by Jay Merryfield (@JayMerryfield)
Somewhere out there in what we call the universe, there is a quantum state (or maybe “dimension, or “reality”, or some other term I’m not educated enough to be able to come up with) where Ryan Alexander Gordon Smyth goes down in history as one of the greatest Oilers in the history of the franchise. As the theory goes, every decision, every outcome generates a separate reality: one where decision A happens, one where decision B happens, and they both continue on oblivious of the other.
In one of these outcomes, Ryan Smyth is one of the greatest Oilers ever. Not the highest scoring, not the most skilled, not the fastest or toughest or most memorable, but certainly one of the greatest.
In the other, we have the Ryan Smyth we’re all familiar with today.
Think about it: Smitty is basically a hometown kid. A high draft pick that stuck around. Took hometown discounts to stay with the team. Scored pretty consistently, if never outstandingly (career average is 23-27-51). He always put in a great, blue-collar effort. Never scored his goals because he was flashy, or slick, or super skilled, but because he worked harder than most people on the ice, sacrificed his body, played through pain, lost teeth, broke bones, all in the name of helping the franchise get better. He was a leader on the team that took Carolina to game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, and the bedrock we latched ourselves to during the defections that occurred the summer after that magic Cup run.
As an Edmontonian, you could not ask for more out of the face of your franchise; but Smitty also represented our country. He is Captain Canada, serving loyally and wholeheartedly every spring he is available at the World Championships (and based on the NHL teams he’s played on, he’s often available), and winning Olympic gold in Salt Lake City in 2002. He took the workman’s ethos he applied to the Oilers and expanded it to encompass the broader Canadian stereotype: humble, hardworking, implacable in competition, effort over skill, and a bit of a hoser haircut. If the nation could be proud of Ryan Smyth, then we as Edmontonians could be doubly proud because he was one of ours.
Here though is where quantum theory comes into play, the tale of two Ryan’s begins, and I tell you a story from a different reality than the one we all inhabit.
Trade deadline: 2007. Ryan Smyth inks a 5 Year/$25 Million dollar extension with the Oilers. Completes what had begun as a career year, ending with 36 goals (second highest ever, and highest since the ‘96 season) and 68 points (Smitty has only scored more points on two occasions). He, along with Shawn Horcoff and Fernando Pisani are inked long term and tagged as the future of the Oilers. Smitty succeeds Jason Smith as team Captain in 2008. He continues his assault on the Oilers record books, and by the trade deadline 2012 would be 1st in terms of games played (deposing Kevin Lowe), 5th in points scored (bumping Paul Coffey down a spot) and would be looking on taking 4th in goals scored from Mark Messier. The Oilers themselves are a bit of a mess, consistently finishing the season in 10th or thereabouts, putting up impressive late-season rally’s before ultimately falling short of the playoffs. Small trades, a new GM, new coaches, nothing can get this team over that hump and the limited flexibility that the Oilers “core” offers them, but they are a blue collar bunch, and bounce just enough goals off of Smitty’s rump to still appear as buyers as opposed to sellers at each trade deadline. Their picks are always middling, being stuck in that 7th-12th range, but lucking their way into getting Brayden Schenn in 2009. In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, they just can’t get enough traction to get into the playoffs, but are perpetually right there, ready to make a run for the post season to hopefully reclaim that magic from the spring of 2006.
Let’s jump back to our timeline now, and review what really happened: Ryan Smyth gets traded over a reportedly $500K/year gap between his demands and then-GM Kevin Lowe’s highest offer. Gets shipped to the Islanders for two players who never really panned out for the Oilers, and a first round pick they turned into depth blueliner Alex Plante. He still finishes as the top point-getter on the Oilers that year, despite playing the final 13 games for someone else. Smyth signs with the Avalanche in the off season, with little to no chatter about him returning to the city he tearfully said good-bye to only months before, signing a 5 year, $31.2M contract. Smitty has two more good seasons on the backward-sliding Avalanche before being traded to the Kings, and continued to put up solid numbers on that underachieving but young and highly skilled team, making noise in the playoffs and providing solid leadership to a room full of kids learning the NHL ropes. The Oilers spend those four years in a perpetual tailspin, treading water in the last position in the league, perpetual draft lottery fodder. They have a long series of good draft picks, and by the summer of 2011 have a good roster of young talent up front and… well, let’s not discuss the defense, shall we? The summer of 2011: Smitty wants out of LA, and the feeling is kinda mutual. Asks to go back to Edmonton, and his request is granted. He takes up the mantle of senior player, putting up good numbers consistent with his career averages, plays tougher minutes than just about anyone else on the team (backed up by advanced stats), and is in the running for team MVP.
This is the point where these two different timelines start to converge: Ryan Smyth as the 2011-12 season as team MVP, locker room leader, heading the charge, showing the way to a winning future as his last big contract winds down and he stares yet another trade deadline in the eyes. The team is still too young though. Success is a year or two away. Do you send your cagey veteran away for a 2nd round draft pick or questionable prospect? What value does a hard-working, defensively sound 36 year old have in the rental market? Do you keep him in house for sentimental reasons? Are you more likely to trade an 18 year veteran of your team for spare parts and a gamblers chance at a good player down the road? Or does the returning hero coming in at just the right time to taste success again look less tradable from a PR perspective? Did leaving after a full career affect Ray Bourque’s legacy? Did anything Paul Kariya did after he left the Ducks matter? How can you assess a might-have-been? Where does historical significance come to play when the trade deadline comes knocking?
All that I know is, that other Ryan Smyth, the 18 year veteran Oiler and team legend, one of the greatest Oilers in history, the holder of records and ambassador for all that makes Edmonton a great hockey town, he’s long gone. No matter how close the timelines come to one another, there’s a gap that can’t be breached.
Sometimes the trade deadline is meaningless fluff and 12 hours of filler for the sports networks.
Sometimes, it’s not.