Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On What to Do With Ales Hemsky

Today over at The Cult of Hockey an article was posted regarding the Columbus Blue Jackets' interest in Ales Hemsky. With the Blue Jackets holding the 8th overall selection in the upcoming NHL entry draft and looking to acquire NHL-ready talent, it should come as no surprise that Scott Howson would be calling up Steve Tambellini to inquire about the availability of the talented winger. Howson of course was second in command to Kevin Lowe for the Oilers when Hemsky entered the league as a rookie in 2002, and watched him develop over the years until he took on the title of GM in Columbus in 2007. Rumors were rampant last year at the trade deadline that Hemsky was available for the right price, so no doubt he will likely be available again at this years draft. So if the sources are correct, what should the Oilers do with the most skilled player on their roster?

Hemsky is entering the final year of his contract with the Oilers at very affordable cap hit of 4.1M. However with the final year of a contract comes impending unrestricted free agency. Over the past 6 seasons since the lockout, Hemsky has scored a total of 96-235-331 in 360 games and proven himself to be a first line winger on most NHL rosters. He has demonstrated a willingness to play hard in the corners, carry the puck into traffic, and take hits to make plays, often at the expense of his own body. His dynamic offensive skillset, high-end vision, and ability to make plays with the puck at top speed make him one of the premiere playmakers currently in the league. At his age he is entering the prime of his career, and he is certainly the type of player that could help turn around a struggling franchise. No doubt the Blue Jackets are interested in Hemsky on the hockey side as they have been looking for a set up man for Rick Nash ever since they drafted him, but also on the business side to help ice a winner in a market where fans are getting impatient.

Of course with the good in Hemsky also comes the bad. In the past 6 seasons where he has scored nearly a point per game, he has also missed 132 games due to injury. Worse yet, in the past 2 seasons he has only appeared in 69 out of 164 games. He has a tendency to overplay the puck which often leads to turnovers in the offensive zone, and there has also been questions raised in the past about his work ethic at practice. While the latter criticisms are issues that are typically resolved with experience and maturity, Hemsky's on-ice durability is the main concern going forward.

So with this in mind, which direction should the Oilers take? If there is a deal to be had with the Blue Jackets at the draft it is likely centered around the 8th overall selection coming back to the Oilers. With a draft class like this year's where the top-end talent is so spread out, the Oilers would likely get a decent prospect at #8 to go along with the player they take 1st overall. However the issue with moving more proven NHL talent in exchange for prospects is that it would likely mean another lottery pick for the Oilers at the 2012 NHL entry draft. While young talent is certainly a much sought after commodity in today's NHL, there is still something to be said about experience. At some point the Oilers will need to maintain or add some veteran presence to the roster, and with 8 years NHL experience there's no reason why Hemsky couldn't be part of it. Also at only 27 years of age Hemsky is still young enough to move forward with the growing pool of young talent the Oilers have acquired over the past few years. With Ales Hemsky the Oilers know exactly what they are getting, that is a point per game player when healthy. With a draft pick, there is still a significant amount of risk involved regardless of how highly touted a prospect may be. In my opinion it would be better to take the risk with Hemsky's health than with an 8th overall pick, especially considering that Stu MacGregor ranked this draft as only a B+. Unless the Blue Jackets are willing to pay a higher price, which Tambellini should be asking for, and likely is considering he wanted Brayden Schenn in return at the deadline from the LA Kings, I wouldn't consider moving Hemsky. Instead I would look at negotiating a contract extension which would see him through at least the entry level deals for Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi.

When the Oilers made the decision to move Penner instead of Hemsky at last year's trade deadline, Steve Tambellini must have gotten the impression from Hemsky that he was committed to the rebuild of this franchise. If this was the case then negotiations between both camps should start on July 1st. But just like with Ryan Smyth, if a deal is not in place come spring of 2012 then the Oilers need to move him at the deadline, as they can't allow a talent like his to walk away for nothing next summer.

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