Shawn Horcoff: Thankyou, and goodbye.

Shawn Horcoff.  The very mention of his name brings forth furious debate among Edmonton Oiler fans.  Following 13 years of service to the Oil Drop, the man who became a scapegoat for many and a shining beacon of hard work to others will now be pulling on another NHL sweater for the first time in his career.

MAKING HIS NAME

Image courtesy of oilers.nhl.com.

I became a fan of the Edmonton Oilers, and the NHL, in March of 2006.  At that time, the Oilers were in the midst of a stretch run battling to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003, and had finally managed to solidify their goaltending – which many felt was the straw that nearly broke the camel’s back that season – with the acquisition of Dwayne Roloson, a talented puckstopper earning his first true shot at a starting role.  Chris Pronger was of course the superstar on that team, the do-it-all defenceman considered one of the greatest of his era dominating the ice every time he stepped out for a shift.  Ryan Smyth was the hometown boy, the garbage-goalscorer extraordinaire and fan favourite who’s mullet-of-epic-proportions was as notable as his down-and-dirty style.  Ales Hemsky was the elite young playmaker, reveling in his breakout season whilst dancing around opposition defenders.

Celebrating with Ryan Smyth during the 2006 playoffs. Image courtesy of fulcrumgallery.com.

Others on that great team included young two-way center Jarret Stoll and his ever-so-slightly-crazy running mate Raffi Torres, Ethan Moreau and his fellow outstanding checkers Fernando Pisani and Radek Dvorak, former-Selke Trophy winning Mike Peca, the heavyweight enforcer Georges Laraque, tough defensive standouts Jason Smith and Steve Staios, promising rookie Matt Greene, the excellent Jaro Spacek, supremely skilled Sergei Samsonov, puck-mover Marc-Andre Bergeron and fourth line fixtures Rem “the Gem” Murray and Todd Harvey.

It was one hell of a team, but perhaps the most underrated piece of all: their new number one center.  Having a number one center, and I mean a true number one, not an “adequate” player like Tyler Bozak or David Legwand, is critical to a team striving for success.  The idea that the ability to score against the best the opposition can throw at you is important is something that is only now gaining traction in the minds of much of the NHL fanbase, and that’s exactly what Shawn Horcoff was in the heart of his career, beginning in that wonderful spring of 2006.  He scored 73 points in 79 games that season, an outstanding total and even better when you consider he also had a very important defensive role to play on the team, being an excellent penalty killer.

Horcoff scored 5 game winning goals that season, leading the team and greatly assisting them in making the playoffs in their final game of the season.  And he didn’t stop there.  Whilst players like Pronger, Hemsky, Roloson and Pisani garnered most the headlines for their phenomenal play, Horcoff was also a huge part of the run that saw the Oilers become one of the greatest 8th seeded teams in NHL history, upsetting President’s Trophy winners the Detroit Red Wings, the San Jose Sharks who possessed the Art Ross Trophy and Rocket Richard Trophy winners, the Anaheim [Mighty] Ducks with their superb mix of young and old stars, and took the well-rounded Carolina Hurricanes to 7 games in one of the most dramatic Stanley Cup Finals of recent times despite losing Roloson to injury in the first game.

Horcoff scored 7 goals and 19 points in 24 games that postseason, including 2 game winners.  He was the leading point scorer among Oiler forwards that year.

One of the most memorable goals of that entire playoff run came in Game 3 versus San Jose.  The Oilers were 2-0 down in the series, and were one overtime goal away from being in a 3-0 hole that would have been nigh-on-impossible to climb out of.  The two teams battled for nearly 120 minutes, before Horcoff buried a Ryan Smyth wrap-around attempt in the third OT period.

The team went on to win 4 straight games, and thus the series, before charging through Anaheim to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1990.

1st LINE MATERIAL?

Horcoff was frequently tasked with taking on the NHL’s best, such as Sidney Crobsy. Image courtesy of zimbio.com.

Shawn Horcoff was drafted 99th overall by Edmonton in the 1998 NHL Draft.  Not an area you’d expect to draft a future 1st line center, Horcoff had already played 2 seasons for Michigan State of the CCHA (NCAA), being drafted as a 19 year old.  The following two years he increased his production by a wide margin, culminating in 2000 with a spot on the 2nd CCHA All-Academic Team, the CCHA Player of the Year Award, and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award for the top college player.  All this whilst earning a degree in finance and mathematics!

