GDB 20.0: HORCOFF RETURNS

For the past five seasons, when things went wrong for the Oilers you could always fall back to one thing, "Blame Horcoff." It didn’t matter what was ailing the Oilers it seemed it was always Horcoff’s fault, mainly due to his $5.5 million cap it. If the Oilers top line wasn’t scoring, and Horcoff wasn’t on it, it was still his fault.

On my radio show it became somewhat of a cult mantra. People would end their texts or emails with Blame Horcoff. Mainly it was a parody of South Park’s "Blame Canada," but the odd person believed it to be true.

If Horcoff was still here, he likely would have been blamed for not stopping Nail Yakupov from going public with his frustrations. It was a simpler time for some Oilers fans, because no matter what went wrong you could always blame one guy.

Horcoff is gone, but surprisingly (not at all) the struggles of the Oilers remain.

Horcoff played 796 games as an Oiler, 5th most all-time behind Kevin Lowe (1,037), Ryan Smyth (911), Mark Messier (851) and Glenn Anderson (845).  He is 9th all-time in goals and points, and despite what some feel he was a solid Edmonton Oiler for 12 seasons.

Horcoff is playing just over 14 minutes a game for the Stars, mainly on the third line, switching between wing and centre, and recently he was put on the 2nd unit PP for a net-front presence. Horcoff’s game was never flashy, but he earned his icetime over the years. He started out as a 4th line centre, and worked his way up to the top line, and he was the #1 centre and leading point getter amongst forwards when the Oilers went to game seven of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals.

He was unfairly vilified because his owner and general manager overpaid him. It was never his fault the Daryl Katz and Kevin Lowe signed him to a $33 million contract, but many people expected him to be an elite player after that deal. It never happened, because Horcoff was never an elite scorer. He was a tireless worker, who could produce offensively, but he wasn’t going to be a consistent 75-point player.

I never felt bad for Horcoff, and neither did he. He knew the expectations would be raised when he signed that deal, and at the time he signed his six-year contract he felt he could produce. We all believe we are worth what we make. If your boss came into your office today and offered to triple your salary, you’d gladly accept it, and feel that you are worth it.

The Oilers could use a 27-year-old Shawn Horcoff right now. A guy who could produce offensively, 73 points, but knew how to play defence, and actually loved the challenge of going against  the likes of Joe Thornton, Pavel Datsyuk or Ryan Getzlaf. Horcoff wasn’t the biggest guy, but his work ethic and smarts allowed him to battle and often shut down the opposition’s star players.

The final few seasons of Horcoff’s career in Edmonton weren’t very good. The team was a consistent bottom-feeder and he missed almost half of two seasons. This summer was the right time for him to leave, but I always felt he was under appreciated as a player due to his final contract with the Oilers.

QUICK COMPARISON….

Yesterday, Nail Yakupov went public with his frustrations about a lack of icetime. Every player wants to play more, so he isn’t alone with his thinking, but rarely do players go public about it, especially after only 65 NHL games. Yakupov choose that route and some feel it will cause a rift in the room or with management. Only time will tell if that occurs, but many have compared Yakupov to Steven Stamkos so I did a quick comparison of their first 65 NHL games.

No comparison is completely fair or accurate because the players had different coaches, teammates and other factors. Most notably, Yakupov’s first 65 games were interrupted by a six-month summer break. It is difficult to start a season how you ended the previous one, but the comparison does give us some insight into how these two snipers were used.

FIRST 65 GAMES

Stamkos                                                        Yakupov
14-19-33 points                                           19-16-35 points
13:47 TOI/game                                           14:47 TOI/game
2:22 PP TOI/game                                       2:25 PP TOI/game

Yakupov was upset over his icetime in his previous four games. In Yakupov’s first 65 games he had 11:45 or less of TOI seven times. In Stamkos’ first 65 games he had 22 games with 11:45 or less of TOI.

Stamkos was a healthy scratch three times, while Yakupov has been a healthy scratch twice. Yakupov is -18 in his career while Stamkos was -14 in his first 65 games.

Barry Melrose was fired after only 16 games into Stamkos’ rookie season, and his replacement Rick Tocchet didn’t automatically start playing Stamkos more. Stamkos earned his icetime, and he gained a lot of momentum in the 2nd half of his season.

