SUN Hockey Pool

Better late, than never

Edmonton Oilers centre Shawn Horcoff is beginning to turn his season around after slumping in the...

Edmonton Oilers centre Shawn Horcoff is beginning to turn his season around after slumping in the first half. (Edmonton Sun File/Perry Mah)

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

The good news is Shawn Horcoff's game is coming back.

The bad news - there's always some when a team struggles like the Edmonton Oilers have - is he'll need a second half to the season that's out of this world to make critics forget the first half.

With the lone goal in Saturday's 3-1 loss to Calgary, Horcoff has a decent start on that - with four goals his last nine games, he's got as many as he did in his first 36 kicks at it.

At the rate Horcoff is going, he has a shot at 15 goals and 50 points, which wouldn't have sounded half-bad two seasons ago, but is a number that, in itself, won't prompt GM Kevin Lowe into doing handstands.

Better is a start, but that's all it is.

"For 15 or 20 games now, I've felt pretty good," Horcoff said. "I've had a lot of quality opportunities. I'm getting way more shots to the net and the points have been coming.

"If you're not getting chances, then you don't have a chance in hell. It's nice to see some pucks going in."

BAR RAISED VERY HIGH

While Horcoff's effort hasn't been as bad as his numbers, he re-set the bar last season with 22 goals and 51 assists for 73 points after 46 points as his previous best. A year ago, he was making a million bucks. He was a bargain.

Now, 45 games into the first year of a four-year deal paying $3.6 million a season, not so much. When you more than triple your pay, expectations rise. The optics change. Horcoff gets it.

"To be honest, at the start of the year, for 10 or 15 games, I probably put a lot more pressure on myself than I have in the past," he said.

"It was more trying to live up to the new contract. Coming into last year, I had nothing to lose. I only had something to gain with being the No. 1 centre, getting more ice time and all of that.

"This year, I felt a big responsibility to my teammates to live up to a contract I was fortunate to get. You can't play like that. I sat down and said, 'This is ridiculous.' I had to forget about it."

When Horcoff, 28, excelled as the team's top centre a year ago when few people thought he could, nobody demanded Lowe re-work Horcoff's contract to reflect his performance.

Of course, lots of people, led by the braying masses on the radio call-in shows, wanted a piece of Horcoff's backside when he produced just one goal his first 19 games with the ink on his deal still damp.

"You've got to stay positive and realize that it's a long year," Horcoff said.

"You can't beat yourself into the ground where, the next thing you know, you don't even want the puck out there. It's not like I'm just a scorer. I focus on other aspects. I want to be good defensively. I want to win draws. I want to kill penalties. There are a lot of things I'm paid to do."

If you're of the mind last season was a one-off, that Horcoff is more a two-way centre capable of 50-60 points than a bonafide top-line pivot who'll get you 70 points or better every season, you've got company.

Right now, given his start and that Horcoff's playing beside a left winger with a broken thumb and a right winger whose hands have yet to arrive from Anaheim, 50-60 sounds good - just think back two years and put that $3.6 million out of your head. Lowe is trying.

"He's getting some success around the net," Lowe said. "No matter how hard players work, and getting chances is one thing, eventually you have to capitalize on them.

"The reason Horcoff got the money is it's all about the playoffs. His stats and his year last year with arbitration ear-marked the range where he was going to be as a player. But it's also about, from our perspective, his ability to help get us in the playoffs. All can be forgotten if he helps get the team in the playoffs.

"If I was him as a player, I'd say, 'Let's just get to the playoffs.' At playoff time, everybody gets a new set of stats, right?"

BEST HOCKEY OF YEAR

To that end, Horcoff is playing his best hockey of the season. As modest as his 8-17-25 totals are, he at least looks like he might be a factor in the stretch.

"It's fine to get results personally, but I'd rather see us back in first place, to tell you the truth," Horcoff said.

"Look, we're just over halfway. We've got a ton of hockey left and it's the most important hockey. You've got to stay with it."


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