This may be the day that’s most emblematic of the Oilers as a franchise in history. They celebrate the past, point the fans to the future and screw the present – there’s an awful lot to be cynical about here, I think. Last year, when Kevin Lowe fixed the goalies, I compared the whole thing to the scene in the Godfather Part I where Michael Corleone settles the family accounts. This year, the appropriate comparison is to the end of that movie, with Kay Adams symbolizing Oilers fans:
Kay: Kevin, is it true?
Kevin: Don’t ask me about my business, Kay.
Kay: Is it true?
Kevin: Don’t ask me about my business…
Kevin: Enough! Alright. This one time – this one time – I’ll let you ask me about my affairs.
Kay: Is it true? – Is it? Did you guys trade Ryan Smyth because you’re too cheap to pay him after handing out ill-advised thank you contracts to Steve Staios, Fernando Pisani and Dwayne Roloson?
People who’ve seen the movie will know that the end of the scene involves Kay going out to get him a drink. She looks back and all the old Don’s cronies enter and kiss his ring. Al Neri then closes the door, blocking her view. The implication is clear (especially because they had previously shown all the killings): Michael did it all and is now what his father used to be. Kevin Lowe is now Glen Sather, trading away local icons for future promises. For what it’s worth, this example probably works just as well, if not better, with the Edmonton Investors Group and Peter Pocklington.
The EIG and Lowe would probably be well advised to watch The Godfather Part II sometime before the off-season and see what happens to the Michael/Kay relationship. She ends up having an abortion rather than giving birth to another one of his children and then leaves him. I’m not sure that I know of the situation in which I’d want to make that analogy and I’m pretty sure that the EIG wouldn’t want to be on the Michael end of a situation in which that analogy is appropriate. I won’t even get into the Godfather Part III, which was terrible – if I ever have to make an analogy to that movie, it will probably involve a situation where the Oilers finish last in the NHL after having traded their first round draft pick for a latter day Billy Hicke.
I’m not at all surprised that Robert Nilsson is part of the return: when you consider what the Oilers look for in a player, it’s like hitting the trifecta. He’s the son of a guy who used to play for the team (and his godfather is Wayne Gretzky), so you’ve got nepotism, the cornerstone of the foundation on which the Oilers perpetual chase for the eighth playoff spot is built. He was selected two spots before the pick that the Oilers dealt to the Devils that the Devils used to draft Zach Parise, so Jim Matheson will have his story about how this was a guy that the Oilers really wanted and were eager to get back in the 2003 draft. Finally, he’s already been signed to a contract, so there’s not going to be an awkward moment where he looks to Kevin Lowe for a signing bonus and Kevin Lowe says “You have to really want to be a part of this team.” He fits nicely with Oilers history and today’s theme as well – there’s a famous story about Mark Messier picking up Kent Nilsson by the neck and threatening to send him back to Sweden in a box if he didn’t play with some guts. He’s apparently got back problems as well, which if nothing else, is something that Craig Simpson knows something about, unlike, say, running an NHL power play.
I fully admit to a large degree of schadenfreude at seeing a situation like this finally come home to the EIG. At their core, they’re an organization that doesn’t want to pay top players unless there’s an excessive ROI on it. For reasons that simply defy understanding, they’ve got no problem paying the going rate or more for mid-level talent. They’re fine burning dollars on low level talent that’s related to Tom Mayson. They’re fine pissing money away on people whose main skill is having been an Oiler. They just don’t want to pay top dollar for top players though. For all the years before the lockout, they never had to acknowledge that. They painted it all as being due to economic pressures, the league’s salary structure being out of control…none of it to do with the fact that they didn’t want to pay market value. I’ve long since come around to thinking that every hockey decision in a professional league is a business decision because it’s impossible to separate the dollars from the hockey. Ryan Smyth at $650K annually would never be traded by the Oilers in today’s NHL, even if he he ended up being a popular fourth line/press box guy, assuming he was as popular as he was. I had to laugh at the quote from Kevin Lowe in today’s press release from the team:
I want to be very clear that making this trade today is a hockey decision. It was not financial.
This is, of course, bullshit. There’s no such thing as a hockey decision in the NHL, unless you’re trading guys with identical contractual situations. It’s clear that the Oilers would have singed Smyth at some figure – they weren’t comfortable with the higher figure. I don’t know how you can characterize that as anything other than a business decision. This is identical to so many other Oilers trades – they might have been closer to actually paying the player this time but in the end, the value that the player perceived the market as placing him exceeded that which the Oilers were willing to play. Of course, if you’re the Edmonton Oilers, it’s a little awkward to say that, given the somewhat humiliating public display leading up to the CBA, culiminating in Cal Nichols making all of his public appearances while wearing a barrel and carrying a tin cup for change. It’s much better to say that this departure because of an unwillingness to pay on the part of the Oilers was a hockey decision while those departures because of an unwillingness to pay on the part of the Oilers were because of the outrageous degree to which players were overpaid. It’s a distinction without a difference, as far as I can tell – the Oilers just don’t want to pay. Unless, of course, you’re Joffrey Lupul.
