Ales Hemsky and the Edmonton Oilers’ rebuild

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Ales Hemsky didn’t pretend that he knew how to fix the Edmonton Oilers when he was asked about his former team. But he did tell reporters in Ottawa that it was time for the young stars on the team to shoulder the load.

Hemsky’s Comments

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I don’t know how to explain it. If somebody knew, they should step up and help them, but they haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe it’s just the kids. They have to step up and lead the team to the playoffs. They’ve been there for a long time and it’s their time, you know. They can’t only blame older guys or change their fourth line. They’ve got to start leading the team to the playoffs. Be leaders. That’s probably the one thing. But they are all great guys and I had a great time and hopefully they will turn it around and get into the playoffs. People deserve it there, you know. It’s a hockey city. People love their hockey and it’s painful.

– via Ken Warren of the Ottawa Citizen

It’s funny the degree to which Hemsky sounds like so many average Oilers fans. While everybody seemingly has their pet theory on how to improve the Oilers, there does seem to be a definite sense of confusion as to how the team can still be so bad given various improvements on the roster. With that confusion has come a firm belief for many that the old habits – complaining about the fourth line, using players like Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff as scapegoats – simply don’t address the problem.

Culture

Hemsky’s well clear of that scapegoat role now. Part of the Oilers problem may have been revealed in his answer to a question after he recorded three assists in a win over Winnipeg. 

“Like I said, it’s fun again to be in the race,” Hemsky said, when asked whether it was easier to get excited about games in Ottawa. “I wasn’t in the race for a long time. I love those type of games, you play for something and it’s a lot of fun.”

Craig MacTavish made it clear over the summer that he was going to move both Hemsky and Horcoff to other teams if he could (ultimately he dealt Horcoff to Dallas but retained Hemsky until this year’s deadline). Prior to either deal, the Oilers’ general manager told TSN 1260 that “sometimes change is good” for a player, and it’s not difficult to imagine how years of playing out the string could grind down a player. 

His predecessor, Steve Tambellini, had hoped to bring a “culture change” to the Oilers organization. He did: he brought a culture where players had to suffer through long stretches of essentially pointless hockey. It’s not hard to see the moves to acquire people like Andrew Ference and David Perron and Boyd Gordon and Matt Hendricks as MacTavish’s attempt to bring in fresh voices, players who weren’t weighed down by years of trying to find the motivation to give everything in meaningless games.

However…

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While Hemsky’s comments about the Oilers’ young players needing to drive the team are accurate, that’s not enough. Neither is the addition of veteran players who haven’t suffered through years of losing. 

The last time the Oilers made the playoffs, the team’s defensive depth chart in the post-season looked like this:

  • Chris Pronger (averaged 30:57 TOI)
  • Jaroslav Spacek (averaged 25:52 TOI)
  • Jason Smith (averaged 22:28 TOI)
  • Steve Staios (averaged 21:31 TOI)
  • Marc-Andre Bergeron (averaged 14:55 TOI)
  • Dick Tarnstrom (averaged 13:59 TOI)
  • Matt Greene (averaged 10:03 TOI)

The current incarnation of the group doesn’t have a Pronger, obviously. But it also doesn’t have a Spacek or a Smith and there’s a pretty decent case it doesn’t even have a Staios, who at the time was a physical defender who could chip in 25+ points and handle tough minutes.

It’s disappointing that the Oilers keep losing games, and when a team is so bad for so long there’s no question that the problems are myriad. But the main problem isn’t the one Hemsky pointed to directly, or the one I’ve drawn from his comment on playing for Ottawa. 

The main problem is that the Oilers don’t have a single top-pairing defenceman, play the guys they have over their heads and have rounded out the current group with a bottom pair comprised of AHL-calibre defencmen. There was a pretty decent group of defenceman even when Tambellini inherited the team; he traded them down to nothing and MacTavish hasn’t done nearly enough yet to fix that hole.

Until he does, the Oilers will keep losing. 

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • S0DAP0PS

    “They can’t only blame older guys or change their fourth line” – was this a comment regarding the young guys or the management placing the blame?

