This past summer Oilers GM Steve Tambellini traded Colin Fraser and a 7th round draft pick to the LA Kings to bring back fan favourite Ryan Smyth. While most fans embraced this trade with enthusiasm and open arms, I had some serious doubts about bringing back a 35 year old scoring winger at this point in the rebuild. The problem that I had most seriously concerned the continual development of players such as Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi, Linus Omark, and Teemu Hartikainen. I was worried that bringing back Smyth would take away top six minutes specifically from Hall and Paajarvi while holding players such as Omark and Harski father back in the depth pool.
After a little bit of though and mulling it over I realized that Smyth could bring a lot of leadership back into the line up that removal of guys like Ethan Moreau, Jason Smith, Steve Staios, etc over the past two seasons had taken with them to their new respective teams. Also I imagined, Smyth would be playing a third line role, seeing time on both special team units for his expertise in the crease and determined grinder mentality which could aid the struggling penalty-kill. Anyways, I realized my opinion didn’t matter to anyone of any importance in Oilers management, and that only time could see how Smyth’s return would impact the team.
Now that we’ve seen almost 50 games this season from the orange and blue I feel comfortable making the statement that bringing Ryan Smyth back into Edmonton has stunted the rebuild in a major way. The reason I have for this is with regards to the development of Magnus Paajarvi, the 10th overall draft pick in the 2009 entry draft. Smyth, the season before coming to Edmonton posted respectable numbers for a 34 veteran grinder putting up 23 goals and 47 points and a -1 +/- rating over a full 82 game season, that in comparison to Paajarvi’s 15 goals and 34 points along with a -13 +/- rating in 80 games. Now if we are just looking purely at numbers it would be the obvious choice to place Smyth ahead of Paajarvi in the depth chart, and this is exactly what Tom Renney did once the regular season began. But do this numbers really tell the full story?
Smyth was playing for the Stanley Cup favourite (by many analysts) Kings along with players such as Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, and later on Mike Richards and Dustin Penner; all players that had proven to put of respectable to high numbers throughout the course of their career. Paajarvi saw most of his time along with Sam Gagner (career 40-49pt guy), Linus Omark (first year rookie), and Ryan Jones (career high 18 goals and 25pts last season). While the Oilers did have notable players such as future stars Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Whitney these players at their respective stages in their careers do not compare well to the cast of the LA Kings. Smyth also enjoyed the luxury of see regular power play minutes night in and night out. Paajarvi, while seeing reasonable amount of power play was in no means seeing the same time as players such as Hall, Hemsky, and Eberle (the other top 6 forwards).
There is also the factor that in the last 42 games of the last season, Paajarvi put up 13 of his 15 goals and lead the team in scoring through those 42 games, carrying the scoring load on his shoulders while Hall, Hemsky, and Eberle spend their time on the IR list. Paajarvi also showed the majority of his success playing along with fellow Swede Linus Omark, who also put up solid rookie numbers, and Sam Gagner; Showing the makings of a future second line for the Oilers.
This season the expectations were that Paajarvi would continue to carry on his hot streak from the end of the previous season, but as we all know, that has not be the case, not even remotely. Instead Paajarvi has seen himself accumulate 4 assists and a -7 rating through the 33 NHL games he has played in so far. He has seen only a handful of games with top six minutes, power play time, or with offensive line mates; the opposite of last season during his hot streak. Paajarvi this season has been playing with fellow offensive juggernaut Eric Belanger (I hope you guys can catch that sarcasm) and a rotation of wingers ranging from Sam Gagner, Ales Hesmky, Ryan Jones, Anton Lander, Lennart Petrell, Ben Eager, and Darcy Hordichuk, along with seeing less than nine minutes of ice team in 90% of his outings; hardly a recipe for success for a future top six forward.
Those top 6 minutes in which Paajarvi flourish in last season, have instead for the most part, gone to Ryan Smyth, and for the first twenty games of the season I could hardly argue with that decision as Smyth scored at a PPG pace and at one point lead the western conference in scoring. While Smyth was scoring and Paajarvi was struggling, however, Smyth was playing along-side Calder Trophy favourite Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and current All-Star Jordan Eberle while Paajarvi saw his time spent with, in my opinion, 4th line center Eric Belanger, and a rotation of wingers who also could not find any chemistry with Belanger. After Smyth’s red hot start his offensive numbers has plummeted but still Paajarvi was not given those minutes in an attempt to boost his output. Now when no wingers can find any chemistry with a particular center (Belanger) it confuses me how a coach (Renney) does not recognize the problem is which the center and not the 4 or 5 odd wingers he’s played along with, but that’s another issue all together.
As a result of playing in a diminished role, with far inferior line mates, and seeing little to no power play time how can anyone honestly say Paajarvi has been given any chance to succeed? Sure, some blame must be placed on Paajarvi for not elevating his game and taking Smyth’s spot from him, and not adapting his game in order to find success, but largely, in my opinion, he has lost all confidence in his abilities, game, and himself at the NHL level. In order for Paajarvi to regain his top six role in the future he need to see an extending streak (20+ games) in the AHL, playing first line minutes in all situations which will see him score and be a leader on the team.
I do not believe that Paajarvi should have played in OKC last season and developed along slower, or that the Oilers rushed him his development at all. He played pro in Sweden from the age sixteen, was an all-star at the WJC’s every year he competed, and had a very successful rookie campaign. This season he was placed in a position where he had no chance of improvement or even to maintain his level of play from the season before. Smyth came in and stole his top six role, his power play time, and his confidence and the damage may be irreversible. Now I am not blaming Ryan Smyth for this debacle since every player will happily take top 6 minutes, but instead I place the blame on management and the coaching staff for 1) bringing in a competing top six winger (who happens to be Edmonton’s golden boy), 2) Not recognizing the limited abilities of Eric Belanger and the effect it had on Paajarvi’s offense, and 3) Not finding a role for Paajarvi on the power play. If Paajarvi is not placed in an environment to succeed how can they expect him to succeed?
At 35 years old Smyth was labelled as a more significant piece in the Oilers future than the 21 Magnus Paajarvi, a decision that make no sense to me. In all likelihood Smyth will not be an Oiler when we finally compete for the Stanley Cup three to five years down the road but Paajarvi will be. Not many coaches and GM’s decide that the proper way to develop young talented players is to decrease their roles and ice-time as their careers move along. Paajarvi came off a remarkable second half of the 2010-2011 and was rewarded by moving from a top 6 role to a bottom 6 role.
If the Oilers are to ever develop into a perennial cup contender down the road we must place the priority on the development on our future stars and not on aging veterans in the twilight years of their careers. The Ryan Smyth trade this past summer has significantly damaged the development of Magnus Paajarvi and in doing so, possibly destroyed the future of a top 10 pick and potential star winger in the NHL. On a team where secondary scoring is at a minimum the last thing this franchise should be doing to diminishing the confidence, offensive role, and development of the very players who could provide that additional offensive output. Paajarvi has all the tools to be a constant 60+ point scorer in his NHL career, that is, if the Oilers allow him to be.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this FanPost are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of the staff.