EDMONTON - For the first time in four years Ales Hemsky isn't worried about his shoulders and has once again found his comfort level with the Edmonton Oilers.
As a result, the veteran winger is off to a solid start, having scored a team-high seven goals.
In a shortened season that began with such promise, Hemsky's return to form is one of the bright spots for a team that now struggles to score five-on-five. Edmonton's 6-7-3 record leaves it 13th in the Western Conference standings.
Head coach Ralph Krueger said Friday the 10-year veteran is showing plenty of leadership.
"Ales needs to be a real creative player for us, but more than anything he needs to be a leader in the speed side of the game and that's what he's been bringing," said Krueger. "He's been bringing a lot of speed, an aggressive speed, he's been driving to the net and he's going to these areas that are difficult.
"That's why he's leading us in goals, because he's willing to take the hits, like the bruise on his face the other day when he drove to the net."
But Krueger likes what he's seeing from Hemsky off the ice as well.
"He's been extremely supportive on the bench . . . helping the younger players," the coach said. "He's been a good spirit in the room so it's off ice and on ice, Ales has been the player we need."
The soft-spoken Czech, who missed 108 games the last three years with shoulder issues, says he's not doing much differently this year. Talk about him being more comfortable and confident on the ice, he says, is just that: talk.
"People will say that when you score more goals . . . but I feel the same," he said. "I do feel better (physically) than the last couple of years. I'm healthier."
Hemsky has seven goals in 16 games, four coming on the power play. He also tops the team with a shooting percentage of 21.9.
In 69 games last season, he had 10 goals.
But Hemsky's increased scoring isn't just the result of having greater confidence in his shoulder after undergoing surgery in December 2009 and being better able to withstand the physical demands of NHL play.
"Oh no," said Krueger. "Ales is a sensitive person and player.
"He's comfortable with his body but he's also comfortable where he is with this team right now. He's feeling comfortable in his role on the team and he always wants more, which is good. Overall I believe that combination of on and off ice and his overall fitness is why he's our leading goal scorer."
Linemate Sam Gagner said Hemsky, who led the team in scoring four straight years before encountering shoulder problems, is making life tough for rival defenders with his skating and creativity.
"We all know the type of skill Ales has," Gagner said. "He really backs up defenders with his speed."
But Hemsky's offensive prowess and improved play won't mean much to him if the team misses the playoffs again.
"There's no excuses anymore if we are young or not," he said. "You can't say this forever; we have to take another step to another level.
"We can't talk about it all the time, we have to do it on the ice."
And that means finding a way to score more five on five. The Oilers have just 19 even-strength goals through 16 games compared to 17 on the power play.
The Oilers talk daily about resolving that problem by driving to the net, getting to rebounds, playing with more grit and scoring more "greasy" goals. But game after game, they fail to go out and do it.
"That's our biggest problem right now," said Hemsky. "I don't know why we don't score five on five, that's the question.
"But we have to work on our game, crash the net, get to those secondary scoring chances, put the puck in the net. People score like that. You won't get those pretty goals all season long."
Part of the problem is the Oilers' top six forwards are more flash and dash than bang and crash. But Hemsky said it's nonsense to suggest they don't have the ability to play a gritty game.
"It's still hockey, it's not style." he said. "Just have to do it, it's that simple.
"Style is if you're a skilled guy, or an energy guy, or a power-play guy. This is hockey, it's part of the game and you have to do it. It has nothing to do with style."
The Oilers resume action Saturday afternoon hosting Phoenix before heading out on a nine-game road trip.