By Allan Muir
If there ever was any doubt about the ability of Edmonton's coach Ralph Krueger to handle the challenges posed by the NHL, he answered them today with the decision to bench franchise legend Ryan Smyth for tonight's home game against Dallas.
That call carries even more weight in a young, impressionable room than his decision to plant struggling defender Ryan Whitney in the press box on Sunday. And that's why it was absolutely the right move to make.
Smyth signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal over the summer. Expectations were realistic for the 36-year-old, but considerably higher than the one goal and two points he's delivered through 12 games.
But this isn't about his meek offensive contributions.Truth is, Smyth has played miserably more nights than not. Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal called Smyth "the worst player on the ice" after Sunday's win over Columbus, and he wasn't wrong. Smyth is playing stupid, lazy hockey of late, the complete antithesis of what the industrious winger has typically brought to the copper-and-blue.
His on-ice value is diminishing, but it was his sudden propensity for picking up brain-dead penalties that brought the issue to a head. Though Willis took greater issue with a pair of slashing penalties that Smyth committed against the Jackets, I'd say the 10-minute misconduct he earned against Detroit was the real sin. Smyth was binned after yapping at the officials in the wake of a perfectly fine call.
I get it. He's a frustrated player, but he's not some high-strung kid. He's a veteran with a very specific role: teach the young, promising future of the team not just how to win, but how to play the game the right way. In that light, his pointless, selfish outburst was a dereliction of duty.
"We had an open, honest conversation with everything on the table," Krueger said after the benching was announced. "We expect a gritty reaction from him."
Krueger might get it. He might not. But in benching Smyth, the coach is sending a very loud message to the rest of the team. It's about accountability. About a higher standard for an organization that has accepted mediocrity, or less, for too long. And everyone, even a legend, needs to step up and meet it.