He was signed by the Oilers, and was assigned to the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL to adjust to the pro game.  After dominating that league with 28 points in 24 games, he was called up later that year seeing 49 games and tallying 16 points in mostly a 4th line role.  He made the team full time the following year, but was still cast in a 4th line role.  His offensive output, even from that position, combined with his faceoff ability and defensive prowess earned him much recognition however.

In 2002/03, his role expanded as he played 78 games and scored 12 goals and 33 points, as well as 4 points in 6 playoff games, finally moving up the depth chart.  In 2003/04, he increased his output further to 40 points in 80 games, announcing his arrival perhaps as a top 6 forward, just.

Playing in the Swedish Elite League during the 2004/05 lockout, Horcoff says, helped his offensive game immeasurably.  It was certainly evident as he was one of that league’s leading scorers, and by the time the NHL returned in 2005/06, Horcoff entrenched himself as the team’s number one center early in the year and didn’t let go.  Piling up the points and enjoying a starring role on the aforementioned Cup Final team, he had announced himself on the world stage.

RAPID RISE, FASTER FALL

Facing-off against Marc Savard at the 2008 All-Star Game. Image courtesy of zimbio.com.

The next season, the Oilers’ first difficult year of many following the departures of Chris Pronger and many of their other playoff stars, saw Horcoff’s numbers dip to 51 points in 80 games; still a decent total, but a disappointing campaign overall.  Then again, the entire team struggled, culminating in Ryan Smyth’s trade and the complete implosion of the team in the final 20 games.

Horcoff managed to return to his former glory in 2007/08, despite the lack of overall team success.  Attributing his success to visiting a stick factory in Mexico (seriously!) and seeing a sports psychologist, his 50 points in 53 games were probably more likely to do with experiencing good luck than anything else, but nonetheless he was their offensive leader, even over Ales Hemsky, and after years of being on a bargain contract was looking forward to finally earning his due.  Winning over many of his detractors and earning a trip to the NHL All-Star Game, where he won the fastest skater competition, things couldn’t really have been better for the man.

With the Oilers having been in financial turmoil for years, and having seen stars like Doug Weight and Bill Guerin leave due to monetary constraints, the team’s owners — who were now somewhat stable — were keen to put their past behind them and sign their star center.  Signing an extension that would keep him in Edmonton for 6 more years (beginning in 2009) with a cap hit of $5.5m per season, many were delighted by the signing, figuring Horcoff would continue his scoring ways.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, this is where things started to go wrong.

THE DOWNWARD SLOPE

Image courtesy of edmontonsun.com.

Horcoff had a decent season in 2008/09, but not a great one – he scored 53 points in 80 games, so had returned to full health and could still score, but certainly not at the near point-per-game rate of the previous season that had earned him such accolades.  He was still 3rd on the team in scoring, and 2nd among forwards behind only linemate Ales Hemsky, on a team that really didn’t have much offensive firepower upfront beyond those two, as well as finishing with a respectable +7 rating on a team with a -14 goal differential.  Part of the reason for the drop was his shooting percentage dipping to a below average rate (9.6%) from a completely unsustainable rate the previous year (18.3%).  As such, whilst he likely wasn’t as good a player as he looked in 2007/08, he probably wasn’t as “bad” as he looked in 2008/09, and he didn’t even look that bad!

The team and its fans, not to mention Horcoff himself, were hoping for a rebound year from the veteran, but it didn’t go that way in the slightest.  On an awful, awful Oiler team that was coached in the strangest way possible (JF Jacques on the first line?!) by Pat Quinn, Horcoff slumped to 36 points in 77 games, still good for 4th on the team, but not the “1st line center” type production that his new salary warranted.  He also finished with a -29 rating on a team that was -70, perfect ammunition for the army of Horcoff-haters.

This ignored the fact that Horcoff was increasingly being asked to play among the toughest minutes on the team, i.e. facing the best forwards in the league and starting in the defensive zone an awful lot.  This is not going to help anyone’s production, let alone a guy who was never considered naturally gifted in the first place, but rather got to where he did via hard work and passion.

And not once did he complain.

MENTOR, LEADER, PROFESSIONAL

Image courtesy of tumblr.com.

This Oiler squad finished with an abysmal 62 points, good for bottom of the league, and following the draft lottery ended up selecting first overall in the 2010 draft.  Due to such a bad season, and the 1st overall pick offering some chance at change, the team cleaned house, trading Lubomir Visnovsky, Steve Staios, Denis Grebeshkov, Patrick O’Sullivan, waiving their captain Ethan Moreau, buying out Robert Nilsson and not re-signing Fernando Pisani or Mike Comrie.

