Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A Few Words About Ryan Smyth

As I have been busy lately and unable to devote much time to this blog, I have not written many of the posts that I otherwise would have. One topic I would have written about a few times is the Ryan Smyth trade to the New York Islanders. Others have already written a lot on this topic including Tyler Dellow at Mutcrutch Hockey and RiversQ at Irreverent Oilers Fan.

From a hockey standpoint, the Oilers made a very good trade getting three first round draft pick prospects from the New York Islanders in Robert Nilsson, Ryan O'Marra and the 2007 first round pick. All have potential to have decent NHL careers. Smyth is an unrestricted free agent and will be able to sign wherever he chooses this summer (likely it will not be Edmonton and it will not be Long Island). That is why I think this is a good trade for the Oilers and a bad trade for the Islanders. It makes a shortterm improvement oto the Islanders. The biggest shortterm improvement any team made at the trade deadline, but the Islanders are not a team that is a serious Stanley Cup contender. They should not be burning their future to make a likely ill-fated run this season. More than likely, the Islanders will fall in the first round this year - even with Smyth. The Oilers likely made a significant longterm improvement. If even one of the three prospects they go becomes a legitimate second line player he will be more valuable than the rest of the season of Ryan Smyth - and by a large margin. This return is similar to the return the Oilers got when they traded a non-rental Chris Pronger this summer.

The problem to Oiler fans is the symbolism of the trade. Smyth is a popular player. He is somebody who has given his heart and soul to the Oilers. In the old NHL CBA he likely would have been an Oiler for life. This new CBA is one of increased player movement and will probably put an end to such players. The Oilers went to game seven in the Stanley Cup finals last year and they are very upset to not have a run in the following season - although that is a good example of the parity in the NHL under this CBA.

We need to ask just how good Ryan Smyth is. Ryan Smyth is not on a Hall of Fame track. Ryan Smyth is not a true franchise player. The Hockey News ranked him the 33rd best player in the NHL last summer. Probably this season will move him a few more points up the list - especially now that he is in the media center of New York, but one cannot make a serious argument that he belongs in the top ten or even top twenty. In a thirty team league, a legitimate franchise player must be better than the best player on a good portion of NHL teams. Ryan Smyth is not that. He is slightly below that level. Even at his peak (right now) he cannot achieve that and likely he never will. The story is that Smyth was very close (within $100,000 a year) of signing a five year contract with the Oilers. I do not believe that. I don't think that contract could have been a "no strings attached" deal. I am sure there were many other significant issues (maybe a no trade clause) that were also not agreed upon. I think this is a public relations spin. The Oilers never really wanted to resign Ryan Smyth. Not at the amount of money and length of term he would command, but they can tell the media that they tried. Look how close they came.

I see the logic in not resigning Smyth to a large five year deal. He is having a career year and will likely never retain his current value. This will get worse as he ages. This is made worse by the fact he has never been a durable player. Smyth seems to miss several games to injury annually. I think the Oilers wanted to resign him this year and expected he probably would not have as good a year as he is having and would not command the same sized contract. His career best season that he is currently having ruined those plans. I am sure that somebody will sign Smyth. I think it will likely be for more than the Oilers would have had to pay and I think it will be a bad deal for the team involved.

Tom Benjamin is making this trade into a bigger deal than it is. The Oilers are not serious Stanley Cup contenders with Smyth. Signing him to a big longterm deal just handcuffs their budget as Smyth declines. Although Edmonton may not be the prime location for signing free agents, they will sign some. If they scout well, they will sign players to deals that give them good production for their cost. The Stanley Cup has never been won by free agent signing. It has always been won by building a good young core of players. Although the lower free agency age will possibly change that for the biggest markets that will seem most attractive to free agents, it won't change it for Edmonton. Edmonton cannot win by signing big money free agents. They are well advised to not even try that game. For the Oilers to succeed, they must grow a young core of talent much like Buffalo and Nashville have and watch them emerge together as a group. Edmonton has some top prospects and may be well on their way to this. Re-signing Ryan Smyth to big bucks longterm would limit their ability to pay that core if it emerges. Taking the Smyth money and signing another name free agent with it will likely do the same - unless they can find somebody who is younger and worth more than he is eventually paid in his contract. Being upset that Edmonton is not playing the losing game of chasing aging free agents, despite their disadvantaged ability to do this is pointless.

In Tom Benjamin's case it comes down to the lies the Oilers sold to their market to sell the new CBA. The Oilers claimed this CBA would let them keep their talent and stop having to sell it all the time (like Curtis Joseph, Doug Weight...). This was an obvious lie. How could a CBA that leads to more player movement allow a team to keep their talent? Tom is ranting that the Oilers have failed to live up to what they promised to sell this CBA. Of course they have failed. They never seriously intended to do it. It was all a smoke and mirrors campaign to sell the lockout and the new CBA that many bought into.

Last season, an Oiler team with a similar record to this one went to the trade deadline as buyers. They made the biggest shortterm improvement by selling part of their future. There was one significant difference last year. The Oilers had a dominant franchise player in Chris Pronger. Even if their record was about the same, they had a team that was more capable of a Stanley Cup run (which luckily for them happened). Kevin Lowe was a smart enough GM to know to buy in that situation and sell in this one. To succeed in the Edmonton market, he must do a very good job of finding talent that others have missed. He may or may not be up to that challenge, but he has done well in knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. Kenny Rogers would be proud.

The biggest problem with this trade is a symbolic folding of the Oilers by trading away their heart and soul. It is a good hockey move to do so under the current circumstances. It was a bad hockey move by the Islanders to buy Ryan Smyth. It will likely be a bad hockey move to pay his free agency demands. The Oilers have to produce young talent to taker his place. They have a stockpile of people who might be these players. I think the Oilers will be a better team into the future without Ryan Smyth than they would have been if they kept him. I am not sure most Edmonton fans agree ... yet.

It's going to be interesting to see if Kevin Lowe can survive this trade. I agree with you that the payoff was strong, but the pressure to go sign/trade a 7M "big star" this summer will be enormous and spiking the roster with one highly paid veteran would be a mistake.

This team isn't in the same cycle as they were when the Pronger trade happened. Reason? Oilers had several players who were far more valuable than their sticker price (Stoll, Pisani, Torres) and all but Torres got their payday last summer.

Talk about your small windows of opportunities.
Some Oiler fans hold a similar view... they're just being treated like pariahs right now. It'll be interesting to see how things pan out. As you noted, it's important to realize in this situation that the Oilers were not on a playoff track with Smyth. If he wasn't signed at an agreeable prior to the deadline, it wasn't going to happen at all. So, how much are 20 games of Ryan Smyth worth? Because he was certainly going to walk for the UFA payoff. I would argue that Lowe obtained good value for 20 games of Ryan Smyth for a losing cause.
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