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Shawn Horcoff: Man of Iron, Joints of Bronze

It's funny how the memory plays tricks on you sometimes. For whatever reason, Shawn Horcoff has been developing a reputation as being "injury-prone". It's one of the favourite refrains of those Oiler fans who see Horcoff as less a first-line centre and more a first-degree drag on the Oilers' playoff hopes.  Not only is Horcoff crappy and overpaid, but he's hardly even in the lineup so we're not getting full value for his crappy overpaidness! Damn that Kevin Lowe and his overdeveloped sense of loyalty to veterans with one good year!

Vainly do we protest that Horcoff is the closest thing this team has had to an elite two-way centre since Todd Marchant and that he scores better than most elite two-way centres, that he's really not paid all that much compared to players of his track record and in this part of his career, and that he's one of a dwindling number of legitimate NHL players left skating around on the northern incarnation of the Springfield Falcons that we keep throwing over the boards. But the injury rap? That one hurts. While never an iron man Horcoff's had an excellent history of playing a tonne of games. In his six completed seasons to date spent entirely in the NHL, Horcoff has played 78 or more games five times. He is the Oilers leader in games played since the 2002-03 season.

Yet. On the heels of this latest shoulder problem courtesy the Islanders' Ken Sutton, there is a disquieting trend here. A trend not even I, one of Horcoff's staunchest defenders, can entirely defend. The man has a body of iron and a will of steel, but you look down his history and by god there's a lot of joint issues there. And if there's one thing we know about joint issues, it's that they don't go away.

That, and you can't play hockey in an electric wheelchair.

Let's get the good stuff out of the way, first. Courtesy the all-seeing eye that is , Shawn Horcoff's NHL injury list:

11-Feb-09    Missed 2 games (leg injury).
07-Feb-09    Leg injury, day-to-day.
05-Apr-08    Missed the last 29 games of the regular season (knee injury).
01-Feb-08    Shoulder injury, day-to-day.
17-Mar-07    Missed 1 game (leg injury).
15-Mar-07    Leg injury, day-to-day.
20-Oct-05    Missed 2 games (right shoulder injury).
15-Oct-05    Right shoulder injury, day-to-day.
22-Nov-03    Missed 1 game (back spasms).
20-Nov-03    Back spasms, day-to-day.

It's not a long list for five and a half years playing the toughest game in the world. Most of it - a back problem six years ago, a couple muscle problems. But you see, if you look, a gradually disconcerting trend. His right shoulder, first, then his left. His knee. His latest shoulder problem. It adds up.

That's the problem with joint injuries. The injury goes away but the scarring it leaves behind reduces mobility and increases the chance of a recurrence. You start using other limbs more and then you injure something else. Bone chips or scar tissue can build up in a hurry. It can take a long time to recover from that, if you ever can. Ask Mike Grier, to pick a name Oiler fans are familiar with. Eric Fichaud, to name someone we've unjustly forgotten. You can probably keep playing but you're never quite the same and there's always that lingering paranoia.

Horcoff's latest injury is bringing this all to the forefront once again. He played eighty games last year but he was far from 100% for most of the year, with both nagging shoulder and knee problems slowing him down. He's spent a lot of time not quite day-to-day, fighting the sorts of aches and pains that would land a fringe player on injured reserve and ploughing through them because he's Shawn Horcoff and without him we are well and truly up the creek.

It's important to remember that Horcoff, although not a physical player in the Dustin Penner sense, relies a lot on strength to be effective. He will muscle the puck over the line far more often than he dangles it and when he's at his most effective he's digging along the boards and muscling it up against enemy defensemen. He's had a reputation as a fitness freak his entire career and it's shown in his ability to play through pain and the near-freakish levels of endurance he can display on the ice. But joint injuries, particularly if they're recurring as Horcoff's may be, reduce his effectiveness in all these areas.

Well, as yet we don't know how far up the creek we are with this latest injury. But there seem to be a lot of trees around and I can't find the paddle.