Smyth is impossible to dislike and has been an inspirational competitor throughout his career, so this may be just a poorly timed bad patch. Or it may be what it looks like, a player whose prime is past.
I don’t think that there’s much doubt that Ryan Smyth’s prime has passed. The great thing about continually writing that a guy is washed up though is that eventually you’ll be right. In John MacKinnon’s case, it’s not the first time that he’s suggested that this is a possibility, as he notes. He panned this idea when rumours of Smyth’s return first arose, in a piece that I criticized here, writing:
The Oilers have had a cluster of former greats perform late-career encores, including Glenn Anderson, Bill Ranford, Kevin Lowe, Kent Nilsson and Petr Klima.
For virtually all of them, Oilers on-ice life was not lovelier the second time around.
All of those guys won Stanley Cups in Edmonton; it’s hardly surprising that on-ice life was not lovelier the second time around. With an 82 game, 46 point season under his belt though, the only guy in that group who has had a second tour of duty that’s as good as Smyth’s is Kevin Lowe, who was the oldest guy to dress for a playoff game on the 1996-97 Oilers by six years. I’d go so far as to say that Smyth and Lowe had returns that were about as good as you could reasonably hope for and the other four were awfully forgettable.
One of my favourite things about the Marchant goal in overtime in Dallas that year is the shot of the Oilers bench as what was really the second Oilers team to matter leaped off the bench to celebrate and Lowe just grinned and slowly eased over the boards. It’s a shame that there’s no decent picture of it because it really did capture the moment when the franchise moved on from the Boys on the Bus to being something else.
There were a few guys who are significant in the history of the franchise on the team that night but, outside of Lowe, none more than Ryan Smyth. Maybe I’m just a softie who loves narrative but that series win means a little more because of that brief meeting of the Oilers’ past and future. Lowe played 64 games that year and finished fourth in Oilers D scoring. He wasn’t Kevin Lowe from 1984 maybe but he could still make a contribution to the team. I don’t remember reading the same stuff about Lowe that is becoming routine about Smyth.
That Smyth was struggling to be as impactful a player in his return to the Oilers was evident for much of last season, actually. He has been ineffective from the beginning this season, which is not an easy thing to witness, given his history with the team, as a respected NHL player and Canadian international.
It’s kind of curious that MacKinnon wrote this, given that he’d said this about bring Smyth back:
Ryan Smyth still has something to give, as his 47 points (23 goals) for the Los Angeles Kings in 2010-11 demonstrated.
I guess 19 goals and 46 points isn’t sort of the same thing? It’s worth mentioning as well that the Oilers improved from being a -60ish team to a -20ish team; while that wasn’t mostly due to Smyth or anything, he gave them an honest to goodness NHLer. The penalty kill, on which Smyth featured, was much less of a disaster – that wasn’t the work of RNH, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. When they brought him back to town, guys like MacKinnon were writing that he’d better understand that he was now below MPS in the pecking order; Smyth ended up scoring more points by October 30, 2011 than MPS would score all year. It’s a little bit rich for MacKinnon to be saying “I TOLD YOU SO” when Smyth came in and contributed to an improving Oilers team and then his contract expired and they re-signed him.
If there was a mistake made in re-signing him, that’s one thing; it doesn’t mean bringing him back was a failure. Does MacKinnon think deleting Ryan Smyth and adding Colin Fraser back into the lineup would have made the Oilers a playoff team? Does he think the Oilers lost out on someone useful in Dmitri Sinitsyn? Of course not. He’s just a guy who advanced a silly argument in the summer of 2011 and doesn’t want to give it up.
There was nothing really unfair about Smyth being scratched against Dallas after the weekend that he’d had. The Oilers needed an honest to goodness centre in the lineup, Chris VandeVelde had looked decent and Smyth took five stupid penalties over the course of the weekend. Scratching Ryan Smyth the first time also has the benefit of sending a message to every guy in the dressing room – if a guy who is one of the top ten Oilers all of time all time can be scratched, so can you.
What I don’t get is why guys like John MacKinnon or Rhett Warrener – who called Smyth a joke on Calgary radio, despite being drafted in the same year as Smyth, basically ending his career as a useful piece a decade ago and then collecting a paycheque for four years – are so eager to bury the guy. Should Smyth be in the top six at this point? Probably not, although it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets a run there with Gagner and Hemsky if Teemu Hartikainen doesn’t seize the opportunity that it looks like he’s going to be given, with Yakupov dropping down the batting order. Are Ben Eager and Lennart Petrell as good as Ryan Smyth at this stage of his career? Are they as valuable to a hockey team? Can they provide what Smyth provides? I don’t really think so.
There shouldn’t be any shame in a hockey player getting old and losing it, bit by bit. He shouldn’t be measured against what he once was. It’s irrelevant to the question of whether he can help the hockey team in a different role. If Smyth’s willing to do what’s asked of him and play a different role than he once played, the question should be whether he can help the team more than the other options for that role. Personally, I have a hard time imagining how he isn’t almost always a better option than Ben Eager, although I understand that you don’t want guys at the bottom of the lineup sitting out forever and then being needed, so there’s a sort of a constant shuffle down there and Smyth’s at the point in his career where he might be part of that shuffle. If that’s an argument that guys like MacKinnon and Warrener want to make: “Ryan Smyth isn’t as good as Ben Eager” then let them make that argument, which at least addresses the question, and not “Ryan Smyth isn’t as good as Ryan Smyth when he was 28.”
It sounds like Smyth’s going to be back in the lineup tomorrow and, hopefully, he can have a good game and get on with showing that he do a job for the Oilers. Guys like Ben Eager are nothing in the grand scheme of things for the Oilers; guys like Ryan Smyth are and it’d be awfully cool to see him, this spring or the next, slowly throwing a leg over the boards to make his way over to the corner to celebrate a big overtime goal or, even better, waiting there with his arms in the air while the younger guys skate towards him.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org