The Resurrection of Ales Hemsky
(Who might never have been dead at all.)
When Ales Hemsky stepped up and blasted a slapshot past Devan Dubnyk to tie the game Wednesday night, a sigh of relief came from the Dallas camp. After a power play that had come into the series with a lethal past and high expectations, the Stars had managed only a single such goal through throughout the series. Minnesota's penalty kill had done their research, and with only seconds remaining on Dallas's first power play of the game, the Stars were in danger of letting yet another opportunity to capitalize on the Wild's mistakes fall by the wayside.
Perhaps Hemsky was aware of how thoroughly Minnesota had scouted the Stars. Perhaps he had decided that Dallas had to adapt, had to try something off-book. Perhaps he simply wanted to choose the option most people least expected Ales Hemsky to choose, and that is why he shot the puck without a hint of deception. Perhaps lack of deception is deception, for Ales Hemsky.
Certainly Ryan Suter was surprised, as he more or less stood aside, possibly expecting Hemsky to try a cross-ice slap-pass or somesuch trickery. The puck beat Dubnyk easily past Sceviour's screen, and the goal was exactly what the doctor ordered. As Eaves would later prove, the Stars' power play was alive and well again.
(Incidentally, do you remember the last time Ales Hemsky scored a power play goal? I'll give you a hint: it was against another playoff team. Yep, it was this one.)
The reappearance of the Stars' power play is interesting, but it's only a microcosm of what I really want to talk about today, which is obviously the titular player, Ales Hemsky. Last season was a rough one for Hemsky, as his streaky scoring was more notable for its absence than its highlights, leading to wildly varying ice time and even a healthy scratch, which soured many fans' on Hemsky as a Dallas Star.
This season though, while only a seven-point improvement on Hemsky's previous total, actually has been sneaky-good, as Jonathan Willis opined the other day in a great piece which you should read:
Now, finally having returned to the postseason, [Hemsky's] back at it again. He had two assists through the first three games of the playoffs for Dallas before scoring in Game 4. Despite playing fewer minutes than most of the Stars’ key offensive players he ranks third in team scoring, behind only Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza.
This is worth reinforcing because Hemsky’s reputation took a beating during his time in Edmonton. His attitude, his work ethic, his ability were all criticized. When he played through injury he was criticized for not producing; when he was unable to play because of being hurt he was derided for being soft and injury prone. At one point, during a season in which Edmonton was competitive late in the year, he played a month with a broken bone in his foot after blocking a shot; during that run he didn’t produce a lot and had his leadership, character and professionalism harshly questioned both by many fans and by some in the media.
The problem was the stain of losing.
By any objective measure, Hemsky has been an effective playoff performer at basically every level. He’s played through injury, sometimes for long stretches; I’d add to that in my view most of his injuries have been a result of his consistent willingness to drive a 185-pound frame to the most dangerous places on the NHL rink.
But take a player like that and stick him on a bad team for a decade, and it gets hard for him to shake the smell, the guilt by association. Players like Hemsky—core players—tend to stick for a long time on bad teams, while a revolving door of forgettable players fill the slots below and around them. After a while they get pegged as the problem.
To be fair, Hemsky has declined with age and injury. Last season was a tough one; this year saw him bumped into a lesser role. Yet, playing mostly with bottom-six types, Hemsky scored 2.06 points/hour at 5-on-5 this year; that put him 36th among NHL forwards (min. 300 minutes), ahead of players like Phil Kessel, Loui Eriksson and Jordan Eberle. Once again he’s producing in the playoffs.
Now, having watched Hemsky up close for two seasons, it's pretty clear where some of the dissatisfaction with his play has come from at times. Hemsky isn't going to supplement his creative game with that ageless crowd-pleaser Physical Play, and he's more likely to lose the puck due to the short reach of his stick blade than a low-percentage shot taken because he can't see any better option. Ales Hemsky is a very unique sort of player, and that can make him uniquely frustrating as well. But as his 5v5 scoring rates (and possession numbers) show, Ales Hemsky is also a good player who does the right things, even if people don't always agree with how he does them.