Ironically enough, in the final 14 games of his rookie season (game 66 to 79) Stamkos scored 9 goals and 13 points. He continued that pace into the next season and he has been the most prolific goal scorer since the beginning of the 2009 season.

I don’t see Yakupov emulating Stamkos’ success, mainly because it would be extremely difficult, but also because Stamkos skates better than Yakupov. Both are former #1 overall picks, but their games are very different.

I said yesterday I didn’t have a major issue with Yakupov saying what he said. He is frustrated, and he willingly made his comments. They weren’t done in the heat of the moment after a bad loss. He had 40 hours to think about his plan, and he elected to go through with it.

His agent, Igor Larionov, had two contract disputes in his career, so I can see why he didn’t advise his client to stay quiet. Larionov has never been afraid to stand up to management, although he wasn’t 20 years old and only 65 games into his NHL career when he made his stance.

I don’t think Yakupov’s comments will change much. Dallas Eakins isn’t going to be pressured into playing him more, considering Yakupov is averaging 15:28/game this season, and I doubt Yakupov is suddenly going to become a great defensive player. For the past year I’ve stated the Oilers were going to have to deal one of their four kids, and Yakupov’s comments might make that decision a little bit easier, but that is about the only impact I feel his comments will make.

When you compare his icetime to young players around the NHL in their first 65 games, he hasn’t been treated unfairly. I’m glad he wants to play more. You wouldn’t want a guy who was satisfied with his icetime, but his play will earn him more icetime, not venting publicly.

One other quick comparison between Yakupov and the other young Oiler draft picks.

Here is their point totals in their first 65 NHL games.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins:  22-34-56 
Taylor Hall: 22-20-42
Jordan Eberle: 18-23-41
Ales Hemsky: 8-29-37
Nail Yakupov: 19-16-35
Sam Gagner: 7-28-35

Hall (18), RNH (17), Eberle (17), Gagner (15) had more icetime in their first 65 games, while Hemsky played 12:20 if you look at TOI. Every situation is different of course, and in the NHL there is no such thing as "fair." But it is interesting to look at how each of them started their NHL career.

LINEUP

Perron-RNH-Eberle
Hall-Gagner-Hemsky
Smyth-Arcobello-Yakupov
Joensuu-Gordon-Jones

Ference-Petry
Belov-Larsen
N.Schultz-Potter

Dubnyk

The Oilers sent Taylor Fedun down to OKC and called up Potter. They want a bigger body and a heavy shot on the 2nd PP unit. Fedun had an unreal start to his NHL career, and he will be back, but he needs to get a touch faster. He made a great first impression. Potter might be bigger, but he rarely plays big. He’ll be highly motivated to play well, at least he should be, because if he doesn’t he likely won’t get another one-way NHL contract.

SYSTEM TALK

There has been lots of talk about Eakins system and how it is costing the Oilers games. Eakins tweaked the system after seven games, because the players couldn’t play it, however, the current system is not that difficult according to some veterans. 

"It is just about recognition, said Nick Schultz."You have to be looking around; too often we get to puck focused. You need to take a quick look at the puck, but you need to be aware of your position and your man. We have to work away from the puck and have recognition. 

"I think any system in the league, regardless of where you play, is pretty similar. You are either attacking or sitting back and it is just a matter of understanding your position, and where you have to be in all situations on the ice. Whether it is forechecking, coming through the neurtral zone or in the D-zone every player has to know where to go. You have to be aware of what your job is and where you are. You have to be able to rely on one another. I think we are starting to show spurts of that, but we need to be able to do it all the time," Nick Schultz said. 

Schultz played in Minnesota where they won because of their system. They didn’t have as much skill as other teams, but they were dedicated and committed to their system. Once the Oilers can rely on one another in every area on the ice, they will win, but the players have to be willing to do it. The system is not the issue. The players need to execute it properly more often.

Captain Andrew Ference said this yesterday on my show about their defensive zone coverage.,

It is unfortunate when you look at the goals we are giving up they are a product of our mistakes more than the other team taking it too us all game and finally breaking through. We have been doing a much better job defensively in D zone coverage lately, clogging up the other teams chances and their time, but as you call them the five-star mistakes are costing us games. 

"Hockey is not complicated; no system is a big math equation. It is just concentration, consistency and it is almost 100% mental. It is just resetting yourself after a good shift, resetting yourself after a bad shift and just not carrying baggage from past games or past weeks or past shifts.