  • S0DAP0PS

    So I guess it all hangs in the balance of the off-season moves. We can all pray the D is addressed. We can all try and be optimistic. We await your moves Mac T

  • Dan 1919

    I’ve always liked Hemsky and am glad to see him playing meaningful hocky again, but I agree with JW, Hemsky’s comments weren’t very accurate. Until they get NHL d-men they’re shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

    I think his comments are simply some much deserved retribution from when theses young guys started coming in and everyone assumed the 18 year olds were going to be better than the proven Hemsky’s and Horcoff’s. The vets were treated like chopped liver, Hemsky simply just left them with the chop liver that was thrown on him 4 years ago. Nothing personal, minor politics. Good luck Hemsky.

  • Craig MacTambeloweni

    I personally believe that it will be next to impossible to get a top pairing dman who is any good in the offseason via trade/free agency. Think Sheldon Souray as the highest skill level we’ll achieve, and then think about overpaying him for a long term, and giving him a NMC…Right now I truly believe that earliest we’ll win a cup is when Nurse/Klefbom are in their prime years, or at least playing at a high level.

    Guys like Hall (offensive superstars) get picked #1 overall at the draft, but the defensemen behind them take a lot longer to develop, and those years of building a player end up adding to his value once they’re fully developed, as he ends up helping the team win just as much or more than a high scoring winger. So Hall could be traded for a Pietrangelo, but if you’re the Blues, would you do that trade straight up? Especially if you’re already winning, largely due to this dman? Maybe, but it’s a tough trade to do, next to impossible.

  • S0DAP0PS

    we like to develop and understand patterns/trends at work. for safety purposes and lessons learned. there is great benefit to this.

    i think some very clear ones are showing true these days. i think the fans have seen and spoke of the patterns/trends for quite some time now. management hopefully knows what they are. alas, knowing isn’t doing. as evidenced as an Oilers fan.

  • Tikkanese

    Hemsky must wake up feeling like a new man. He’s too classy to ever say it, but the Kids were given the Gold Key without ever earning it and now, the inmates run the asylum here.

    I’m happy for him that he was able to get out.

  • I think Oilers have to stop chasing the biggest and newest SHINY STARS. Forget chasing Webber types, and find something down the stream that can give you credible service until the Nurses, Schultz’s mature. You might overpay , but its better than watching Fraser and Larsen night after night.

    Maszeros would have been a decent chase, he’s good enough for the Bruins , but not the Oilers.

    I think some of this Star chasing is infulenced by
    Mr Katz himself,,, nothing is too good for us, I can buy anything I want. { Heatly, Hossa }.No everyone wants to come to a perpetual looser, that has been perpetrated by his man Mr Six Rings.

  • CMG30

    I agree. Put aside the coaches for a minute, every year the defense level has been getting worse and when you combine that with the abysmal goal tending we got to start this season we’re on track to finish with the worst record in Oilers history.

    In order to fix that we either need to wait for the AHL talent to graduate (too slow) or make a trade (no guarantee the deal is out there and what do you give up if it is?) or ideally you sign some free agents.

    Now the Oilers are in a bit of a catch 22. Free agents will sign for 2 main reasons. Money is one reason, but the biggest is to take a shot at the cup. So, Edmonton needs some talented free agents to start winning but in order to sign those free agents it would really help to have a winning team…

  • Bonvie

    Hmmm, interesting insider perspective. I think the phrase ‘need to step up and lead’ is interchangeable with need to care about winning.

    Far too long the compete level on this team has been nil. The games where they are fired up, the Oilers are a force. I remember a game against the Blues last year where the Oilers gave just as well as they got. They won that game against a team that has typically been the Oilers bane.

    I do think one of the kids needs to go. Management needs to send the message that if you’re not going to step up, you’ll be asked to step out.

    Having said that I do agree we need some help on defence. I don’t think it will take Shae Webber, but it will likely need 2 solid additions bump everyone down the depth chart, and get someone to play with J Schultz.

