Earlier in the week, SumOil was gracious enough to ask the question "is it time for the Edmonton Oilers to trade Ales Hemsky?" It's a question that has to be asked, since we're relentlessly rebuilding and, given that Ales Hemsky has been with the Oilers for almost a decade now, we've almost had enough time to evaluate him. He's a veteran player who's suffered through some injuries: surely it's time to get rid of him, pick up some assets, and continue charging towards the playoffs in five years or so.
Today, we play our fellow basement-dwellers, the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's a good time to discuss relentless rebuilding, since when they traded two lottery picks and other assets for Phil Kessel, they did whatever the opposite of relentlessly rebuilding is. Relentlessly demolishing, I think. Now, they're still among the worst teams in the league, still certain to finish out of the playoffs, still looking for a saviour among their prospects, except they don't even have that many prospects to look forward to. They're a cautionary tale, something parents can use to scare misbehaving children. "Eat your broccoli or Brian Burke will trade for you." That sort of thing. Could failing to trade Ales Hemsky be a small-scale version of the same mistake Burke made in picking up Kessel? Taking the future over the present when the present is going to suck no matter what?
Well, I didn't post a comment on Sum's post answering his question. Because if I had, it would have just been five hundred words of tar-black profanity and I wanted to take the time to reason out a proper response.
No, the Oilers shouldn't trade Ales Hemsky. Absolutely no. Even if you believe in the rebuild, a player like Hemsky is exactly the sort needed by a rebuilding team. His value around the NHL is almost certainly at a low ebb and we wouldn't get good value for him even if we did trade him. Most importantly, if your relationship with Ales Hemsky has deteriorated to the point that he wants to be traded, you shouldn't get rid of him. You should get rid of yourself.
With the promising rookies in this lineup, a healthy Ales Hemsky is no longer our most skilled player. That doesn't mean he isn't one of our most important.
We won't get that much for him. Given his recent injury history, his relatively poor boxcar numbers (thanks to being saddled with often-questionable linemates and tough matchups on the NHL's worst team), Ales Hemsky's value probably hasn't been lower since his second season in the league. Cap-conscious teams should be wary, as Hemsky makes a by-no-means-forgettable $4.1 million on the salary cap, signed through the 2011-12 season. Teams long on cap room but short on budget space had best beware, too: Hemsky's salary increases to $5 million per at the end of the season. A rebuilding team with both cap and cash isn't likely to trade us picks or prospects, given that, well, they're rebuilding and there's one Brian Burke in the league.
If we're going to trade Ales Hemsky, it'll be to a contending team with plenty of salary cap room and money to spend, yet who would rather have Hemsky than any other such player available. There's not a long list of teams who fit the bill there, and that team would be taking a guy who's suffered through some injuries and posted pretty average numbers the last couple of seasons. Do you really think we get good value for Hemsky in the short- to medium-term?
If you have a good player, that means you have a good player. Bearing in mind that Hemsky's trade value is at its lowest ebb, we should set aside any fond hopes of getting a second overall pick or the like in trade. We'd be lucky to get a late first-rounder or a by-no-means-surefire prospect: a modern-day Ryan O'Marra. If the Boston Bruins are falling all over themselves to offer us Tyler Seguin for Hemmer, well, that's fantastic, but it ain't gonna happen.
Are we really going to trade Ales Hemsky for a player better than Ales Hemsky? Remember, Hemsky is only 27 years old. Whatever sort of "rebuild" we're attempting, if it works Hemsky is still young enough to be a major part of our future success. The Oilers' best strategy isn't to cross their fingers and hope they don't draft the next Michael Henrich with the draft pick they get in trade. It's to hold onto Hemsky, reduce the load on him, stop playing him when he's seriously injured, and make sure that he's happy and healthy by the time Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall are hitting their primes.
If we trade Hemsky, we're certainly and obviously making this team worse in the short term. There's a very good chance we're making it worse in the long term as well. Remember the return we got for Ryan Smyth. A draft pick that became a promising defenseman made of glass who's still bumming around the AHL, a bright young player who we've already bought out, and a guy who I used as a punchline in a joke two paragraphs ago. Now remember that Ryan Smyth was a more valuable trade piece than Damaged Goods Hemsky is likely to be.
