Sometimes all it takes is a fresh start to rekindle an old flame.
It’s a lesson that the Dallas Stars have become quite familiar with lately.
Tyler Seguin is a shining example of that. Seguin, who finished 4th in NHL scoring last season with 84 points, was unceremoniously shown the door in Boston in the summer of 2013 following a disappointing playoffs, despite being only 21 years old and possessing the impressive hockey pedigree that made him the second overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Or how about Lindy Ruff? Ruff spent 15 mostly successful years behind the bench of the Buffalo Sabres, making the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999, winning the Jack Adams trophy as the league’s best coach in 2006, and leading the Sabres to a Presidents’ Trophy in 2007 with a remarkable 113-point season. However, as time went by Ruff’s message and coaching style began to wear thin on his team, Buffalo routinely struggled the make the postseason, and he was ultimately fired by longtime friend and Sabres general manager Darcy Regier midway through the 2013 season.
Many wondered if Ruff’s coaching style was a little too “old school” for the exciting and analytical new school NHL. His hiring last summer by Jim Nill to become the new bench boss in Dallas was met with many reservations, especially since it became known that the Stars had missed out on their original top choice of Alain Vigneault.
Losing out on Vigneault might have been a blessing in disguise for the Stars, however, as Ruff proved himself to be just as good of a fit in Dallas, if not better. He carefully studied his new roster, crafted a strategy of speed and transition that played to its strengths, and guided the Stars through a merciless Western Conference, navigating around all obstacles along the way en route to their first playoff berth since 2008.
It turned out that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Ruff seems as fiery a coach now as he ever did in Buffalo, and all it took was a new opportunity in a different hockey market for it to happen.
It’s the same type of calculated gamble that the Stars made again this summer with the signing of veteran forward Ales Hemsky.
While Hemsky hasn’t been around in the hockey world nearly as long as Ruff has, his backstory bears many resemblances. Although he is only 30 years old, Hemsky seems (and maybe even personally feels) older than that because he spent nearly all of the last eleven seasons with the same team, the Edmonton Oilers.
They were the type of years that would make your hair grey and your face wrinkle, too.
Things started well enough for Hemsky with successful rookie and sophomore seasons. It was in 2005-2006, however, where he truly broke out. Playing on the team’s top line with current Dallas Star Shawn Horcoff and net-crasher extraordinaire Ryan Smyth, Hemsky scored a career high 77 points in 81 regular season games and then added another 17 in 24 playoff games as he played a key role in leading the Oilers to a surprise Cup Finals appearance. Their Cinderella run was not meant to have a happy ending, though, as Edmonton would eventually be eliminated by the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games.
Still glowing from their run at the Cup, the future looked very bright for both the then-22 year-old Czech winger and the young Oilers team. But nobody expected what happened next.
Chris Pronger, the team’s bonafide top defenseman and MVP, requested a trade just over two weeks after the finals ended due to personal reasons, a request that shocked the team and the city. Pronger was eventually dealt to the Anaheim Ducks for a less than equal return, marking the start of a disastrous downfall for the Oilers. Repeated blunders and failed gambles from team ownership and management followed, causing the organization to spiral into a free fall that they still haven’t recovered from.
It’s eight years later now, and Edmonton still hasn’t returned to the playoffs.
Caught unfairly in the middle of all of this was Hemsky, a budding superstar with heavy expectations placed upon his young shoulders. Hemsky continued to produce, with point totals of 53, 71, and 66 in the following seasons, but he was never provided with much offensive support as new additions like Petr Sykora and Dustin Penner failed to meet expectations. The Oilers continued to struggle.
Things went further downhill in 2009, when Hemsky suffered a severe shoulder injury that ended his season at just 22 games. It was the start of a frustrating trend for the winger, as injuries continued to mount for the next four seasons, costing him a lot of playing time in what should have been the prime playing years of his career.
Despite all of this, the Oilers and their fans had high expectations for Hemsky. He was one of their best players and was signed to an expensive contract that reflected that. As the Oilers continued to get worse, the pressure on Hemsky to perform, regardless of his injuries, only grew.
The Edmonton Oilers are a very proud organization with a very demanding fanbase. It’s an inevitable thing to happen when your favorite team wins five Stanley Cups in a seven-year span like the Oilers did from 1984 to 1990. They have a rich hockey history and it’s something that permeates throughout the entire city. But when the fans are upset, the players know about it loud and clear—and the fans have had a lot to be upset in recent years. There’s no doubt that Hemsky felt the same thing that a lot of other Oilers—past and present—felt and now feel. How much that pressure weighed on him is anyone’s guess.
By the start of last season many in Edmonton began to wonder what Hemsky, still only 30, had left in the tank. The Oilers were no closer to the playoffs than they were in years and with the franchise’s focus again returning to rebuilding, trade rumors about the now-veteran Hemsky had become a constant. His play that season in Edmonton—only 26 points in 55 games—was the writing on the wall. Finally, after years of struggle, Hemsky was mercifully moved at the trade deadline to the Ottawa Senators.
Then, a funny thing happened: Hemsky woke up. Big time. He scored nine points in his first five games in Ottawa before finishing with 17 points in 20 games as the Sens missed the playoffs.
He also memorably did this against the Tampa Bay Lightning:
So what changed? Was Hemsky finally healthy again? Was it the benefit of playing with better linemates, namely new Star Jason Spezza?
Or, was Hemsky only in need of a fresh start?
The Stars signed Hemsky on July 1 to a three-year, $12 million deal. In the conference call for the signing, Hemsky dropped an interesting line as reported here by Mike Heika:
“Yeah, we talked a lot the last month. They showed the most interest. They have a great team with Jamie Benn and Seguin and now adding Jason Spezza, it’s a great fit for me. Finally I can enjoy hockey again and that’s a great city too. I’m really excited.”
Maybe those rough years in Edmonton did take their toll on Hemsky.
Regardless of the troubles of his past, the Stars now have high hopes for his future. Reunited with both Horcoff and Spezza, Hemsky has familiar faces that he can turn to. The team is committed to winning now and hopes that Hemsky can be an instrumental supporting piece instead of the load-bearing core one like he was asked to be in Edmonton.
Hemsky now has his fresh start in Dallas and it will be exciting to see what he can do with it.