The conventional wisdom among some fans and media is that if Ryan Smyth wants to return as an Oiler, he’ll need to accept third-line minutes and third-line pay.
Ryan Smyth finished second among Oilers forwards this season in both total ice-time and time on ice per game. As was the case with Shawn Horcoff, however, the picture becomes more interesting once we break that ice-time down into its components.
The following is the ice-time for wingers who played more than 40 games with the Oilers this season, ranked by even-strength ice-time:
Ales Hemsky and Taylor Hall were the coach’s go-to choices on right wing and left wing, respectively, when it came to handing out even-strength ice-time. Hall will almost certainly fill the same role next season, while I expect Hemsky’s ice-time to be nicked in favour of Jordan Eberle.
Eberle and Smyth are really in the same spot on the chart here – just two seconds per game separates them. Though the enduring image of Smyth in 2011-12 is welded to Horcoff’s hip on a checking line, he saw ice-time all over the place over the course of the season, including some time on the scoring lines.
Then there’s a drop-off. Ryan Smyth is a better hockey player than Ryan Jones, while Magnus Paajarvi spent half the season in the AHL and couldn’t score when he was in the NHL. Neither should have a realistic chance of entering training camp next fall ahead of Smyth on the depth chart (assuming the Oilers opt to re-sign Smyth, something that is less than certain).
The wild cards in terms of even-strength ice-time are a) the first overall pick and b) Teemu Hartikainen. It’s worth remembering that despite the latter’s promise he’s never equaled the 46 points Smyth put up this year even in the AHL or Finland, that he had five points in 17 NHL games this year, and that his two-way game isn’t even in the same ballpark as Smyth’s right now. I like the prospect – I like Paajarvi too, for that matter – but realistically he hasn’t done nearly enough to displace Smyth entering next season.
The first overall pick is something else, but even here there are no certainties. Though Yakupov is the consensus choice, the Oilers might move down and take someone they feel is a better fit for organizational need. Also, while Yakupov does shoot left, he plays right wing – maybe the Oilers would move him over, and maybe they wouldn’t, but it’s something to keep in mind when considering him as a replacement for Smyth’s even-strength minutes. Finally, even if the Oilers do draft Yakupov and do move him to left wing, they might feel it best to ease him into the NHL, just as they did with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins this season. If they choose to do that, he won’t be taking minutes from Hall or Smyth, but rather from guys like Paajarvi and Hartikainen.
In short, the obstacle to bumping Smyth down to a designated third-line role is that outside of Taylor Hall, there simply is not an established candidate to slot in ahead of him right now. As it stands, he’s the Oilers’ number two left wing with a bullet.
Then there’s his role on the power play. Smyth has made his living for a long time as one of the league’s best men in front of the net on the man advantage. Horcoff took that role on the top unit this year, so Smyth mostly saw time on the second unit. Does it make sense to bump Smyth off the power play? I’d argue that it might if the Oilers draft Yakupov, but otherwise there isn’t a logical replacement on the team – the Oilers used seven forwards with regularity and the eighth/ninth options were Linus Omark and Eric Belanger. Omark’s heading out of town and Belanger’s not nearly as good as Smyth in the role.
Could Smyth’s penalty kill time be cut back, in favour of an Anton Lander, Lennart Petrell or Jordan Eberle? It could, but it seems dubious to assert that it makes sense for the team to do so, particularly if they plan to use the top power play unit more and feed Eberle additional even-strength minutes. The coaching staff also showed a clear preference for Smyth on the PK over Lander and Petrell this season.
Put bluntly, Ryan Smyth isn’t a third-liner on this team. Some of his minutes could be shaved a little bit – especially at even-strength – but if he’s back it doesn’t make sense for him to lose his job out of training camp to the candidates currently in the system. There aren’t four wingers ahead of him at evens, there aren’t candidates pushing for his power play job, and he’s likely a better PK option than the alternatives.