For the past few years, one of the few constants in Edmonton (other than losing) has been trade rumours involving Ales Hemsky. Coaches come, coaches go; GMs come, GMs go; other players come; other players go. But Hemsky endures.
In 2012, the Oilers faced a decision with Hemsky. He had blossomed in 2005-06 and then enjoyed three very productive years during the first half of his six-year deal. He missed a lot of games due to injury in 2009-10 and ’10-11, undergoing two shoulder surgeries. Despite all of this, he was 32nd in the NHL in points-per-game from 2005 to 2011 (min. 100 games played). He continued to experience some difficulty with his shoulder and his 2011-12 campaign got off to a slow start. He didn’t put up the points that people had come to expect from him. Still, the Oilers and Hemsky agreed to a two-year extension late in February of 2012. It seemed like a good bet at the time—Hemsky had a pretty lengthy track record of very good production and was coming off two shoulder surgeries in two years.
The primary concern at the time of Hemsky’s 2012 extension was his health. He had missed 98 of the Oilers’ preceding 224 games due to shoulder surgeries. But health hasn’t really been a concern for Hemsky since then, he’s appeared in 110 of the Oilers’ 128 games and 17 of the 18 contests he missed were due to freak injuries—a Jeff Petry turnover in Detroit emnded in Hemsky being caught with a shot that broke his foot last season, and he missed another seven games this season after Luke Gazdic struck him in the foot with a shot. Those aren’t chronic injuries—they’re accidents that could happen to any player.
The more troubling issue with Hemsky is that his production has yet to return to the level that he established from 2005 to 2011. Some of that is due to a change in role. The Oilers have, to a degree, turned over their power play to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall. Hemsky’s become a second power-play unit player, with a corresponding decrease in his PP TOI and scoring.
But it’s the decline in Hemsky’s even-strength play that is more difficult to comprehend. Detailed statistics for 5v5 play become readily available from the 2007-08 season forward. From 2007 to 2011, a period that encompassed one of Hemsky’s two shoulder surgeries and was ended by his second shoulder surgery, he was a very productive 5v5 player for the Oilers. Hemsky was 33rd in the NHL in 5v5 points per 60 minutes, despite the Oilers not being a particularly strong team. But from the 2011-12 season to now, Hemsky’s 5v5 production has fallen off a cliff. He’s gone from 2.2 points per 60 minutes of 5v5 play to 1.4, an astonishing decline. The most intriguing thing about his decline is that it’s tightly tied up with a decline in the Oilers shooting percentage at 5v5 with Hemsky on the ice.
From 2007 to 2011, the Oilers shot 9.1 percent at 5v5 with Hemsky on the ice. That’s a very good number—it places Hemsky 69th out of the 504 players who played at least 2,000 minutes of 5v5 in that time. But it’s not so good that significant regression is assured though—a 9.1 percent mark is not extraordinary for players with first line talent. From 2011 to now, the Oilers have shot 7.0 percent with Hemsky on the ice. That doesn’t sound like a huge difference—2.1 percentage points—but the other way to express it is that about 23 percent of the goals scored with Hemsky on the ice have dried up. When you examine his 5v5 play from other angles, Hemsky seems like a similar player to what he was in the past—he shoots the puck nearly as frequently and he’s tied with Ryan Smyth as the Oilers’ best regular forward in terms of Corsi% this year.
On-ice shooting percentage is in many ways the wildcard of hockey. It’s hugely important, but it waxes and wanes without much rhyme or reason. Sometimes they go in. Sometimes they don’t. Hemsky enjoyed his best 5v5 seasons playing largely with a player who had good hands (Dustin Penner) and a meat-and-potatoes centre in Shawn Horcoff. He hasn’t been able to recreate that with the cast he’s played the past few years. It’s possible that, paired with someone who plays a more Penner-like game (something the Oilers perpetual rebuild has been looking for since approximately the moment they traded Dustin Penner), this issue resolves itself.
The end result of this is that Hemsky is a pretty intriguing player come deadline day. If the Oilers have decided to move on, as various insiders have suggested, then he’s essentially going to be auctioned off with no reserve price.
He’d probably make the most sense for a dark horse looking to catch lightning in a bottle. The Eastern Conference seems like the best place to find such a team, given that there are two favourites (Boston and Pittsburgh), both of which have significant holes and could plausibly lose in a short series. Other than that, there are about seven or eight Eastern Conference teams that a) don’t seem particularly great, but b) have an excellent chance at the playoffs in a conference with two flawed leaders.
For such a team, with an opening at right wing, Hemsky would be a wise roll of the dice. The major problem that he’s had since 2011—a low shooting percentage when he’s on the ice at 5v5—is one that that’s prone to disappearing. He hasn’t been on a very good team, he’s relatively young and he has a long pre-2011-12 track record of production. For teams looking for low-cost, high-reward bets at the trade deadline, it’s hard to think of a better option.