Lindy Ruff didn't seem to know what to do with Hemsky's inimitable game for most of last year and part of this one, but that all changed with the addition of Hemsky's countryman Radek Faksa. That line's dominance has been well-documented, but here's what Lindy Ruff had to say about them as recently as Sunday (emphasis mine):
"They've been very good for us. I looked at the ice time after the first period and they didn't play a lot really. They're probably the line that deserves to play the most, but I think they realize where they're slotted. A lot of times, I said this before the series started, that the top line will get the bulk of the attention and it opens up opportunities for the Spezza line, it opens up opportunities for the Faksa line, so they've got opportunities in front of them where they can do damage against what I would call the other team's gameplan to keep your big line off the board."
You don't need me to tell you that Radek Faksa is amazing. But just look at the goal he scored to kick off the playoffs, and you'll see a couple of crucial decisions Ales Hemsky makes to create the chance in the first place:
It's a beautiful third-line goal that features Roussel's Bunny Hop to the Bench, but this is also a goal that displays the major virtues of Ales Hemsky's game. We talk about decision-making a lot, and while no player is perfect, this play features a couple of mental gems by the veteran winger before he even gets to the execution part, which also goes flawlessly.
Ales Hemsky was at the end of a shift, and so he (who had corralled a loose puck just prior) shot the puck towards the net with traffic, but it didn't get through. That was unremarkable, but then things got awesome. Hemsky, who was due for a change anyway with the puck heading the other way, took a small risk with a high reward. He closes hard on Stoll, whose lazy pass is picked off by the surprisingly aggressive Stars' winger. If Hemsky misses Stoll there, it's not great, but he can also hop right into the bench for his change, mitigating the risk significantly.
Note that Hemsky also appears to slow down just enough at the blue line to allow Roussel's heroic leap to take place, but not so much that he kills the momentum of the play. Roussel deserves all the praise he got for that move, but it doesn't work if Hemsky isn't aware of what's going on there.
Now in the zone, Hemsky takes the puck in on the left wing before making a hard stop and keeping the puck out on his stick, ready to pass. The hard stop creates space from the two defenders, who had been rushing to get back. Keeping the puck away from his body keeps him ready to pass (or shoot) at a moment's notice, further backing off any would-be aggressor. Hemsky *could* pass to a streaking Jamie Benn, so Stoll stays with Benn to guard against that, but instead, Hemsky picks up the trailing Faksa. The Big Czech receives the pass, Stoll wheels around (now off-balance) and stumbles in a block attempt, and Faksa has ample room to rip the puck high glove side on Dubnyk for the 1-0 lead.
It's not the most magical play you'll ever see, but the most beautiful (and dreadful) plays tend to stick in people's minds without the aid of the written word. Ales Hemsky had established himself in a lot of minds--fans' and coaches' alike--as a player whose flaws were more pronounced than his benefits. Now, he's quietly put up a point per game for the past two months, and the third line is looking about as Ruffle-proof as a factory-sealed can of Pringles. Quality linemate stability is a wonderful thing.
Jim Nill signed Ales Hemsky to a 3-year deal because based on the player Hemsky had been. For a while, the Stars wondered if they had gotten a different player. But if the best stretch of Hemsky's time with the Stars is any indication, that player has always been there. He just hasn't always gone about his business in the conventional way. When the results weren't there, his play was criticized, and his ice time (and quality of teammate) dropped. Now that he's gotten back into the circle of trust, he's the key playmaker and puck-carrier on the Stars' most consistent line in the playoffs.
Investments don't always pan out right away. Sometimes they even look bad, at first. The Stars did not get what they wanted in year one of the Hemsky deal, but but thanks to how year two has gone, the Stars have to be feeling pretty good about year three. That is something we did not expect as recently as last summer, but it was something Hemsky always thought was possible. It is fun to see good possibilities actualized.