It is just focusing on what you are going to do on the next 30-40 second span. It is a tough thing. It is a very easy thing to talk about, but much harder to implement. It is easier the longer you play, because you learned how to do it. But it is hard to learn to do it consistently."  

The Oilers system isn’t unique, but the players are still trying to learn to play it consistently. They have improved recently, but when they make a mistake it is usually a major error and results in a goal. They need to become more consistent in their decisions and actions, and when they do, they should have more success. But it won’t be easy, it will require every player being willing to commit 100% of the time. 

TONIGHT

GAME DAY PREDICTION: The Oilers have one home win in six starts. The fans are restless, and the Oilers will finally give them something to cheer about with a 4-3 victory.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Horcoff scores. On a one-timer. Ex-Oilers always score vs. the Oilers. Edmonton-born Vern Fiddler will get an assist on the goal.

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION:
Philip Larsen gets in on the "scoring against former team" and he scores a PP goal midway through the second frame. Larsen has five points in five games so far this season and he maintains his point-per-game pace. 

RECENTLY BY JASON GREGOR 

 

  • OilClog

    Jason, I was wondering if you think that the Yakupov situation is such that this damaged relationship can be salvaged?

    It seems now that all eyes will be on Yaks and this can’t help his situation. Anytime a players goes public against his team…….eventually a trade follows.

    As far as Horcoff goes, good team player void of any offensive talent. I hope he does well in Dallas but cant help but notice he is being utilized in a fourth line role, which suits his skill set. Had he been used this way in Edmonton, no one would have said much.

    • Jason Gregor

      I don’t think it is that bad. He is frustrated, it happens often in sports.

      Yakupov has put the pressure on himself, but if he plays well I don’t see it being an issue long-term. If he pouts or doesn’t play well then that could be an issue.

  • **

    Oilers will lose this one 4-1. Yakupov will be benched again.

    Jason, I think it was on your show that a former Tampa GM was on the phone and he talked about how he traded Jokinen in february of Stamkos’ first season in order to allow Stamkis to play more because they recognized he was the future even though Jokinen was playing well. Stamkos finished tat season with -9, and mind you he plays centre, so it was more important for him to be defensively sound than it is for Yakupov.

    Do you think the fact that Hemsky is still around has affected Yakupov’s handling by the coaching staff?. The way I see the Oilers management and coaching have been pumping Hemsky’s tires quite a bit in order to gather interest from other teams, even with Eakins saying he wished there were more Hemsky’s on the ice, even though Hemsky is -12 right now.

    • Jason Gregor

      That is a good question.

      Jokinen was placed on waivers on Feb 04th, 2009, no one claimed him, and then we was traded three days later for Melichar, Brookbank and a 4th round pick.

      In the 10 games prior to being traded he played 10-12 minutes. He wasn’t really holding Stamkos back at that time.

      If Hemsky was gone, I’m not sure Yakupov would suddenly be making better decisions. He likely would be getting a bit more icetime, but right now Yakupov is getting 2 min less a game overall.

      So he’d get three extra shifts a game if he took Hemsky’s spot. Eventually I think Hemsky will get moved, but they likely want Yakupov to show improvement so when Hemsky leaves he can fill, or better yet, exceed Hemsky’s impact in games.

      • **

        Fair point. In the end it’s up to each player to make the most of their chances. Ditto for Arcobello.

        I remember in the preseason the talk was that the Oilers weren’t tough enough. They added a big, engaging 4th line that fought I think 3 times in the first 4 games and the Oilers were playing well, they just got terrible goal tending (and the game in Vancouver).

        My mother gave me her two cents yesterday, partly because she’s heard me talk about the Oilers a little too much lately. She said it looks to her like they play afraid, not trusting each other, that they need to become a family.

        It was a typical mother comment but it made me think that these guys began the season playing with more grit because they knew there were guys ready to step up. The season began going the wrong way, tough players began to play less or even got traded (Brown), and suddenly the Oilers don’t seem confident to eve throw a hit. They keep trying to check opposing players with their sticks rather than going for the man.

  • OilClog

    Horc is slotted as a fourth line center for the Stars. He would be probably be second line or even first line centre on some nights for the Oilers. He wasn’t a bad guy, just overpaid by KLO. And as you have said on your radioshow, he wasnt’ the best Oil Captain in terms of community involvement. Bottom line for me: B grade.