Ryan Smyth, and Why We Were Right to Lose Him

February 27, 2007. 1,044 days ago. The day Ryan Smyth was traded to the New York Islanders in exchange for Robert Nilsson, Ryan O'Marra, and the first-round pick that became Alex Plante. The day the world ended. 1,044 days ago.

It's amazing the bitterness that some fans still attach to Ryan Smyth's departure. Bitterness directed not at Smyth but at then-ashen-faced-supremo Kevin Lowe, architect of the worst trade since Doug Weight (another one Lowe put together). The Oilers fandom has developed an orthodoxy surrounding the Smyth trade: that Lowe had decided in the summer of 2006 that he wasn't going to resign Smyth, that he had to budge only a small distance to keep Smyth an Oiler at the last gasp, and that when he traded Smyth to New York the little buck-toothed boy from Banff was utterly heart-broken at something he never could have expected. And that, since he's been gone, we've never been able to replace him.

Nonsense.

Maybe the Oilers should have kept Smyth. Maybe it would have been a good move both on and off the ice (although that's questionable). But it certainly wasn't Kevin Lowe coldheartedly deciding to axe the team's most popular star since Messier in the summer of 2006 and never looking back. There were very good reasons not to resign Smyth that summer and very good reasons not to give him his contract in 2007 when the trade was looming. Truth be told, at worst the trade has not hurt the Oilers very much and at best it's improved their long-term prospects significantly.

There are many reasons the Oilers are an awful hockey team right now and Kevin Lowe has to wear many of them, but Ryan Smyth is not one.

It is appropriate to begin at the beginning, with the infamous extension Smyth wasn't offered after our run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006. More than a few Oilers got their paydays that summer, most notably pending unrestricted free agent Fernando Pisani, who channelled Glenn Anderson all spring and banked a three-year deal woth $2.5 million per season for his trouble. Ryan Smyth was the team's icon, a decent playoff performer (fifth in team points behind Chris Pronger, Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, and Pisani), and of course that beloved be-mulleted son-of-a-gun who'd wandered the desert with the rest of the team only to nearly taste his just reward in one improbable spring. Although Pisani's contract was up (as were the other big money men like Steve Staios) and Smyth's wasn't, it seemed like a no-brainer to give Smyth a raise on the post-24%-rollback $3.5 million Smyth had earned in 2005-06.

On the contrary, Lowe allowed Smyth to play out 2006-07 without an extension, not even talking about a new deal until the eleventh hour. These negotiations failed, of course, as did Smyth's playoff run as a rental with the Islanders, whereupon he signed with the Colorado Avalanche with an average annual salary of $6.25 million per season paying him until 2011-12.

We haven't stopped hearing about it since. Lowe has not gotten a shadow of the benefit of the doubt; condemned in all circles for the Pisani, Staios and, once upon a time, the Dwayne Roloson extensions but condemned for not extending the most expensive one of all. All three of those players were veterans who had experienced career years and whose contracts were up, and they were compensated out-of-line to their actual ability. Better to let Pisani walk, it is said, than spend $2.5 million on a third liner. But when Ryan Smyth is the subject of discussion, all the talk of career years suddenly vanishes.

Unlike Pisani, Smyth had a contract for 2006-07 so Lowe could afford to wait. Moreover, he had every reason to do so, as Smyth's 2005-06 season was entirely out of line with his career performance. With the Stanley Cup run, every Oiler core player was commanding a premium, as Pisani, Staios, and Roloson proved in Edmonton while Jaroslav Spacek and Mike Peca proved it elsewhere. Smyth had a number of individual factors inflating his value as well. Normally prone to nagging injuries, Smyth had played all eighty-two games in 2003-04, skipped the lockout, and then played a career-high ninety-nine games in 2005-06. He turned thirty-one the month he was traded, hardly his physical prime. He played an infamously high-impact style despite his size. No way, one might think, can he keep up that pace (and he hasn't).

It wasn't just durability. Smyth's 66 points in 75 regular-season games was good for 0.88 points per game in 2005-06. In 2003-04 he had been a mere 0.72. In a season of over seventy games, his previous career high came half a decade earlier when Doug Weight had found his inner Adam Oates and helped Smyth to an 0.85 PPG season. Through the 2005-06 season, Smyth had posted a career 0.69 points per game. He had shot 15.7% in 2005-06, compared to a previous career high of 14.7% when he was twenty years old, a 13.6% campaign in 2002-03, and a career average of 11.6%. He also struck more than usual on the Chris Pronger-augmented power play, scoring nineteen goals with the man advantage compared to eight in 2003-04 (although his career high came way back in 1996-97, when he somehow buried twenty goals a man up).

