April 17 2013 10:57PM
As somebody who has watched Ryan Smyth since he was a baby-faced rookie with the Edmonton Oilers, who has witnessed him grinding out a better NHL career than he had any reasonable right to based on natural talent, it's been difficult to watch him in the twilight of his career.
Smyth's departure from Edmonton at the trade deadline in 2007 after so many seasons of taking a beating, spitting out teeth and defiantly refusing to a take a backwards step despite being out-sized and overmatched in the trenches was gut-wrenching.
His return to Edmonton in the summer of 2011 by way of trade with the Los Angeles Kings after being exiled to New York, Colorado and Tinseltown was a feel-good story, a nostalgic stroll down memory lane welcomed by a lot of fans and more than a few media types.
When Smyth started the 2011-12 season like a house on fire, it looked like he might be the guy to defy time and show the kids how it's done for at least two or three more seasons. Then, 20 games or so into it, he hit the wall -- then came the touchy question of a new contract. Re-sign him? For how much?
Smyth got a new deal, two years at a greatly reduced salary, but this season has been, to be kind, disappointing. Now 37, Smyth looks spent. He's scored 2-8-10 in 41 games. The tank looks empty. The legs look gone. It looks he's reached the end of the line with one year remaining on that new deal.
A TOUGH ROAD
Jim Matheson, clearly, is seeing the same things I and a lot of other people have seen this season and wrote a terrific piece in the Edmonton Journal taking a look at what might be next for Smyth. The entire item is here.
Writes Matheson: "One longtime pro scout feels for Smyth, for all the battering he’s taken during nearly two decades playing in the NHL.
"He’s been a warrior, a great warrior,” said the scout, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But when he picks them (his feet) up and puts them down now, they come down in the same spot.
"I don’t know if he’s got the legs anymore."
Last summer, some people made the case – statistical and otherwise -- that despite his decline and obvious struggles in the second half last season, Smyth might actually slot into this edition of the Oilers as a second-line player, given the potential make-up of the team.
Despite Smyth's best efforts, as usual, that's clearly not the case. Smyth isn’t a second-line winger now. He isn't staking his turf in front of the net and giving goaltenders fits nearly as effectively as he used to. He's a fourth-line centre – barely – who gets some added time on special teams.
Take the results, or lack of same, we've seen from Smyth this season and frame them with new GM Craig MacTavish's words about making some tough decisions about re-jigging the roster, and you have to wonder what's next for No. 94. Nostalgia, after all, only goes so far.
Smyth, of course, believes he can still find a way to contribute to the rebuild beyond this season. He wants to stick with it. What would you expect from a player who has always taken "stick with it" to the extreme?
Might the Oilers buy Smyth out? Might he, after a conversation with MacTavish over this summer, decide to retire? Or might the trainers have to cut the jersey he's worn so proudly and so well off his back when he insists on showing up for training camp next September?
I don’t know for sure, but I’d lean toward the latter. One thing I do know – if Smyth becomes one of the tough decisions MacTavish has referred to, we'll know the GM means business because he and Smyth are very close. There's a lot of mutual respect there.
No matter what happens, Smyth has most certainly earned that respect.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.