Pat LaForge was quoted in that same press release as saying:
While on the one hand some Oilers fans might be distressed that this trade was made today, I want those same fans to be assured that the Oilers will use these excellent young players and our own deep pool of young talent in a new plan for this team. We can afford to spend the money necessary to have the kind of elite players expected. This was about the Oilers staying true to a plan. I know our hockey strategy is sound.
You’ll notice that he says that they can afford to spend money. He doesn’t say that they will.
That’s just the way that it works with EIG – it’s a cheap organization, compared to other teams in the NHL. They’re not willing to spend what other teams are willing to spend. I no longer have any faith in their complaints about money – they’re running a relatively cheap payroll this year, they’re eighth in the league in gate revenue according to Mark Spector…this has to be a middle of the road team, financially, at worst. They’re just incredibly cheap and you get the feeling that so much of the time, they’re just asking themselves, in a calculating fashion “Can we get away with this?” In the summer, with Pronger walking out the door and the dollar values a little lower, they threw what a lot of people thought was too much money at Roloson and Pisani. You’d think now that they just figured they could get away with dealing Smytty – maybe the calculations are a little different when the dollars are little lower.
For an organization that thrives on cheap symbolism - see their hokey 25th anniversary logo - they lost a great opportunity for some real symbolism here in failing to sign Smyth. This is a team that, for better or worse, is irrevocably connected to the fact that they had some of the greatest players of all time and sold them. During the build up to the lockout, they kept getting rid of people who may have otherwise wanted to stay. All the while, the Oilers cried poor and let themselves be used by the NHL as a symbol of what was wrong with the old CBA. Here was a guy from Alberta who loved the team, loved being in Edmonton – as some others obviously haven’t – and they were too cheap to get it done. According to Bob McKenzie, they were willing to go as high as $5.2MM or so and Smyth wanted $5.5MM. Leaving aside the question of whether the Oilers should have even gone that high, that’s an awfully small gap to bridge. For me, at this point, it starts to stop being a question of whether or not this was the right deal to make – I’m just so tired of seeing this team willing to spend lots of money on the mid tier play while at the same time sticking it to their top talent in terms of contracts.
Once the decision not to pay Ryan Smyth what he was asking for was made, I don’t really have huge problems with the deal. Once the decision not to pay him was made, with the playoffs virtually out of reach, that was what had to be done. I’m mildly bullish on Robert Nilsson, given his AHL production and I don’t know anything about Ryan O’Marra. I know some of the prospect junkies wanted Kyle Okposo but hey – O’Marra and Nilsson already have signing bonuses, which is great from EIG’s perspective. A pick is what a pick is. Once you’ve made that decision not to pay his price, there’s just nothing left to do other than get what you can for him. It’s the right thing to do, in the same way that if you own a million dollar home that you don’t insure, it burns down and then you get a good price for the land, it makes sense to take it.
The trade pretty much cast a pall over the proceedings tonight. Lowe didn’t participate, presumably because he would have been booed like there was no tomorrow. The game itself seemed to feature a dead crowd, although they did get up a couple nice Smytty chants. I’m actually mildly sympathetic to Lowe – your friend’s number doesn’t get retired every day and I’m sure he wanted to be part of that but then none of the other guys on the ice had ripped the heart out of the current model of the team today. “You can participate in the ceremony, so long as you don’t fuck over the fans with the previous four hours” is a harsh standard but a pretty lenient one in terms of prohibited conduct.
It’s probably time for Sportsnet to axe that “Loyalty Matters” ad that Dwayne Roloson does or add a caveat like (…provided you’re cheap). Another alternative would be to do one where Cal Nichols is counting his money and then he spits on a small boy wearing a Ryan Smyth jersey, followed by “Profit Matters.” Hell, some clever editing of today’s footage and you could probably get that together quite easily.
Kudos to Ray Ferraro for not shying away from this story. If this had been on PPV, presuambly Ryan Smyth wouldn’t have been mentioned a single time in the course of the game.
An entertaining quote from Lowe during his press conference: “They’re both great prospects. Actually, I’ll forget that – we won’t call them prospects anymore we’ll call them players because people get fearful of prospects.” I’m not sure whether he was correcting what he says or giving the media their marching orders. “He’s in his second full year in the NHL. People get fearful of guys in their third full year who look like peewees scared to take a hit.”
Congrats to Dan Barnes, one of the few Oilers media members who asks the difficult questions of Lowe, for yesterday’s column, the headline of which made reference to Smyth returning. The subhead was “DEWEY BEATS TRUMAN.”