Big Decisions: Signing Ales Hemsky

There are those who believe that the Edmonton Oilers made a mistake when they re-signed pending unrestricted free agent Ales Hemsky to a two-year/$10 million contract extension just under one year ago.

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Those people are wrong. The Oilers made the right decision.

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

One of the more difficult parts of assessing a player is recognizing when a short-term trend is likely to continue or stop. At the time the Oilers re-signed Hemsky, he had played 47 games, scored just five times, and recorded 21 assists. He also had a minus-14 rating. The five goals quickly became a punch line, as pundits joked that the Oilers gave Hemsky ‘a million for every goal he scored.’

The problem was that Hemsky’s dismal performance stood in such stark contrast to his previous work in the NHL. The following are Hemsky’s basic statistics from the five years preceding 2011-12, as well as an average 47-game segment from that span. The last row has Hemsky’s numbers as of the date the Oilers re-signed him.

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The difference is striking. Hemsky’s shots were down by a third, the number of shots taken that went in were down by half, and his assist totals were down by one-third.

The reasons for the slump are open to debate. But the Oilers needed to decide whether or not Hemsky’s rough 2011-12 represented the new normal for him, or if it was a temporary lull after which he could be expected to return to his traditional levels of production.

Hemsky’s played 36 games since then; I don’t think the answer is 100 percent clear yet.

It’s Not A Choice, It’s A Lack Of Options

The other issue, one that was obvious at the time, was that somebody was going to play Hemsky’s minutes. At the time, it was not possible to know that the Oilers would end up drafting first overall and picking Nail Yakupov, but even if they had known that ahead of time it would have been folly to expect a fresh-faced rookie to step in and add the kind of scoring Hemsky is capable of.

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The free agent market was just as miserable. In terms of established offensive talent, there simply weren’t a lot of options. The Oilers could have gone hard after Zach Parise, or they would have been stuck trying to attract a Ray Whitney, Jaromir Jagr, Alex Semin or Jiri Hudler to town.

Right now, it looks like the 41-year old Jagr would have turned out pretty good. He got a one-year, $4.55 million contract from Dallas. The simple fact is that to replace Hemsky, the Oilers would have been forced to gamble that they could attract one of the few scoring options on the market, and they would be spending roughly the same money.

Alternatively, they could have let Hemsky go, and made a second line out of some combination of Ryan Smyth, Magnus Paajarvi, Teemu Hartikainen or Linus Omark (since at the time it seemed likely they would be picking after the Yakupov selection). While a possible choice, at some point the ‘dwell in the NHL basement and collect draft picks’ phase of a rebuild has to give way to a ‘make the team better’ segment, and keeping Hemsky was a necessary first step.

The Long Run

The Oilers opted to sign Hemsky to a bridge deal – they gave him money, but not term. His $5 million per season was a respectable figure, but the Oilers only committed to it for two seasons – allowing them flexibility if Hemsky failed to return to form, or if the combination of youth on expiring contracts/a falling salary cap (keep in mind that Hemsky was signed before the new CBA came into being) forced the team to shed dollars. It was a sensible choice at the time, and it looks pretty good in retrospect.

It seems likely that at some point in the near future, Hemsky will be a casualty of the salary cap, and the internal difficulties of keeping a trio of right wings – Hemsky, Yakupov and Jordan Eberle – in the system long-term. Hemsky’s the oldest of the group, and his injuries over the years have doubtless made the team hesitant to write him into the long-term plans. At this time next year, the Oilers will face the same decision they did a year ago – to sign Hemsky to a new deal, to trade him at the deadline, or to hang on to him and lose him for nothing in the summer.

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If and when Hemsky does leave, I’ll be disappointed. For years, he’s been far and away the most entertaining player on the team, a uniquely gifted forward and on some nights one of the few reasons to watch a team bound for another year in the basement. He’s been called soft, and it’s been suggested at times that he’s lazy, but he’s a guy who seemingly never hesitated to take a hit to make a play, or sacrifice his body to retrieve a puck in the corner, and to me that says more about his on-ice character and his willingness than hit totals, interviews, or what time he leaves practice ever will.

But if Hemsky leaves town because it doesn’t make sense for the team to keep him, I’ll understand that. That could be the case a year from now. It certainly wasn’t the case a year ago.


  • He is so fearless in the offensive zone. Not just in the traditional “going to the tough areas” sense but he tries so many different things as a puck carrier. To see him take the puck behind the net, come out around, and take a long skate around to the blue line brings a smile to my face every time.

  • I admit – i thought all of the negative mentioned above.
    You made me eat crow Hemmer, i am enjoying every bite.
    Keep it up bud. I stand and applaud you efforts this year.

    Just change the +/- please !
    Damn Rookies ! lol

    All out Tuesday OILERS !! 57 shots.
    Pound pound pound…

  • roughneck wrote:

    Shane O’Brien getting posterized warms the very essence of my being.

    Had lunch with my dad (a Canucks fan) today, and I ended up showing him the Hemsky goal.

    “He pulled the pants off that defenceman,” he said.

    “Yeah, that’s your old buddy Shane O’Brien.”

    He laughed and laughed.

  • striatic

    i applauded the Hemsky deal at the previous deadline, and yet i think the time to move Hemsky is at the deadline this year.

    a lot has changed since the last deadline, and i think the time to sell high on Hemsky is now.

    sell to a playoff bound team along with a depth defenseman [peckham, teubert, potter] for a young second or third pairing defenseman on a great contract. that kind of thing.

    • striatic

      if Dallas is bad enough, they’re going to be trading him somewhere this year.

      if Edmonton somehow miraculously manages to be in playoff position, and Dallas implodes following this Lehtonen injury, maybe we can get him this year!

    • Time Travelling Sean

      Not on that play, but as a Hemsky fan for years (and fan of his contract last year) I like to tell myself that a large % of the D in the league would have been pants on that move.

      Good article JW – the mgmt. gets a lot of flak for mistakes & inaction. Props deserve be handed out when due.**

      **please, please ST give us more reasons to sing your praises**

  • We need to trade him, while his stock is at a high.

    Let me begin by saying I am a huge Hemsky fan, but he is worth more now than he has in the last three years.

    Hands up who thinks we can sign Hemsky for less then what he makes now?

    We are going to have cap issues soon, Hemsky can bring a fairly good return.

    Yakupov should be ready next year.

    Add it up, Hemsky is the odds on favorite to be traded.

  • DSF

    Hemsky has played well. What if were 11th 6 points out on April 5th? Will a team like New York come calling with a deal that makes sense enough that Hemsky is traded? I am concerned that Tambo lacks the wherewithall to pull the trigger for fear of making the wrong decsion.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    The best player during the darkest era ever of Oilers hockey. Have to wonder what he would’ve accomplished if he was drafted by the Wings. With a much stronger supporting cast he may have been a 7.5 per yr player.