Hemsky's contract is better value for us than it is for most teams out there. With a cap hit of $4.1 million, Hemsky is difficult to squeeze under the salary cap of most contending teams. Bizarrely, the fact that his contract has a couple years left to run works to his disadvantage when trying to get him onto a really good team: if his contract was expiring, they could take him at a cap hit pro-rated for however many months was left on his deal and toss him at the end of the year, but instead they'd have to find a way to make him work through years two and three. No doubt, for Hemsky's sake, a couple teams out there would make the effort. But if you can go to a lot of trouble to make Hemsky fit, or pick up a rent-a-player with an expiring deal for no effort whatsoever, you're going to take the rent-a-player.
The Edmonton Oilers don't have to make that choice. They have Hemsky and there's no need to struggle to fit his salary under the cap. Moreover, his is a very convenient contract. By the time it expires, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Magnus Paajarvi's entry-level deals will be going with it. This would make for an awful summer of re-signing guys for the Edmonton front office, but it also means that Hemsky is in a position to help the young kids along for several seasons and, hopefully, benefit from their improvement and lead a resurgent Oilers team deep into the playoffs.
I've made my position on rebuilds fairly clear. Unless you're both lucky and good, they usually don't work: there are far more Atlanta Thrashers and New York Islanders in history than there are Chicago Blackhawks. To the extent that a rebuild can possibly work, though, you need veteran players. They have to teach those young kids how the NHL works, the level of effort expected, and the corners you can't cut. They have to take the pressure of tough minutes off the youngsters to keep them from being buried and having their confidence shattered (Patrik Stefan Syndrome), and they have to be savvy linemates for the rookies who can make up for inevitable mistakes. And if those young players do pan out, then your veterans have to be strong enough of character to step into the second line while still leading by example and in the dressing room.
The Oilers have a few such players: Shawn Horcoff, Dustin Penner, and Hemsky come to mind. But Horcoff is getting older and has battled with injuries far worse than anything Hemsky has experienced. While Horcoff's value to the team is still obvious, he's not likely to be a front-line force much longer. That leaves Penner and Hemsky, and that's an awfully small margin. Unless you want Taylor Hall learning what it takes to be an NHL player from Jean-Francois Jacques. I bet you don't want that. Hemsky is signed long enough to be an excellent mentor, and to begin reaping the rewards of his hard work. He's not so expensive that the Oilers will be hobbled by his contract when it comes time to add a few more veterans for a playoff run. He's perfect.
If you can't keep Ales Hemsky happy, you have failed as a general manager. Ales Hemsky is the player everybody thought Ryan Smyth was. He plays when brutally injured for an awful, awful team, putting his career at risk to try and get us two points that have almost no chance of actually helping us. He signed a super-long-term contract at a preposterously good value, taking years of his prime as an unrestricted free agent off the table. For all the "soft European" stereotypes, nobody on the team is consistently less afraid to take a big hit to make a play than Ales Hemsky. He's never held out for more money, he's never gone to the media with how maltreated he's been. When Hemsky has had a problem with the organization, he's kept it behind closed doors and treated the city with dignity and affection.
If a player with that sort of character and loyalty wants to bolt from your team, then if you are Steve Tambellini you are doing something seriously, seriously wrong. I don't know how else to put it. Chris Pronger demanded a trade, but he's kinda an idiot. Sheldon Souray demanded a trade, but we're all pretending he doesn't exist. Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa wouldn't come to Edmonton for all the gold in Christendom, but we have ready-made excuses for them too. If Ales Hemsky wants out, though, you have screwed up. You have alienated one of your longest-serving and most selfless players, and in exchange for that idiocy you have finished last overall one year, are likely to finish in the bottom five this year, and have not made the playoffs in your tenure as general manager.
We're not talking about a Pronger-esque prima donna here. We're talking about a leader and a warrior and a gentleman and every other cliche in the book. If you can't sell this "rebuild" to the likes of Hemsky, if you can't convince him he'll have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup when he's thirty, then you're not going to convince anybody who isn't desperate for a job or besotted by drink. Rather than trying to trade all your players when they show any signs of wanting to leave, maybe you should, I don't know, address the systemic failures that's driving everybody out.
And once you've done that, give Hemsky a new contract. Because he's worth it.