The trade was, at first blush, almost as bad as the optics. On the day the Oilers retired Mark Messier's No. 11, the team ditched perhaps the most respected player in Edmonton since Messier left. After failing to reach a contract agreement by the 3 p.m. trading deadline with Ryan Smyth, the left winger and security blanket of the franchise, the Oilers promptly moved him to the New York Islanders for a pair of disappointing former first-round draft choices and another No. 1 in 2007.
If the trade seemed achingly, disturbingly familiar in Edmonton, it should, especially with the towering presence of Messier in the building to jog the memory. The best team of its time -- and perhaps the most thrilling of any era -- the Oilers, who won five Stanley Cups in seven years, were broken up because of money. Starting with the sale/trade of Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles in 1988, the Oilers diaspora of that greatest generation -- Messier and defenseman Kevin Lowe, the general manager who Tuesday moved Smyth to Long island -- were dispatched because Edmonton just didn't have the resources to keep their best players. The exodus continued into the 1990s and the millennium -- Bill Guerin and Doug Weight, among others -- as management was compelled to constantly be preemptive, moving star players before their salaries became too crushing or they could test the open market and leave Edmonton with no assets in return. This was the parlous life in the small market, grudgingly understood by the most discerning of hockey towns because it was the best chance the Oilers, truly the People's Team, had of competing against the well-heeled franchises in the NHL.
The salary cap, earned by a 2004-05 lockout whose tremors are still being felt in many American markets, was supposed to put the Oilers on a more equal footing. Edmonton rallied behind NHL president Gary Bettman with the fervor of a tent revival, seeing the lockout (and salary cap) as their salvation. (Bettman was even signing autographs outside the arena last spring during the Western Conference final.) Although it might never have been articulated quite this way, in Edmonton the salary cap meant never having to banish a player like Smyth again.
After the lockout, the Oilers rewarded their community by trading for star defenseman Chris Pronger -- some players thought the team actually had acquired Sean Pronger because the defenseman was too big-time for Edmonton -- and adding expert checker Michael Peca. These were two expensive but worthwhile thank-you notes, a return of public trust.
Now eight months after reaching the Stanley Cup final, Pronger, who requested a trade after the season, Peca, who signed in Toronto, and now Smyth, the guts of the Oilers, are all gone. When Gretzky, in Edmonton with the Phoenix Coyotes for the Messier ceremony, noted Smyth's trade was a sign of the times, it begged the question: Which times -- 1997 or 2007?
Meet the new loss. Same as the old loss.
This was not a CBA issue, as Lowe insisted, but strictly a hockey decision. OK. At $5.5 million for, say, five years, the numbers were indeed daunting. Maybe not outlandish -- down the highway in Calgary, the Flames are paying Alex Tanguay $5.25 annually, a player of lesser importance on the team and in the market -- but certainly high for a 31-year-old who would probably not be worth it in the second half of the contract. Then again, if the Oilers were going to spend money on anybody -- and by reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in 2006, there was a substantial windfall in revenues -- Smyth was it.
He can't skate and doesn't have much of a shot. He doesn't really do anything, except play. He led the Oilers this season with 31 goals, most of them uglier than brown shoes with black pants. There was no one quite as capable of battling along the boards, getting himself in front of the net, playing in heavy traffic, knocking the puck in the net off his rear end. He was preternaturally tough in the noblest hockey sense, mirroring the way Edmontonians like to think about themselves. This should be no surprise. Smyth was a native Albertan, a career Oiler.
The Oilers now are as cosmopolitan as any NHL team, but the team's management always has prided itself in having a core group of players from the province, men with an innate understanding of the pride of the franchise, which was established by players like Messier, who grew up just outside Edmonton.
Other than the Montreal Canadiens, no franchise post-1967 expansion has been as conscious about having a local presence. This was old-time hockey in Edmonton. And by old time, we really mean old time, dating to the tribal origins of team sport. In Edmonton, when it was their guys against your guys, it really was their guys.
In light of the feeding frenzy for high-end forwards prior to the deadline -- and make no mistake, Smyth, a perennial captain for Team Canada, qualifies -- Lowe's return for a franchise player was unremarkable. Maybe Keith Tkachuk's newly-discovered ability to play center made him of more value than Smyth to the Atlanta Thrashers, but Smyth probably should have netted more than a mid first-rounder and developing centers Robert Nilsson and Ryan O'Marra -- the same kind of wish-and-hope-and-develop philosophy prior to the lockout. Lowe, who had a Plan B in case he couldn't sign Smyth by the deadline (although Smyth's agent Don Meehan noted it wasn't their deadline), targeted teams he thought might be good fits.
Still some GMs, including Ottawa's John Muckler, were surprised when they heard Smyth had been traded. The name simply had not been grist for the rumor mill.
Smyth should have been an Oiler for life, but sometimes life and money get in the way. As an unrestricted free agent, he will have the right to return to Edmonton July 1. But if Lowe thought the asking price was too high Tuesday, it seems unlikely that the salary requests will drop no matter what Smyth does in the final 20 games of the season and, assuming the Islanders make it, in the playoffs. This was not a rental. This was a rupture.