Smyth, Horcoff, Jones, Belanger. Belanger, Jones, Horcoff, Smyth.
When people talk about “the veterans” in derisive tones, typically they’re talking about two or three of this group.
Shawn Horcoff’s been a favourite whipping boy for years. Eric Belanger’s having a terrible season. Ryan Smyth needs a new contract and there’s a small but vocal contingent that will be angry if he gets the same deal this summer that Cam Barker got last year, because apparently if he doesn’t play for nickels he doesn’t want to be an Oiler. Some love Ryan Jones, some hate him, but few are indifferent.
Some of them might be gone soon. There’s likely to be an amnesty clause included in the new collective bargaining agreement, and if there is that probably means the Oilers will be waving goodbye to Horcoff and his $5.5 million cap hit. Ryan Smyth hits free agency this summer and Calgary’s just down the road – I’m betting the Oilers get him inked but then I was betting that the last time he was hitting free agency too. Belanger’s having a terrible season, and the Oilers are firm believers in selling low. Jones has just one more year on his current contract and trade rumours circled around him in February.
So what, some will say. The kids are better than all of those guys. Those guys dial it in all the time. (Digression: I weep for humanity when people talk about Ryan Smyth dialing it in. But anyway.)
None of this is new. This happens every year. People have been running Horcoff out of town on a rail since before the NHL lockout. On his dirt cheap contract in the summer of 2005 I remember a discussion where I called him a third-line centre and the Oilers fan I was talking too snorted. “Yeah, in the AHL,” he said. Jarret Stoll was minus-23 in 2007-08. Marty Reasoner was minus-17. There was general joy in a lot of quarters when the former was traded; there was out-and-out celebration when Reasoner (“Marty Sakic”) was allowed to leave. When the Oilers traded away a useful wrecking ball in Raffi Torres – who, incidentally, was a better player at the time than Ben Eager is now and frankly than Ben Eager will ever be – for young fourth-liner Gilbert Brule I expected to see parades, folks were so happy. Even Kyle Brodziak, who won “unsung hero” awards in junior for his give-a-darn, had to live with public potshots taken at his give-a-darn.
If you’re a guy who takes faceoffs, kills penalties, or starts less than 50% of your shifts in the offensive zone, the odds are good that there’s a loud contingent of fans wishing the coach would dump you in the press box and call up a random guy from the minors to take your shift.
Getting back to this year’s team, I thought it was worth visiting what those veterans were doing, and what will need to be replaced if the Oilers go through another ritual purge of men trusted by the coach to do stuff. The kids (the holy three, plus Sam Gagner because I needed a fourth guy and he’s the best fit) thanks to injury and role, have played a little under 4000 minutes at even-strength this year (3957). The four veteran guys have played a little over 4000 minutes at even-strength (4041), but then they’ve all been healthy. The kids have been on the ice for 1100 offensive zone faceoffs. The veterans have seen a few less at 1056. The difference is in the defensive zone – the kids have been on the ice for 789 draws, while the veterans have seen 1260. The vets also tend to win draws, but that’s a different discussion.
Horcoff and Smyth, in particular, also face the best opposition on most nights. According to Behind the Net, they rank first and third in quality of opposition. The holy three follow them, with Jones, Gagner and Belanger trailing that group.
The veterans kill penalties too. They’ve been on the ice for 756 minutes shorthanded. The kids have been on the ice for 21 minutes shorthanded.
None of this stuff is insurmountable. I don’t look at Ryan Jones’ zone-starts and penalty-killing time and say, ‘well gosh, he’s better than Taylor Hall.’ But it’s important to know that every minute spent on the penalty kill reduces the amount of time a coach can use one of the kids at even-strength, or on the power play. Every defensive zone draw is a lesser chance to score and a higher chance to get scored on than an offensive zone draw. Every shift against the best opposition is one less chance to light up the other team’s second or third line.
Eventually, the kids will take some of it. It happened in Anaheim, after Bob Murray disassembled the famous ‘Nothing Line’ and Randy Carlyle was forced to toss Getzlaf and Perry out against the toughs. Samuel Pahlsson played his last game with the Ducks on January 31, 2009. Getzlaf and Perry were a combined plus-89 in the three years prior to his departure. They’ve gone plus-11 in the three years since, despite the fact that both have probably improved as players and both are elite talents. The simple facts are that they were ready and able to move into the toughest assignments, but that taking on that role cost them in terms of their ability to outscore opponents.
This, then, is the issue with shipping away those veterans: their minutes don’t leave with them. Personally, I don’t think Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is any better in his own end than Shawn Horcoff is. Offensively, the difference is night and day. But I’d rather see Horcoff or Belanger on the ice for an own-zone draw (which they’ve got a roughly even chance of winning) then Nugent-Hopkins (who loses two out of three). I’d rather see Jones or Belanger or Smyth diving in front of a power play slap-shot than Eberle or Nugent-Hopkins or Hall.
I’m not welded at the hip to this current group of veterans. But if the Oilers ship them away, they need a plan for dealing with the minutes they play. In the past, that’s been something the team has consistently failed to do. It has cost them.