As you might have anticipated, I am a little bit excited by the Ryan Smyth story. Did I get home late and wake up my girlfriend to tell her the news and show her the Smyth press conference in 2007 and the Pronger puck to the face in 2006 followed by Smyth’s return to the game? Quite possibly. Does she care about the Oilers? No, because in the time we’ve been dating, I’ve had a hard enough time lying to myself that the Oiler game was worth watching without lying to her too.
There’s two angles to this thing. The first is pretty straightforward. Ryan Smyth is still a pretty good hockey player, signed for only one more year and the Oilers are a terrible hockey team with lots of cap space. If he’s requested a trade back to Edmonton, I think we can safely assume that he wants to play out the rest of his career here and that money won’t be a problem in the future. This is why I found it so outrageous that Elmer Ferguson Award winning journalist Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun declared that left wing is “locked” and “crowded”.
This is asinine. After Dustin Penner was traded last year, the Oilers left wing depth consisted of Taylor Hall, Magnus Pajaarvi, Ryan Jones and Liam Reddox. They only played one game together, unfortunately, because Hall got injured. In that game, Hall played 18:32, Pajaarvi 17:36, Jones 14:54 and Reddox 9:35. Reddox has signed overseas and won’t be back. JF Jacques is an option there but he’s a bit of a punchline at this point. (“This point” = 2009) Smyth’s got a skillset that few Oilers forwards have – he can competently kill a penalty – and is also useful in front of the net on the PP. Ryan Jones is a pretty terrible hockey player – I haven’t seen anything analytical that doesn’t come to that conclusion. What’s wrong with shunting Jones to the fourth line (other than the fact that he’s inexplicably making 150% of what Raffi Torres earned this year and with twice the term), slotting Smyth in and letting Hall, Pajaarvi and Smyth fight to earn the minutes? There was a few weeks, possibly after the multi-headed braintrust was assembled, when the Oilers were operating on the Red Wings model. Part of the Red Wings model is that the kids earn their minutes. And not in a contest that’s rigged with a bunch of Alexandre Giroux and Linus Omarks whose fate has been decided before camp starts.
Smyth’s numbers have trended down but he’s still a very useful hockey player. His ES shooting percentage actually jumps out at me as being fairly abysmal of late, something which is prone to bouncing back and suggests he might still be a better offensive player than the boxcars indicate. We know that the Oilers have a thing for keeping some veterans around – they like the presence. It’s how Jason Strudwick collected a million bucks or so over the past few years. If you have a thing for guys like that, why not bring in a guy who is genuinely beloved in Edmonton, can actually play hockey (Strudwick was basically the Oilers’ eighth or ninth defenceman, behind whoever was playing well in OKC) and has a reputation as being a hard worker.
Like all fans, I don’t actually know Smyth. I’ve got no idea what he’s like as a person, although he was perfectly friendly to me when I met him at SkyDome in 2004. When he left town though, I didn’t hear that aspect of his character get trashed and I’m pretty sure I recall Pat LaForge suggesting that Smyth didn’t have an alibi for the night that Peter Pocklington was shot. The Oilers habitually dump all over players who leave through their surrogates and there was nothing suggesting he was a bad guy in the room that I noticed in the newspapers. Until someone with a name wants to say differently, (and I’m looking forward to Bob Stauffer’s show tomorrow) I’m inclined to think that he’s excellent for the Jason Strudwick role, albeit that he can actually play hockey.
In her column on this news, Helene Elliot mentioned that it is believed a mid-round pick would make this trade happen. She’s got confirmation from Dean Lombardi in her story of a discussion with Smyth and you kind of suspect that Lombardi might have been the source. Now, who knows what that means, exactly – if I was the Oilers, I’d be throwing a fifth out there – it’s like a late fourth and if LA is willing to take a mid-round pick, given where they’re at in the success cycle, they want to move him.
You wonder though – do the Oilers want to add good hockey players right now? As far as I can tell, Katz is selling out the place while icing a pretty cheap hockey team (admittedly, while carrying 10% of the total money spent on hockey players in the AHL). If they add good hockey players, they hurt their chances of adding more cheap young ones with the potential to be great. They may well feel disinclined to spend the money when the rink’s sold out to watch Jason Strudwick, Ryan Jones and Nikolai Khabibulin get whipped. To put more of a point on it, they might think that they’re better off losing some more and then adding veteran pieces down the road.
From a logical perspective, I can see the truth in that. At the same time, the current CBA doesn’t really allow you to stockpile talent like the Ottawa Senators of the 1990′s. The clock’s running on Hall’s contract. Half of the Stanley Cup winners since the lockout weren’t built on home drafted talent and Detroit was built on guys they were paying anyway. There are other ways to win Stanley Cups and the Oilers are going to have a second first overall pick at the end of the week. At some point, your club has to try to win some games.
The second angle on why they need to bring him back is tougher to quantify but I’ll call it the romance thing. There are compelling franchises in sports. The Oilers have had two extended periods of being a compelling team – the team in the 1980′s, which was dominant offensively and the 96-06 team, which was always an underdog and always put in a good shift, playing entertaining hockey and scrapping for everything they got. The post-2006 era of the Oilers has been completely uncompelling. Watching a team sign second tier veterans and restricted free agents, running up the payroll without affect the players on the ice, the third and fourth lines made up of a collection of people who simply aren’t good enough to be in the NHL is awful. Watching them accidentally tank in 2009-10 because management was too inept to realize what a disaster they had on their hands and then do something that looked suspiciously like intentionally tanking last year wipes a lot of the joy from following them. It’s as if they threw up their hands and said “We’ll try to be interesting in 2014. If you build us a new rink.”
The Oilers obviously needed to rebuild but one of the great themes in their history has been an inability to have their great players from previous generations wind down their careers in Edmonton, handing the team over to the next generation. Nobody’s done it. The guy who came closest was Kevin Lowe, returning in 1996-97 to wind down his career and help a young Oiler team to the playoffs – I’ve always loved that shot after Todd Marchant scored the overtime winner against Dallas, as the young fellows on the Oilers bench have already ripped down to the corner to celebrate as Lowe grins and throws a leg over the boards to join them.
The most compelling teams blend their past, present and future in a way that lesser teams don’t. Carolina or Anaheim or Tampa Bay winning the Stanley Cup doesn’t matter in the same way that it does when a team with a rich history wins it and links can be drawn between current and past editions of the club. The Oilers have always been ham-fisted at this, constantly dragging out the memories of the 1980′s for another airing, ignoring their WHA history to the irritation of some and frequently trying to distract people from the awful present with promises of a better future. Assuming that acquiring Smyth makes hockey sense – and I think it does – it’s a glorious chance for them to actually create some long term continuity in the club as well, to create a real sense of the past, present and future of the Oilers colliding.
We’re told that the Oilers intend to contend for the Stanley Cup in the next few years. It’s tough to think of anything that would be better than Hall accepting it and passing it off to Smyth. It would be a bit of redemption for the way that things ended the first time around with him, for the 2006 Stanley Cup finals and all of the struggles between 1996 and 2004 against much wealthier teams, a genuine moment.
I’m usually into cold logic when it comes to sport but when you come to a fork in the road and there’s no hockey reason to choose either fork, you take the path that offers some promise of redemption and completing an unfinished journey. If Smyth can come back in the context of a plan that makes sense as far as winning the Stanley Cup goes, it needs to happen.