Sunday, March 04, 2007

A high stakes game of "Chicken"

For a new generation of hockey fans, this is as big as The Gretzky Trade. In 1988, the unthinkable happened in Edmonton, when National Hockey League superstar Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. It sent shockwaves throughout all professional sports and ignited the well-known cliché: If Gretzky can be traded, anyone can be.

Fast forward to 2007 and the NHL Trade Deadline when Edmonton, once again, became front and center in sending another shockwave. Ryan Smyth may not have had the numbers Wayne Gretzky had. He may not be half the hockey player, but Ryan Smyth was the face of the franchise. He was expected to live out his career as an Oiler. Fans expected it. Management expected, and even Smyth expected it.

So what happened on February 27 that went so wrong?

Since the end of his contract loomed near, the Oilers were expected to resign Smyth – perhaps with some negotiation, a little more dough, but it was a no-brainer that the Alberta-born left winger would remain in Edmonton. About an hour after the deadline passed, when trades were still filtering in after league approvals, Ryan Smyth to the Islanders for first-round picks and prospects Robert Nilsson and Ryan O’Marra, plus a 2007 draft pick.

It certainly took everyone by surprise. How can this be? Ryan Smyth? Captain Canada? The fan favorite? Then déjà vu set in. Edmonton: small market team; Smyth: demanding bigger dollars than the team can spend.

It is said the monetary difference was only $100,000 to $200,000. Pocket change in today’s world of big money, even in the NHL. The Oilers were reported to offer $5.4 million or $27 million over five years. Smyth was reportedly asking for $5.5 million. ????? To everyone outside Alberta’s capital city, it was ludicrous. Another report said Smyth would gladly spend $100,000 on a box if the Oilers would up their ante to $5.5 million. General Manager Kevin Lowe said no.

When it was clear at twenty minutes to deadline that the Smyth camp wasn’t budging, Lowe, running out of time and not wanting to lose his star player for nothing on July 1st when his unrestricted free agency set in, made a few calls and pitched him to a handful of teams.

By this time, most teams had already made their deals. You can be sure if some of them knew Smyth was going to be available a lot sooner, they would have moved heaven and earth to get him. He’s a type of player that would fit into any organization. Everyone wants to add a bit of grit to their lineup, particularly a gritty player that can score big goals – albeit not pretty ones, but goals nevertheless.

While the Islanders’ new pickup has immediately impacted their lineup (he has scored a point in each of his first two games – 1 G, 1 A), Smyth still becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. Edmonton fans are hoping that means that Smyth could still be an Oiler. Others think there should be a new league rule to prevent a team from gaining back a player they gave up at the trade deadline, or at the very least, be made to wait out a season before re-signing.

There are definitely two camps on the issue. One camp is vehemently supporting Lowe and think Smyth is not worth the money he is asking -- not even if it’s $100,000 more. The rest think it's pocket change over a principle.

However, both sides agree that Lowe could have handled it better. If there was going to be a high stakes game of “Chicken” (which Smyth’s agent Don Meehan is very good at), Lowe should have set a drop dead date about four days before the draft. Then he could have shopped Smyth around and got a lot more for him.

Or Lowe should have signed Smyth first, then signed Horcoff and all the supporting cast around him, like the Calgary Flames did with their franchise player Jarome Iginla.

The whole thing kind of makes you wonder what the 2004-05 lockout season was for if it's back to the same old thing of crying poor. I'm sure the owners spend more than $200,000 at Starbucks. But then again, if the dollar difference was only for such a small fraction, you have to wonder why Smyth wouldn’t sign. I mean, how much more will $100,000/$200,000 make when you’re getting paid $5.4 million?

There is that remote possibility that Smyth could become an Oiler again after July 1st. However, once he gets a taste of the eastern travel and being home in his bed every night, the smaller fishbowl, and the notorious New York blank check (see Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Yashin), chances may be pretty slim he’ll ever play in the Western Conference again.


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