Smyth faces crossroads in career with Oilers

In his 19th NHL season, Ryan Smyth has settled into a fourth-line role with the Edmonton Oilers. But the future, both short- and long-term is very much in question for the grizzled veteran of more than 1,000 games.

CHICAGO – The Edmonton Oilers have just left the ice for the morning skate and Ryan Smyth heads to his familiar spot in the dressing room. That would be the massage table.

In his 19th season in the NHL, Smyth is showing the mileage. His nose takes more twists and turns than a soap opera plot and his 1,235 games represents the most of any player taken in the 1994 entry draft. (The all-time mark is down to him and Daniel Alfredsson, who checks in with 1,216 games.)

There is not a lot of certainty in Smyth’s life at the moment, either in the short- or long-term. His contract with the Oilers expires after this season and $2.25 is a lot to pay to a fourth-line player. And as the trade deadline approaches, Smyth marches on with a second-last place team that could probably receive a draft pick from a contender looking for a power-play guy. And he does not have the security of a no-trade or no-movement clause, despite sitting second all-time on the Oilers game played list.

Smyth has no control over whether or not he moves at the trade deadline, but if he has anything to say about it – and he might not – he intends to continue playing next season. Anyone familiar with Smyth’s history is aware that Smyth will likely only leave the game when someone has to hold him down and pull his skates off, meaning it’s almost inevitable that he won’t leave the game on his own terms.

“I’m still enjoying every minute,” the 37-year-old Smyth said before Game No. 1,236. “I’ve always said that if my body holds up, which it has, I want to continue as long as I can. I think the game pretty well, which helps, but I don’t think past today. I live for today and enjoy the moment. It’s tough when you get up in age, not to think ahead.”

Long removed from his days as the Oilers top scorer, Smyth has settled nicely into a fourth-line role, playing primarily with Luke Gazdic and Ryan Jones. But because of his ability to create traffic in front of the net on the power play, Smyth is still drawing an average of more than 16 minutes a game. Of his six goals this season, half of them have come on the power play.

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But what fuels Smyth more than anything is his love of the game. He is one of those rare individuals who was born to play hockey. Even now, Smyth feels best when he’s on the ice every day. In fact, despite his years of service, Smyth can almost always be found on the ice for optional practices. And when you have a core of young talent with as much to learn as the Oilers young players do, it’s not a terribly bad example to have in your dressing room.

“I have a passion for the game,” Smyth said. “I love coming to the rink. I enjoy being on the ice surface and there’s not a day when I don’t take an optional. It’s just me.”

The closest Smyth came to winning a Stanley Cup was in 2006 when the Oilers extended the Carolina Hurricanes to Game 7 of the final. And in what might be one of the biggest strokes of bad luck in the history of the game, coming off a 23-goal season Smyth asked for a trade back to the Oilers from the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 2011. The Kings acquiesced, then went on to win the Stanley Cup the next season.

With his experience and work ethic, Smyth might still have something to contribute to the Oiler team he loves so much. But he was also a healthy scratch early in the season and if they do bring him back, you’d have to think the Oilers will be insisting on a hometown discount on a one-year deal.

“There’s a tremendous organization here with the young kids,” Smyth said. “Maybe if I stay around a little longer, I can be a part of it.