It seems like every off-season, Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin takes on reclamation projects, betting on players that were once dominating the league who have now fallen out of favour. The latest one is Ales Hemsky.
He had some great seasons for the Oilers, remaining with the team while they were ongoing major changes: from competing for a Stanley Cup to missing the playoffs repeatedly. But, when his production began declining and he found himself no longer in the organization's rebuild plans, he was traded to the Ottawa Senators for a pair of late draft picks at the 2014 trade deadline.
This trade helped his career considerably; he went on to score 17 points in 20 games on Jason Spezza’s wing to end the season. The next summer, the Senators centre asked for a trade and was moved to Dallas where Hemsky followed him; the chemistry the two players showed seemingly playing a part in his signing.
Unfortunately, they couldn't recreate this chemistry with the Stars. Hemsky struggled at first, not putting up points and being made a healthy scratch. He became a useful player for them once he found his right place in the lineup, but, despite finishing with decent numbers in his first two seasons, was never what Dallas hoped he would be. Last year, the hip injury he suffered in the World Cup was another hard blow to the Stars as Hemsky only came back when the hopes of a playoff berth were long gone.
Who is Ales Hemsky in 2017?
Despite not being the threat on the ice he once was, the Czech player hasn't changed much in terms of playing style. He still has some of the same abilities that made him feature on highlight reels.
Hemsky wears #83 in the clips below.
His between-the-legs move isn’t something he tried on just one occasion. It became somewhat of a trademark for him as he was never afraid to go for high-skill plays when he had the opportunity.
While there are no indications that Hemsky is going to be this kind of game-breaker for the Habs next season - it’s been a long time since he had that label - Hemsky is still capable of driving the offence through his speed and puck handling. More of a playmaker than a shooter, he needs the right line-mates to complement his style and finish on his passes.
When he's not trying to control the play, Hemsky has an in-and-out approach in the offensive zone. He often circles around and waits for an opening that will allow him to make use of his shot. He can receive and fire quickly before anyone realizes he has skated in a high-danger area.
The drawback of this style is that he doesn’t really contribute to the cycle. He doesn’t get very involved in board battles and isn't an asset in recovering the puck. His vision of the game serves him in not causing too many turnovers, but he tends to resort to low percentage passes over any kind of grind to make a more favourable play.
Hemsky never really overpowered opponents. He makes up for this lack of physicality with his ability to skate around defenders. In a game where every team wants to stop you at their blue line, the best way to beat a neutral zone defence is speed. Either you dump and chase, or you move through the opposition's defensive wall. Hemsky can consistently pierce a formation and win a one on one battle to enter the zone.
Despite some impressive showings, last year his execution was lacking while handling the puck. At times, he would miss easy passes or lose possession trying to dangle. While he does have a tendency to do too much, I don't think it's a sign of declining abilities, it's more likely that it's because he spent a long time sidelined.
Something that probably won't be fixed with off-season training is his defensive game. If he's placed on a line facing the top forwards on the other team, Hemsky probably won’t be contributing much defensively; his decision making in his zone is problematic and he's not very involved in coverage. His lack of desire to battle on the boards means he asks a lot of his line-mates in terms of getting the puck back.
Hemsky also has some issues on the breakouts. I suspect that after so many years of being criticized for his turnovers, he now tries to make very simple plays in his zone. When faced with pressure, he sometimes chooses to dump the puck to centre ice even with better options available in an effort to avoid a turnover.
What could Hemsky bring to the Habs?
Hemsky is not a role player. He needs to produce. And he probably won’t be able to do that unless he is paired with players who can match some of his offensive skills. In his second year with the Stars, he spent most of his time on the third line with some combination of Antoine Roussel, Mattias Janmark, and Radek Faksa. Those line-mates can be solid in their zone - a requirement while playing with Hemsky - but they also have enough talent to contribute to the offence. In the 2015-16 season, Hemsky managed a 39-point season (75 games) being the offensive spark on that line. He did it playing an average of only 13 minutes per game.
Most of that production was at even strength. In the last three years; Hemsky scored only 15 of his 78 points on the power play. This is unexpected as his playmaking ability should make him a threat there, and before his time in Dallas around 40% of his points came from the man advantage.
Overall, it would be a mistake to not give a real chance to Hemsky. Assuming no injuries and decline in his play, there are reasons to believe he can contribute to the Habs' offence, a team that claims to want speed as their identity. He won't be replacing the tenacity of Radulov, but, with seemingly so few proven defencemen able to carry the puck on Montreal's roster, someone as fast and confident as Hemsky could become very valuable.