By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
On the surface it seems simple – a win-win.
Ryan Smyth wants to play for the Edmonton Oilers and hoist the Stanley Cup. The Oilers aren't going to make the playoffs, and Smyth's contract expires at the end of the season. Why doesn't he waive his no-movement clause before the Feb. 27 trade deadline, go to a contender and then return to Edmonton as a free agent?
He'd be gone four months, at most. He'd get a shot at the Cup, which he has spent 16 seasons chasing but has never captured, coming close only once. When he rejoins the Oilers, they might be a little stronger than they would have been otherwise thanks to what he brought them in trade – another building block for a young, talented team with a bright future.
It sounds great, and it isn't out of the question.
The problem is, these things can be more complicated than we make them out to be. We talk about "assets" and "rentals" this time of year, but this is not fantasy hockey. It is a business that has a real effect on real people balancing professional and personal lives. Even when a player has some control, as Smyth does with his no-move clause, he can control only so much.
"First of all, you have to be approached," Smyth said. "That's to start it all off."
Smyth has not been approached by the Oilers about a trade, at least not yet. The Oilers haven't talked to him about an extension, either.
Would a contender want him? You'd think so. This is a seller's market, with few teams out of the race and many looking for an edge. Smyth is the type of player who could help someone in the playoffs. He's a veteran who turns 36 on Feb. 21. He's good in the room and gritty on the ice. He scores goals around the net.
Although he has a $6.25 million cap hit, several teams have the space or could create it – and they’d only be on the hook for about one-quarter of his salary, anyway. The New York Rangers might be interested. General manager Glen Sather drafted Smyth for the Oilers in 1994. The Rangers are young and need an offensive boost. The Detroit Red Wings might be a good fit. GM Ken Holland knows Smyth through Team Canada. The Wings have a history of winning with veteran acquisitions. Go down the list. It isn't a stretch to say Smyth could have his choice of multiple contenders.
If someone makes an offer, would the Oilers go to Smyth?
"I think Ryan Smyth wants to be an Edmonton Oiler," said GM Steve Tambellini.
Is that a no?
"I don't think Ryan Smyth wants to go anywhere," Tambellini said.
Maybe, maybe not.
On one hand, Smyth sounds like a guy who would never leave Edmonton. He was born in Banff, Alberta. He grew up rooting for the glorious Oilers of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. He spent his first 11-1/2 seasons with the Oilers, and he helped them advance to the Stanley Cup final in 2006, only to lose to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games.
The Oilers traded Smyth as a deadline rental once before – on Feb. 27, in fact – and he didn't want to leave Edmonton then. He and the Oilers couldn't come together on a contract extension in 2006-07. He figured that meant the negotiations would keep dragging on. He had eaten a pregame meal and was getting ready to take a pregame nap at home when he saw on television, 20 minutes past the deadline, that he had been traded to the New York Islanders.
"Honestly, I didn't ever think I'd get traded," Smyth said. "I can sit here and honestly say that. I was devastated."
Smyth and his wife, Stacey – from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan – had two young daughters. They were a western Canadian family headed to the U.S. East Coast and the great unknown. They were in tears.
"It was very emotional," Smyth said "To get shipped out of there was really tough."
Smyth helped the Islanders make the playoffs. He spent the next two seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, then the next two with the Los Angeles Kings. Then he engineered a trade to Edmonton for family reasons last summer. He and Stacey now have three children – Isabella, 8; Elizabeth, 6; and Alexander, 3.
If winning were the only thing, why would he have left Los Angeles? The Kings are closer to the Cup, or at least the playoffs, than the Oilers are.
"We just feel Edmonton's a great city," Smyth said. "Two of our kids were born there. Great place to raise a family. Maybe other people think differently, but we don't. We're going to retire there whether or not anything happens."
But on the other hand, there's that – retirement. It's coming sooner rather than later. Smyth has played 1,122 games in the regular season, 93 more in the playoffs, and he has never won the Cup. His window is closing.
Although the Oilers appear primed to take a huge leap forward with young stars like Jordan Eberle,Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a veteran has to seize opportunities when they present themselves.
"It's very intriguing to hear your name rumble around for a contender," Smyth said. "It's flattering. As a player, you want to win. That's the ultimate goal in professional sports, and in hockey, it's the Stanley Cup. So ..."
"Um, you know," he said, "there's a lot at stake, for sure."
Smyth would not be willing to leave his family for as much as four months, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn't leave for the right situation.
"Well, if it ever came that way, my family would come," Smyth said. "Yep. Absolutely. We're one, and we go together wherever."
Aren't two of the kids in school?
"I think they can learn a lot more sometimes away from the school," Smyth said. "That wouldn't be a problem."
Smyth sounds like he has thought about this. He has to have thought about this. It's his career. It's his life.
"The fact that I've got a family now, those sort of things all play an issue," Smyth said. "You've got to weigh out a lot of things."
Yet at the same time, he can't think about this. Almost in the same breath, he can't talk about this. He is attractive because he is a character guy, a team guy. But what kind of character guy considers leaving his team until he is asked to do so? He already did that once in L.A. and landed where he wanted – in Edmonton, where he was received as a returning hero.
Smyth declined to say how he would make a decision if he has to make one.
"Hypothetically?" Smyth said. "I don't want to sit here and speculate, so I don't want to comment on something like that. It's not fair for me. It's not fair for my teammates and for the organization."
It's complicated. Less than three weeks until the deadline.