    Here’s hoping for some stop gaps while we wait for Nurse, Klefbomb, Ekblad, and or Marincin to develop into the one two guys. How long did it take Webber, 5 years? 4?

  • CMG30

    Oilers have never known how to build a team, they pick AllStars and think that is the way. Aside from 2006 Oilers have been horrible at building a team. Nothing is going to change until you clean house. You can fire X and say the rebuild starts today but that is getting old.

    Why is this team getting worse ? the players are not progressing. Oilers ruin players.

  • CMG30

    It was unfortunate the year started as it did, to my eye the oilers actually played well but were let down by horrible goaltending, maybe that was just a string if OK games but I am wondering if the system in place was actually ok but the results (losses due to horrible goaltending) changed the way the system was used or the players mindset of playing within that system?

    JW what would the oilers record hypothetically have been if they had the shot totals and chances of the first ten games with the goaltending of the last 10 games? Ballpark?

  • bazmagoo

    I go to work and do a crappy job at what I do. But I go home and maybe I don’t feel great about my day but I feel secure knowing that my boss does an even worse job then me. And his boss does a worse job than him! And the owner of my company is never around anyways nor does he hold any of us accountable for our crappy work.

    It’s not a mystery why my company sucks.

  • CMG30

    There is conventional wisdom and then there is Kevin Lowe.

    Most build from the back end out……there is a reason for this , it takes longer to develop defence man than forwards.

    Had we been trading down and selecting players that were the BPA based on our needs, we would not be in this mess.

    Our strategy or lack thereof is all on the shoulders of Kevin Lowe. Gretzky was biting his tongue the whole time he was being interviewed…….speed and skill at the expense of everything else is a STUPID strategy.

    • Zarny

      And yet none of Chi, LA, Bos, Chi, Pit, Det or Ana followed “conventional wisdom”.

      There isn’t one way to build a winner. You simply have to have all the pieces in place to win.

      • Sevenseven

        ” you simply have to have all the pieces in place to win”.

        WOW Zarny , did you stay up all night doing research to come up with this great line of wisdom.

        • mesa

          Haha I laughed at that too, but he is saying there is no magic formula, and whatever team wins the cup (how they became good or are built is the trend for the next year).

          Studies have shown though if you score more times then the other team you will win…small sample size though.

      • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

        True I will give you that, but we have no options as do those teams you mentioned,………mainly because no good UFA wants to come to Edmonton.

        Why you ask……look at the way we generally treat players.

    • Craig MacTambeloweni

      If you are correct then why has Nashville not won many cups. If we would have drafted all of those defence prospects instead of the top forwards, then we would still not be in the playoffs, and then you would be blaming Lowe for drafting defence and not forwards like Chicago and Pittsburg did.

  • bazmagoo

    It seems pretty obvious to me that the never ending rebuild was started by Katz and Kevin Lowe, so I’m not sure scape goating Steve Tambellini really accomplishes anything. Yes, he did nothing. Was he told to do nothing? Most likely yes as well. Can’t really blame the guy for doing his job as directed by his boss.

    • Word to the Bird

      I can’t help but doubt Tambellini was explicitly told to do nothing. I think Tambellini was too afraid to mess up and trade a potential star for pieces the team needed to win hockey games. This led to him being too afraid to make any significant move.

  • Word to the Bird

    conventional wisdom would be a breath of fresh air.lowe and katz live in the 80’s…conventional hockey these days is defence.ask Pittsburgh.conventional hockey is building a great defence with good goaltending and you have a chance every year. new jersey Detroit boston.enough is enough and lets use conventional wisdom and hire an experienced crew and start winning more games.the kids need to get some tough love and start playing like they can.no more excuses

  • I disagree J.W. I’ll post this again.

    As much as everyone likes to talk about how bad our d-men are, I would bet $$$ that even if we had a hall of famer at every position in our top 6 defence we would still not be a playoff team.

