes shooting percentage spikes, and we don’t know why, but it almost always reverts back to career levels. Such was the case with Horcoff:
- Shooting percentage, 2000-07: 12.8%
- Shooting percentage, 2007-08: 18.3%
- Shooting percentage, 2008-11: 10.5%
The difference between Horcoff’s 2000-07 shooting percentage and what he recorded in 2007-08 is the difference between a 32-goal and 23-goal season. In other words, just a hair under one-third of his total goal scoring.
Another red flag was Quality of Competition. While it’s true that Horcoff had seen the toughest competition back in 2006-07, Craig MacTavish ran his bench differently in 2007-08. Horcoff saw second-tier competition while Jarret Stoll and Marty Reasoner were run out in an old-school checking role. Stoll and Reasoner also got sent out for the majority of defensive zone draws. Not coincidentally, both had miserable seasons, and fans were thrilled when they (especially Reasoner) were sent away.
That, in a nutshell, was how Horcoff put up career-best results over an injury-shortened season. Lining up with Penner and Hemsky, not seeing the toughest opponents (for a change) and not being asked to handle the bulk of those nasty defensive zone faceoffs all combined with a great shooting percentage season to make him look like a star offensive forward.
Why did I fall for it? I mean, I harp about unsustainable shooting percentages and quality of competition. Honestly, the reason is that I was busy thinking like a fan and not looking at all the data.
The Ryan Smyth trade sparked a lot of things – including the creation of this site – and it had a big impact on me. Smyth had long been my favourite player, and I was busy at work on the day he was dealt, with a friend texting me the trades as they happened. Initially, it was reported (I believe by Eklund, on Sportsnet) that Smyth had signed a five-year deal. Minutes later, I got a follow-up text that Smyth had been dealt to the Islanders for an ugly collection of futures, and it was like getting kicked in the gut.
To me, that fit a pattern. The Oilers teams of my youth weren’t the Gretzky/Messier teams; rather they were the Weight/Guerin/Smyth teams of the late-90’s/early-00’s. Once again, I’d seen a player I liked a lot sent away, and once again it was because the Oilers wouldn’t or couldn’t pay what other teams were willing to.
I’d never been as big a fan of Horcoff as I was of Smyth, but I still admired him. He’d been a late pick, paid his dues to make it to the NHL level, and always seemed to give an honest effort on the ice. I didn’t want to see him sent away; I hoped the Oilers were done with letting their talent slip away to deeper pockets.
When the Oilers signed Horcoff – coming off a career-best season, no less – it was a nice change to that unhappy tradition. Finally, the team was retaining a player who they had developed, letting him spend his best years in Edmonton.
Sometimes, I make comments saying that the longer I write about the Oilers, the less I write from the perspective of a fan. Some of it is simple weariness from covering one of the NHL’s worst-managed clubs, but there’s more to it than that. To be fair, to avoid mistakes like the one I made with Horcoff, I can’t evaluate players based on how much I like them as a fan – I have to look at the data. Naturally, I’m not always successful, but that’s the goal.