Love to hate relationship

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

VANCOUVER -- He has more points than Jaromir Jagr and Saku Koivu, as many as Daniel Sedin, Ryan Getzlaf and Pavel Datsyuk, and just three fewer than Dany Heatley and Daniel Briere.

But ask a cross-section of Oilers fans if Shawn Horcoff is an elite player and you'll find his approval rating somewhere in the neighbourhood of George Bush's.

He's never been one of the most popular players in Edmonton, even though the centre from B.C., like the right winger from D.C., never stops battling for the Oil.

CITY NOT SOLD ON HIM

Even now, as Horcoff leads the team in scoring, plus-minus and minutes played among forwards, posting numbers on par with some of the best players in the NHL, the city still isn't sold on him.

His legion of doubters are lined up, dialling fingers at the ready, waiting for half an excuse to say 'I told you so' on any call-in show that'll listen.

"I'm fine with that; it means there's lots to be expected of you from the fans and from everyone else," said Horcoff, who's quietly flirting with a point-a-game pace this year (16 points in 17 games). "It's better to be harped on to do well every night than to be someone who isn't even noticed.

"Once you have success one season, you have to follow it up the second and the third to really solidify yourself as that type of player. I'm fine with that."

He was even fine with it in training camp, when head coach Craig MacTavish experimented with the likes of Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano at first line centre, and he had to prove himself all over again.

"You can't worry about things like that," he said. "You have to focus on your own game. I knew that if I went out and I played well, with time, I would get my minutes and I would get the opportunity to play with offensive players."

He is. Skating with Dustin Penner and Robert Nilsson, Horcoff will bring a four-game point-scoring streak into Vancouver tonight, and, if form holds true, log more than 20 minutes of ice time, much of it thankless penalty killing work that drains the tank and doesn't show up on the scoresheet.

Guys like that are integral parts of any good team, but the 29-year-old isn't flashy, or physically dominant, so fans have always been cool to the idea of seeing him as a first or second line centre making $3.6 million.

He knows it, but has learned to let it roll right off his back.

"I've worked pretty hard on the mental aspect of my game," he said. "I learned a lot from last year, (when he struggled out of the gate and finished with 51 points). I let it get to me a bit. The pressure that I put on myself to validate the contract and validate for my teammates that I could do it again. I worked on that a lot during the summer and it helped me coming into camp."

Now he's content to be Shawn Horcoff.

"I've never been (flashy)," he said. "I don't really dance around guys too much. I go about it a different way than Hemmer does. I don't go through skates or toe drag. I don't even have that club in my bag. But there's lots of examples of guys who aren't flashy and still put up points. That's kind of the guy I'm trying to be."

JUST LIKE BRIND'AMOUR

Like Rod Brind'Amour.

"People have been saying the exact same thing about him for a lot of years," said MacTavish. "When he was in Philadelphia he was subjected to the same type of scrutiny and he continually gets it done on both sides of the puck. When you see a guy playing 20 plus minutes night in and night out you know he's a pretty versatile player."

Sometimes there's a pretty fine line between "elite player" and guys who bring as much to the table as Horcoff and Brind'Amour do. Still, Horcoff, who works as hard as anyone, might never enjoy the same adulation someone like Ryan Smyth did.

"I don't really care, to tell you the truth," he said. "It doesn't bother me. I don't let it. It would bother me if my teammates in the locker-room and the coaching staff didn't show that trust in me. But (MacTavish) showed the confidence in me and I know my teammates have the confidence in me and that's all that matters."


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