Ryan Smyth had a far better season than his underlying numbers allowed us to expect, and his unusually strong teammates had doubtless dragged him up (he was the fourth-best scorer on the 2005-06 Oilers in the regular season, and the three players above him were all returning). Career highs on the power play and in shooting percentage made him look better than he really was. His stock had never been higher, but the Oilers were certain to get worse in 2006-07 with the departures of Spacek, Pronger, Peca, and Sergei Samsonov, and the return to historical form of a few others. Signing Ryan Smyth in the summer of 2006 would have been buying at the very top of the market, the very practice Lowe's other extensions were condemned for. The Oilers deteriorated, for the most part, exactly like you'd expect them to. Ales Hemsky went from a 0.95 points per game to 0.83, Shawn Horcoff plummeted from 0.92 to 0.64, and Jarret Stoll fell from 0.83 to 0.76 in a concussion-tormented season.

Smyth was the only exception to the otherwise-ironclad rule. Was that Kevin Lowe's sin? Failing to realize that an improbable career year would be followed up by an even more improbable career year that Smyth had never even hinted at approaching in over a decade of NHL hockey? His points-per-game as an Oiler in 2006-07 was an even 1.00. He shot 19.3%, and you shouldn't need me to tell you those were both career highs. He was the best Oiler that year by miles on a team that didn't have much to cheer about. If Lowe made a mistake, it was not trading Smyth when he was lighting it up the most and getting a Keith Tkachuk-level return, instead settling for a question mark in Robert Nilsson, an interrobang in Ryan O'Marra, and an unknown in a first-round pick.

But playing the percentages and betting that Smyth would return to his usual form on a bad team? How could Kevin Lowe be blamed for that? If Smyth had posted, say, thirty-three points before the deadline in 2006-07 and signed for the $3.5 million-ish per season he'd have earned with that, he'd look like a genius and have a solid top six winger and face of the franchise locked up at a reasonable price. Instead he lost his gamble and declined the chance to lock up a solid top six winger for elite money.

Ryan Smyth, after all, had always done well by the Oilers financially. In 2006-07, he was tied for the eighty-eighth highest-paid player in the NHL, on a level with veterans like Teemu Selanne, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Shane Doan, Chris Drury, and Maxim Afinogenov despite never having had unrestricted free agency. In 1998 as a restricted free agent Smyth had actually held out from training camp, eventually nearly tripling his salary of the previous year. His next contract was yet another nigh-threefold increase, and raises of 40%, 20%, and 14% followed even as his play stagnated.

Smyth was only too happy to talk about the "hometown discount" he wasn't going to take, but he had never taken one in the first place. His contract had always been in line with players of his age and performance. 2007 was his first crack at unrestricted free agency and he had exploited it to the fullest. Smyth certainly never cheated the Oilers and he always played his heart out, but the Oilers were hardly exploiting a naive little mountain boy for ten years.

The last objection to the Oilers trading of Smyth is what the team has become since he left. A crummy team before the deadline in 2006-07 nearly became a lottery team after, and a fluke run at a playoff spot in 2007-08 was followed by the misery of 2008-09 and the nadir we are enduring today, where loser points against the Phoenix Coyotes are cause for celebration. Robert Nilsson actually outscored Ryan Smyth in the first year after the trade but since then Smyth has been pulling away, while O'Marra has suffered injury and been a disappointment and Plante is too young to have made his mark. But the Oilers actually replaced Ryan Smyth quite effectively and for, when you think about it, a reasonable price.

His replacement, granted, cost the Oilers a first-, second-, and third-round pick, but in context that's not so bad. The Oilers got a first-rounder from the Islanders in the Smyth trade. Robert Nilsson, at the time, was certainly worth a second-rounder, and Ryan O'Marra was at least worth a third, so we can call that, at minimum, even. Smyth's cap hit is $6.5 million per year, his replacement's is $4.25 million. Smyth's two seasons with the Avalanche featured points-per-games of 0.67 and 0.77 against his replacement's 0.57 and 0.47, but the Avalanche were a better team, the replacement was healthier, and is a better all-round player besides (Smyth was the seventh-leading scorer on the 2007-08 Avalanche, his Oiler counterpart was fourth). While Smyth has experienced a renaissance playing with some excellent young players in Los Angeles, the Oiler has managed the same pace playing with Gilbert Brule and Sam Gagner. Also, his replacement is bigger, stronger, and five and a half years younger.

If you haven't figured out who yet, you haven't been reading us long enough.

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