With new talent such as Taylor Hall, 2008 1st rounder and World Junior hero Jordan Eberle and 2009 1st round speedster Magnus Paajarvi coming in, change was indeed the order of the day, and a new captain was required.  Whilst many objected, many more were pleased when Shawn Horcoff was announced as the new captain of the Edmonton Oilers.  His intelligent, understated style and his undeniable professionalism were key reasons in him being handed such an honour, and it was immediately apparent that he would be the father-figure of sorts to the new generation of Oilers, mentoring them and sheltering them through the harshness of NHL life.

He also offered a stark contrast to the captaincy of Ethan Moreau, a respected player in many ways due to his passion and grit, but had a tendency to take bad penalties at key times whilst giving strange interviews that pretty much blamed everyone but himself for the team’s shortcomings.

That was not Horcoff.  Over the following three seasons, Horcoff provided nothing less than complete class to the role.  Open and respectful to the media, thankful to the fans, and being a teacher to the young stars in the organisation, Horcoff might not have been a vocal, balls-out kind of guy that many like to see in their leaders, but he was the perfect leader for a team in transition, absorbing the battering ram of criticism sent the team’s way by fans and media alike whilst never wavering in his commitment or accountability to the job at hand.

A LAST HURRAH

Image courtesy of zimbio.com.

In 2013, following the lockout, even his biggest detractors had to appreciate what Horcoff brought to the team.  Only a few games into the season, the team lost all of Horcoff, Eric Belanger and Anton Lander to injury at around the same time.  That’s three centers, the most important forward position, all lost.  In the stretch that Horcoff was out, even after Belanger returned, the team was awful.  In the midst of a losing stretch, Horcoff called a team-only meeting, following which he returned from injury and the team suddenly experienced a massive lift in the quality of their play, with many acknowledging Horcoff’s words – whatever he said – as a huge reason for it.

However, by season’s end, and with the team slumping to the finish line once again, something had disappeared from Horcoff.  The spark that was once evident was not so bright, and despite many saying the team had to keep him due to his two-way play, new General Manager Craig MacTavish – the same guy who had coached Horcoff and molded him into what he became – announced that Horcoff would not be back with the team in 2013/14.

A surprising move, especially given the team’s lack of depth at center, but MacTavish explained it was not due to Horcoff’s ability or even so much his cap hit.  It was about both player and team moving on from a difficult situation, and allowing Horcoff to rediscover that spark which had been dimmed by years of criticism and terrible situations.

On the 4th July, 2013, Shawn Horcoff — 13 years an Edmonton Oiler — was traded to the Dallas Stars, bringing back a 7th round draft pick and defender Philip Larsen.

A NEW START

Image courtesy of tracking.si.com.

That day was a sad one for many Oiler fans.  Shawn Horcoff had come to represent many things in his time in the City of Champions: hard work, passion, leadership, professionalism, “heavy lifting”, All-Star, scapegoat, overpaid, underappreciated.  To some, he was the reason the team was a failure for so long, a guy with a couple of good seasons who took a massive contract and failed to live up to the high bar he had himself established, with so many unable to separate player from salary.  To others, he was a guy who had paid his dues whilst working his way from 4th line defensive forward to quality two-way 1st line center, taking a starring role on the best team the Oilers had iced since the glory days of the 1980s, and taking a contract that any man would have taken – a contract that never once threatened the financial situation of the team.  It was hoped by several of us sentimentalists that Horcoff could finally be that rarest of breeds, a player who spends his entire career with the organisation – something that has not yet occurred for the Edmonton Oilers.  Alas, it was not to be.

Image courtesy of mystatesman.com.

At least this way, the arguing stops.  No more Shawn Horcoff, no more big contract, no more complaints about his value.  Fans get to move on to the next scapegoat, the team gets to move on and find younger, cheaper players to fill a similar role (Boyd Gordon being the most obvious example), Horcoff gets a fresh start on an up-and-coming team looking to make a splash, with less pressure, less expectation, less criticism.

And with that, just two players remain from the glorious team of 2006.  Ryan Smyth, in the twilight of his career, and Ales Hemsky, who may also find himself never playing another game in Oiler silks.

One fact remains: Shawn Horcoff will remain in Oiler lore as one of the greatest draft picks ever made by the team.  4th round picks rarely turn into NHL players.  When they do, it’s even rarer that they turn into players who force their way into nearly 800 NHL games for one team, scoring nearly 450 points, becoming an All-Star and team captain and first line center.  That is, inarguably, a tremendous investment.

Goodbye, Horc, and thank you.

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