Like The Oilers, Horcoff Could Only Go Up

TORONTO CANAD A- DECEMBER 2: Shawn Horcoff #10 of the Edmonton Oilers shoots during warmup before game action against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre December 2 2010 in Toronto Ontario Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Outside of a couple rookies there might not have been an Oiler who would have been more excited about the 2010/11 season than Shawn Horcoff. The new season signalled a chance to start fresh and wipe away the memory and disappointment of the previous year.

That previous year is one that I would imagine, Horcoff tried very hard to forget almost as soon as it ended. As if the team finishing dead last wasn't enough, he also had one of the least productive seasons of his career. He scored 13 goals and added 23 assists for 36 points, his lowest total since his first full season in the NHL in 2002/03 when he scored 33 points. Horcoff was also an impressive -29 which would likely be good for worst on any other team but the Oilers had Patrick O`Sullivan and his -35 which relegated Horcoff to just second worst.

And then of course there was the small matter of his contract. Last year was the first year of six year worth a whopping $33M. That the cap hit on the contract is $5.5M didn't matter to a lot of fans, all they saw was the $7M in real dollars that he was making coupled with his lousy number on the ice and they weren't happy. Horcoff might not take the time to listen to talk radio or read newspapers and blogs on a daily basis but I'd bet he still knew that a great many fans were not happy with his game last season.

Horcoff strikes me as the kind of guy who wouldn't make excuses for his play and would probably be the first to tell you that he had a bad season. But he also took on a tough role as the Oilers de facto number one centre. He took 500 more face offs than any other Oiler. Couple that with the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts among Oiler centres and the highest average time per game on the penalty kill and you can see how his offensive numbers fell off.

Horcoff is a lot more than just numbers though and in the days before the season began was named the 16th captain of the Oilers (some want you to believe he is the 13th Oilers captain but they're wrong) which signified that the team at least, wasn't concerned so much with the numbers Horcoff's numbers but rather the other things he brings to the table night in and night out including leadership and defensive responsibility.

Despite wearing the "C" this season Horcoff's role wasn't significantly different than it had been in years past. He was still depended on to take a lot of faceoffs (this won't change until someone else shows they can consistently win a faceoff), play tough minutes against the opponents top line, and kill penalties. The latter to a less extent with Tom Renney behind the bench than had been the case with Pat Quinn the year before.

With the influx of rookies Horcoff was also given the task of keeping these rookies from getting lit up in the Oilers end of the rink. Derek defined Horcoff's role perfectly yesterday in his scoring chance thread when he wrote, "He was the defensively-responsible housesitter assigned to protect his own zone while the kids went gallivanting around the rink". And if you look at the scoring chances that resulted from this, you can see that Horcoff did a pretty good job in that role.

Looking at Bruce's review of Horcoff's season we see the benefit of Horcoff is felt not only by those on his line but by the rest of the team as well. When the Captain was in the lineup the Oilers went 19-22-6, good for a 0.468 winning percent. Still lottery pick bad but a lot better than what happened when he wasn't in the lineup. In those 35 games the Oilers won just six times and had a winning percentage of 0.257. That isn't bad it's terrible.

Playing exclusively within the Oilers top six, a group much more skilled than it was the year before, and getting a couple of bounces go his way for a change helped Horcoff's numbers bounce back a little from the year before. Limited to just 47 games Horcoff managed only 9 goals and 18 assists on the year which project to 47 points over an 82 game season. I'd prefer Horcoff score in the 50-55 point range if he's still taking on the lion's share of the defensive work but this is at least getting back in the neighbourhood of respectable. 

Looking forward to next year I think we'll see Horcoff used in a similar role as he was this season. Even if the Oilers draft a centre with their first overall pick, and I hope they don't, Horcoff will still be a fixture on one of the top two lines for next year at least. That he's reliable in our end of the rink and can win a faceoff occasionally all but guarantees his role.

Assuming that Horcoff stays healthy I think he could have a very good season points wise in 2011/12. The results that we saw when he played between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle (segments 21-30 and 41-50 from yesterday's scoring chance thread) were stunning. What would 82 games of that look like for the Captain? Even if Renney goes away from that combination there is still plenty of quality, like Ales Hemsky (I still can't figure out what to make of his scoring chance numbers with Horcoff) for example, that can play alongside Horcoff.

Horcoff will never live up to his lofty contract but it's not his fault his boss offered him an outrageous deal that he couldn't pass up. But I do think Horcoff can reach a level where his deal is just a little bit more palatable. The players around him will go a long way to helping him get there.

Prediction: Based on the strength of those around him, Horcoff will record his second career 20 goal season to go along with 35 assists. He'll also be significantly better than -29.

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