On Friday night Ryan Smyth played game 1,095 of his NHL career and number 796 as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. On their own neither of those numbers appears to be all that significant, but Friday night’s game moved Smyth past Kelly Buchburger and into fourth place on the Oilers all time games played list. Given the fan reaction to Smyth’s homecoming and his early season play, I was a surprised that (as far as I saw) there was no mention of the achievement at the game on Friday.
The Oilers record books are, in a lot of ways, fractured. There are the seven seasons in the WHA that are ignored entirely despite logic, followed by the dynasty years which saw several future Hall of Famers put up numbers during a single decade that will be difficult, if not nearly impossible, for any player to match over a career, and finally our long wander through the desert looking for a return to the NHL’s elite which is where we find ourselves today.
With the Friday night game doubling as Grant Fuhr mini jersey night there was a good opportunity to tie the Oilers’ past to their present with Smyth's climbing to number four on the games played list. It didn’t have to be anything big or extravagant, just something as simple a letting the fans know during one of the TV timeouts. No worries though, there are more opportunities right around the corner and even more if the Smyth/Oilers reunion tour extends beyond this season which I certainly hope it does.
By all appearances Smyth is enjoying his return to Edmonton. He looks to be having fun on the ice and, based on a recent Oil Kings event with Devan Dubnyk, Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle, and Taylor Hall, he seems to be having fun off the ice as well and fits in just fine with the next generation of Oilers. Of the group he was the one smiling the most, and it wasn't even close. And all that fun is showing up on the score sheet. Through the first 27 games of the season Smyth has 26 points; if he keeps that 0.96 points per game rate up it would match his career best from 2006/07. That season Smyth was actually averaging a point per game for the Oilers before being traded to the Islanders on trade deadline day.
Some fans were hesitant about bring Smyth back, feeling that he wasn’t worth his $6.25M cap hit. It’s never easy to live up to that kind of value but so far Smyth has been close and has played better than anyone could have realistically expected from a player who will be 36 by the time the season is over. He’s proven that he’s still capable of taking on the other team’s best night after night, while at the same time still providing offense. Even though I think it’s unlikely that his early season offensive production will continue through April, what he brings in other areas of the game will still make him a tremendous asset to this team.
The Oilers need to be cautious with Smyth during the offseason (please no more four year deals with 36 year olds) but I think the team should make every effort to keep him here. Not just for nostalgia sake but because he’s still good enough to play and help lead this team. The ideal situation for the Oilers would be to go year to year with Smyth until the two feel that it’s time to part company. But considering the season that he’s putting together I don’t think that a two year deal would be the end of the world. Maybe the Oilers get a small cost savings in return for that extra year. And in a couple years perhaps he needs to be sheltered a little on some nights, that's fine, the kids he's providing shelter to now should be able to return the favour by then.
It goes without saying that Smyth’s four and a quarter seasons in exile from the city he loves set him back in terms of where he sits in the Oilers record books. Had he never left Smyth could already have passed Lowe on the games played list, now he’ll need three more season after this one to do that; but if he stays healthy he could pass Glenn Anderson and Mark Messier this season. Doug Weight could be in Smyth’s review on the points list as early as this weekend (something that had previously been predicted to happen in March) and with another season so too could Paul Coffey. Beyond that who knows, after seeing his first 27 games back in Edmonton I know I won’t be betting against him any time soon.