Ales Hemsky tests his surgically repaired shoulders, hopes for healthy 2011-12 season

The Edmonton Oilers aren’t the only team that has been mired at the bottom of the league’s ranks for long enough to stock up on high-end draft picks for a few years. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks can thank some pitiful stretches of hockey for the fresh faces of their drastically improved franchises.

That being said, the Penguins, Capitals and Blackhawks took some big steps in the right direction once they landed some top prospects. It seemed to happen once they added at least two stars-to-be. The Penguins took off only after Evgeni Malkin joined Sidney Crosby & Co. a year after Crosby entered the league. The Capitals started to take off once they hired Bruce Boudreau, but it didn’t hurt that Nicklas Backstrom came along to ride shotgun with Alex Ovechkin. Jonathan Toews was drafted in 2006 but the Blackhawks waited until they nabbed Patrick Kane at No. 1 in ’07 before unleashing their two new game-changers onto the hockey world.

While Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might not have the same ceilings as those six other star players, they’re both the top overall picks of their respective NHL drafts. Oilers fans have been reasonably patient watching their prospect pool grow, but sooner or later, there’s going to be a “something’s got to give” point.

A healthy Hemsky could help the Oilers turn the corner

If that point happens to be the 2011-12 season, the Oilers are going to need results from more than just their big name youngsters. One of their few legitimate prime players is playmaker Ales Hemsky, a fantastic passing winger who cannot seem to stay on the ice often enough for the hockey world to truly gauge his talents.

In a way, Hemsky’s next season is his “something’s got to give” moment. He hasn’t even played in half of the Oilers games during the last two seasons (he played in 47 games in 10-11 and just 22 in 09-10) as injury after injury made him Edmonton’s answer to Marian Gaborik. Hemsky is a scoring threat in the rare moments he suits up, though, scoring almost a point per game (42 in 47 games in 10-11; 22 in 22 in 09-10) since he broke through with a 77-point campaign in 2005-06.

This is a pivotal campaign for two reasons: 1) he underwent surgery on both of his shoulders and 2) his $4.1 million cap hit will expire after the 2011-12 season. A team – perhaps even the Oilers – might be more willing to roll the dice with Hemsky’s checkered injury-related past if he can play close to 80 games and approach 80 points in the process.

Hemsky tested those surgically repaired shoulders today during the team’s development camp.

To the folks around the league who think Hemsky is injury-prone, all he can do is shrug those refurbished shoulders. He’s played only 69 of 164 games the last two seasons but doesn’t feel like his body is breaking down.

“I’m not worrying about it. It’s only the last two seasons, but before that I don’t think I’ve had many injuries,” said Hemsky, who expects to be ready for the Oilers training camp in mid-September.

Hemsky was back in the Czech Republic in June but will stay here for July to see the medical people and work on his rehabilitation, then head home to skate with the club team in Pardubice for awhile.

“I know to have surgery seems bad, but when you fix the shoulders, they should be OK, now. You get hit, you get a small tear in the shoulder and it’s tearing and tearing and finally it’s torn all the way. For two months you don’t feel it, then you get to where you can’t even sleep. Only thing you can do is go for surgery. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the motion I had before. They’ve tied it up pretty tightly for a hockey player, but it’s good enough for sports. I can play tennis, golf.”

If the Oilers brass (and Hemsky’s agent) get their way, Hemsky won’t have many opportunities to play golf next April.

Zetterberg on pace to play 1,000th game in Joe Louis Arena farewell

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Barring injury, Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg will get the opportunity to make his 1,000th NHL game even more special.

Detroit head coach Jeff Blashill confirmed today that Zetterberg will play tonight and tomorrow in Carolina, putting the 36-year-old on pace to play his 1,000th game on Apr. 9, the date of the final Wings game at Joe Louis Arena.

The Wings, who will miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990, have eight games left in their regular season. They host New Jersey on Apr. 9.

Tonight’s game was originally scheduled for Dec. 19, but had to be postponed due to poor ice conditions at PNC Arena.

Isles sign Northeastern captain Stevens

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John Stevens, who just wrapped a four-year career at Northeastern University, has signed a two-year, entry-level deal with the Islanders, the club announced on Monday.

Stevens, 22, went undrafted but emerged as a valuable player for the Huskies, culminating with a senior season in which he served as captain and averaged better than a point per game (28 in 25 contests).

Stevens is the son of longtime L.A. Kings associate coach John Stevens, who formerly served as the bench boss in Philly.

A third member 0f the Stevens clan, Nolan, also played this season at Northeastern — his junior campaign — and was taken by St. Louis in the fifth round of last year’s draft.

McElhinney to start for Leafs tomorrow

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Curtis McElhinney will start in goal for the Maple Leafs when they host Florida tomorrow.

Which means Toronto’s regular starter, Frederik Andersen, will not.

Andersen, hurt Saturday in Buffalo, only lasted 20 minutes of practice this morning. The Toronto Star, citing a Leafs source, is reporting that Andersen “took a blow to his jaw from a player in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Sabres.”

McElhinney is 4-5-0 with a .919 save percentage in 10 appearances for the Leafs this season. He told reporters that tomorrow will be the biggest start of his NHL career.

It remains to be seen who will back up McElhinney against the Panthers. The Leafs have recalled goalie Garret Sparks from the AHL on an emergency basis. All three netminders were on the ice today.

Update:

Expect Sparks to be the back-up tomorrow.

Toronto has a three-point playoff cushion, with eight games remaining.

The Leafs also recalled forward Kasperi Kapanen, the 22nd overall draft pick in 2014. Kapanen, 20, has 18 goals and 25 assists in 43 games for the Marlies this season. He’s expected to replace Ben Smith on the fourth line, alongside Brian Boyle and Matt Martin.

Habs sign d-man Mete, who ‘does everything’ for junior team

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Victor Mete, Montreal’s fourth-round pick at last year’s draft, has signed his three-year, entry-level deal, the club announced on Monday.

Mete, 18, is in his third year with OHL powerhouse London, and finished this season with 15 goals and 44 points in 50 games. He’s developed a reputation as a terrific skater, and often plays alongside fellow Knights d-man Olli Juolevi, who the Canucks took fifth overall at last year’s draft.

London assistant coach Dylan Hunter had high praise for Mete this season.

“When it comes to little nuances of his game, stick on puck, knowing when to make a play and when there isn’t a play to just get it out, he’s one of the best there is right now,” Hunter said, per the London Free Press.

“He does everything for us.”

Mete has one year of junior eligibility remaining, so it’s likely he’ll be back in London next season. At 5-foot-10 and just 180 pounds, he’s undersized and could use another year of development before turning pro.