Big Decisions: Signing Ales Hemsky

Jonathan Willis
February 18 2013 03:57PM

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.