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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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?