    Why? Well, imagine the puck is dumped into our zone and YOU are the first d-man on the scene. You have 2 real options:

    1. Pass to your d-partner behind the net.

    2. Pass to your winger on the half-wall.

    3. Pass to your center in front of your own net.

    4. Try a stretch pass through many opposition players or ice the puck or put it hard off the glass and out and hope it’s not icing.

    5. Deke a guy.

    If you choose #1, then you are simply restarting this process, and THAT d-man has the same 2 choices.

    So pretty much, it is option #2 ALL DAY: move it along the boards to your winger.

    And here is where the problems begin. Most of the time the strong-side winger isn’t even there. Even when he is there he is usually at a stand-still and easy pickings for a forechecker, or worse the winger is on the wrong side of the puck and is cheating for offence resulting in an easy pickoff and odd-man rush against.

    But let’s pretend the winger gets the puck on the half-wall. He has 1 real option:

    1. Kick it square across to the center.

    2. Chip it past the opposing d-man and out, icing it or otherwise relinquishing posession.

    3. Try a risky stretch pass cross-ice to the other winger which even if successful will only result in a 1 on 2 attack.

    4. Deke a guy.

    5. Drop it back to the d-man in which case we repeat the first process all over.

    Not many choices are there? The solution? Puck support.The Oilers break out too far apart from each other, leaving the puck carrier with few options. These young forwards seem to think that the only way to score is on the rush and by leaving the zone early.

    Until these top 6ers, the core of our team, realize how to defend and support the puck together in their own zone, little progress is going to be made. Until that time, Eakins is going to have to spank these kids and put them to bed without their supper for not doing their homework.

    THIS is why teams focus on defense. All the firepower in the world can’t help you get out of your own zone. Ekblad or Ehrhoff or both won’t change that.

    • Bonvie

      All of what you said is exactly on point. I think people still want to blame the third and fourth lines and or defensive depth. Although I feel we definitely need one Defenseman maybe two, but the Defenseman that needs to be added is right on the very top of the depth chart. Anybody that has played defense knows when you are paired with a very good Defenseman everything becomes easy you always have a safe out, its clear we lack this guy.

      I believe the makeup of our top 6 needs to be overhauled to place some size and grit in the top of our lineup. Watching that game with the kings that 2nd line was targeted all game long by the LA coach even more so then our fourth line. The lineup of Eberle, Nugent, and Yakapov was absolutely terrible giving up several grade A chances on every shift they stepped on the ice. They are absolutely overwhelmed when playing against the other teams top players very soft on both walls and baby Nuge also struggled in finding his man in the high slot, and winning his battles.

      Just to add an important point as far as the Hemsky comment the bottom spots of our roster matters very little, yet people on most of these fan sites are fixated on the play of the likes of Jones, Gadzic, and our depth Dmen. In reality it boils down to our top 6 forwards and top 3 Defenseman. When these 9 players can be better than the other teams top players we will win games. All the other spots can be filled and refilled off waivers, minor league call ups whatever doesn’t even matter, the difference will be insignificant and incremental.

  • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

    It would be interesting to know how teams prepare to play the oilers? What are the conversations like? Do teams go in just expecting to win?

    I’m all for seeing Eberle gone. He adds nothing to the team. He just hasn’t impressed me. My expectations on nuge has dropped as well. He just seems different, no more pedigree.

  • OilClog

    Actually the main problem is what Hemsky alluded to.

    “They” haven’t figured it out.

    Which means management hasn’t figure out the Defence.

    Meaning Hemsky did allude to the problem.

    Whew, glad this article is another underhand shot at Hemsky from someone. Stick to stats.

  • OilClog

    Hemsky has six assists in two games(vs. winnipeg and againg tonight vs. Nashville) while playing with Spezza, either hes on a small scoring streak that will fade away shortly or hes been watching some his 05-06 gametapes and is going to start producing like a top six player for the first time in a while.

  • Bonvie

    JW: Earlier this year you did, I believe, a comparison of Renney, Krueger, and Eakins, west vs west only.

    In light of your findings on the Oilers Fenwick trend, what are the chances of an update?

    That would be very interesting with a bigger sample size for Eakins.