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The Progress Report: All-Star Ales

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Ales Hemsky controls the puck with Chicago's Dave Bolland in hot pursuit (Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club).

At approximately 2:00am this morning, the Oilers landed in San Jose following the team’s second consecutive loss, and 11th in the past 13 overall.  Although Edmonton heavily outshot their opponent in Dallas, the offensive charge wasn’t able to generate the execution required for a victory.

With a 13-21-7 record at the midway point of the season, the Oilers have struggled to maintain the high level of play that was established in early December with a five-game winning streak.

The reality of the team’s current predicament is undeniable, but there was still some positive news to emerge from Tuesday’s pre-game availability at American Airlines Center in Dallas.

For the first time in his career, Ales Hemsky has been selected to take part in the NHL’s All-Star festivities later this month. The opportunity to showcase his talent on the grand NHL stage will be provided in Raleigh, North Carolina, for a 27-year old that thrives on offensive creativity.

It’s been a long time coming for Hemsky, who has patiently waited his turn throughout his career. While consideration has been made for his inclusion in the past, injuries have often forced the dynamic winger to sit out.

Hemsky, always known for his quiet and humble personality, was naturally excited about the opportunity to participate in the event with some of the NHL’s best.

“I didn't expect it,” Hemsky said to the media Tuesday. “I'm honoured to go there and experiment at the All-Star Game for the first time. It will be fun for me. I'm looking forward to it.”

While Hemsky’s humble response was expected, his selection to the roster shouldn’t come as a surprise to the creative winger. His 2010-11 season has undergone a change in philosophy. Much like the pressure imparted on Sam Gagner, Hemsky hasn’t been the centre of attention around Edmonton’s offensive game with the addition of some exciting young prospects entering the fold.

The very presence of Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle has grabbed hold of the bright Oil Country spotlight, leaving Hemsky to take on a slightly different role as a leader in the dressing room, but remain as an offensive superstar on the ice.

Although injuries have, once again, contributed to an abbreviated campaign so far through 2010-11, Hemsky’s 24 points in 28 games have his offensive totals eclipsing 70 points, pro-rated through an 82-game schedule.

Chemistry has been an ongoing challenge for the talented offensive dynamo. Hemsky plays a unique game, meaning that he and his linemates need to bring a special brand of communication to each shift. With a north-south, east-west roaming style, Hemsky likes to control and distribute the puck at his discretion in hopes that his teammates can read off his style and adjust on the fly.

Shawn Horcoff, who is currently sidelined with a knee injury, has consistently shown the most complete connection with Hemsky; perhaps developed over their respective careers, as both represent the current longest-serving representation in an Oilers uniform.

For much of the season, Hemsky and Horcoff have played apart. Horcoff’s captaincy and established mentorship role with the rookies thrust him up the depth chart to centre Hall and Eberle, while Hemsky was forced into a different capacity, alongside Magnus Paajarvi and Sam Gagner in the pre-season.

The ongoing search for chemistry can often seem daunting, but it remains a process that the Oilers will work at to balance the offensive lines.

For now, his numbers have been stacking up at his expected offensive pace. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. But with the imminent return of Horcoff looming, a familiar opportunity may again be provided as Hemsky searches for the ultimate form of consistency.

Hemsky began the season with solid offensive totals. In the team’s first nine games, he collected eight points and appeared to be gaining confidence as the opening month progressed. In late October and early November, however, his offensive game slowed; in the team’s next seven games, Hemsky only produced three points (all assists) as the Oilers struggled through their season-long road trip.

It was at this point in the season where the penalty kill was at its worst, and was bearing full responsibility for the team’s disastrous November stretch. Upon returning home, following a shutout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a new philosophy was introduced from Head Coach Tom Renney; a change in the team’s makeup that demonstrated an astute coaching style.
In the team’s next game, a 4-3 shootout loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, Hemsky was relied on heavily on the penalty kill. In his eight-year career with Edmonton, Hemsky’s time on the penalty kill was almost non-existent, so the sight was odd in its most basic form.

But the decision appeared to pay off. Often times when struggling players need to break a funk, coaches will introduce new tactics to better involve the players in the game. In a rare circumstance, Hemsky played nearly the same about of time on the penalty kill (2:20) as he did on the powerplay (2:38) that evening.

Hemsky was further involved in the game, with his offensive numbers reflecting a turnaround effort: One goal, one assist and a plus-two rating in 20:52 of ice-time.

Since that game against the Coyotes, Hemsky has elevated his offensive game to a higher degree. Having collected 13 points in his last 11 games, Hemsky is poised to continue his offensive upcharge and lead the Oilers to a more successful second half.

Often lost in the rebuilding discussion is the development of veteran players, due to the bold excitement of new talent up front. Hemsky has always been a competitive player and an even better magician with the puck, but his defensive game could have benefitted from further seasoning.

With the willingness to improve his game, combined with the tutelage of Tom Renney in this area, Hemsky’s two-way play has improved significantly and has provided the Oilers with greater options moving forward. It’s a benefit that’s resulted from hard work, dedication, and the desire to better his game as an Oiler.

Hemsky’s humble approach to receiving the All-Star distinction shouldn’t come as a surprise.

He’s earned it. 

Author: Ryan Dittrick |

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