Bouncing Czechs: The Evolution of Ales Hemsky
The Dallas Stars have a prototypical checking line now! It features a huge rookie that wins faceoffs, a mad Frenchman, and Ales Hemsky?
Ales Hemsky has always been a mysterious player. In Edmonton he could just as soon dominate a game as completely disappear from it. His brief stint in Ottawa saw him spark some on-ice chemistry with Jason Spezza. Jim Nill took a chance, and two summers ago the Stars went out and got both Spezza and Hemsky.
Hemsky was a part of a lot of Stars/Oilers games in the years leading up to him joining the Stars. "Dallas vs. Edmonton" was a thing for several years and Hemsky was the key piece of a lot of Oilers' teams.
Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky arrived in Dallas with expectations of secondary scoring. The first line was going to be Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Valeri Nichushkin, and the second line was going to be Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, and whoever else you wanted to throw out there. It didn't even matter who they were going to play with because the chemistry between them would be too much for other teams to handle.
Benn, Seguin, and Nichushkin had made a name for themselves had made a name for themselves the season before. Unfortunately, the scoring was very shallow in Big D. The expectations of what Spezza and Hemsky were going to bring to the club were through the roof.
Everything started great. Hemsky had an assist in his first game as a Star, and the line was rolling. But the wheels soon fell off for Ales. He had a long scoring drought. Lindy Ruff continued to give him chances but Hemsky could not produce. In a lot of ways, he was immediately considered a failure by many fans and cast off to the "failed moves by Dallas GM" basket.
What made matters worse for Hemsky was the fact that Jason Spezza began to find his game faster than he did. Spezza was starting to score. Spezza was leading a dangerous second line no matter who he played with. It seemed that only half of Jim Nill's acquisitions had worked that summer.
The largely untold, if not entirely unrecognized part of this story is that Hemsky had lived in Edmonton a long time. He had played his first 10 and a half seasons with the Oilers. Ales Hemsky is not a particularly outspoken guy, he is very reserved. The move to Ottawa happened in the middle of a season, it was easier to just start wearing a different color sweater.
The move to Dallas probably felt more permanent to Hemsky. His role was very well defined for him in Edmonton and no one had time to overthink things in Ottawa. In Dallas, he was going to have to find his fit on a brand new team with high expectation to boot. Furthermore, he had to redefine a game he had been able to play for a decade in Edmonton.
He was moved up and down the lineup, finally hitting a low point when he was healthy scratched by Lindy Ruff late in the year. Seeming only to pile on, the team was regressing from the season before and was going to miss the playoffs. All of was lost. Oh yeah, he had hip surgery in the offseason following the 2014-15 regular season.
None of those are excuses for Hemsky's first year in Dallas, but looking back it isn't hard to find reasons he failed to produce to expectations in his first year with the Stars.
Reading press clippings entering the 2015-16 NHL Season, not many people were talking about Ales Hemsky. The experiment had failed, right? "Maybe he can come in against smaller teams and not suck?" The only article I remember specifically naming Ales Hemsky, was an expansion draft article. It said that Dallas should "dangle" (they couldn't resist) Hemsky in hopes that Vegas or Quebec would take him off their hands.
The city had washed their hands of his highly skilled, east-west, tiny-mutant-sticked game.
Many times when interviewed about playing time or who "deserves" what, Lindy Ruff will typically throw Ales Hemsky's name in that chat. Hemsky was asked to play on the fourth line with Vernon Fiddler and Colton Sceviour. He played with Patrick Eaves, Jason Spezza again, Patrick Sharp. He even saw a few shifts with Benn and Seguin.
Halfway through this season, he was still struggling by most standards. A good number of people forgot he was on the team. Hemsky embodied the sacrifice that is required in sports. Just watching him in a vacuum showed a player that was clearly a skilled guy, but for whatever reason it just didn't work. So he would play down the lineup.
He was tried with every skilled player on the roster.
Then, Radek Faksa was called up for a second time. Faksa had a cup of coffee in Dallas earlier in the season, but his call up in February proved to be the last one he would need.
In Febrauary 2016, everything changed. The team started to figure out what they had in Faksa. He was 6'3 215 pounds, won faceoffs, punished people, had a knack for blocking shots, and was generally a sand papery guy to play against. The Stars had their shut down center. Who would they surround him with?
Faksa's obvious left wing was Antoine Roussel. But his right wing wasn't readily apparent. I am sure there was a lot more thought behind the decision than this, but it seems like Lindy Ruff said, "Ah Ales Hemsky is Czech too. Maybe he can be a mentor to the young Czech, Faksa."
It was almost the last player you would ever expect on a checking line. Ales Hemsky. He was soft on the puck. He skated sideways too much. He didn't know how to take the body. He was scared. He was small. His stick was creepy.
From nearly their first shift together, Roussel, Faksa, and Hemsky have been a match made in heaven. Hemsky's east-west ability spreads chasms in the defense for Faksa and Roussel to shoot through like bolts of lightning. When Faksa blocks a shot, Hemsky is there to safely carry the puck from the zone.
The unlikely wedding of the three has been a good surprise. But even now, Hemsky is flying largely under the radar. Faksa is the star and everyone knows about Roussel's ability to drive people crazy.
It takes a trained eye and faithfulness to the team to truly grasp what Hemsky has brought to the Czech Republic line. He is a diligent back checker. He isn't powerful along the boards, but in typical Ales Hemsky style, he is sneaky. He is a calming presence during zone exits. And if there was any doubt about it, the guy can undress a defender like few on this planet.
Hemsky isn't particularly fleet footed. He has struggled at times to finish. But he sure is Ales the Creator. He has become an invaluable member of the Stars top defensive forward group. Did I mention he can dangle?
The entire discussion of Hemsky is difficult to categorize. It has truly been an evolution before fans' very eyes. But more important than the tangible impact he has on his teammates, he has set a powerful example to the kids learning behind him. Ales Hemsky embodies what it is like to be patient. He has put in his time, wherever he was asked to, regardless of who he was playing with.
I am sure there was frustration at times. There were probably dozens if not hundreds of conversations with the coaching staff about playing time. How many of those conversations made it to the public ear? Not one.
If the Stars are able to advance past a very tough Blues team, the Faksa line will one of the main reasons. Their ability to mesh the shot blocking, faceoffs, speed, and controlled zone exits defensively has already drawn the attention of the national pundits. Part of the reason the line is so effective defensively is because of their ability to counter punch. And a great deal of the credit for that ability comes from the serpentine stick and creativity of the elder Czech, Ales Hemsky.
There are faster players on this Stars team. There are certainly larger players, more physically gifted players. But for my money, there is not a more consummate professional and leader by example than Ales Hemsky. He makes the organization proud the way he plays the game and the way he conducts himself off the ice.
It seems that Hemsky's patience has been rewarded with a defined and important role. The same patience shown by the coaching staff and organization has been rewarded with a true picture of a professional hockey player. Good on ya, Ales.