Kukla's Korner Hockey
by George Malik on 02/28/07 at 12:23 PM ET
By George James Malik:
The Edmonton Journal’s Dan Barnes sums up the storyline that will become front and centre for the next few weeks in lamenting the Oilers’ decision to trade Ryan Smyth:
Too much? Absolutely. But this wasn’t supposed to happen under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The Prongers of the world could be had, the Smyths could be kept; that was the bill of goods sold to long-suffering Oiler fans. They could have forgiven Lowe’s inability to find that defenceman. Heck, they would have forgiven a season sans playoffs, if only Lowe had found a way to keep Smyth. Didn’t he save enough money on the Pronger deal? Shouldn’t there be enough in the kitty to overpay the heart and soul of the franchise?
Oilers fans are understandably stunned, and a little numb, this morning, but they’re also coming to a realization that is painful but necessary.
The warm, fuzzy feelings and much-ballyhooed promises about Canadian teams being able to compete on an even-footing basis don’t mask the harsh reality that is the business hockey’s become.
The NHL isn’t a happy, cozy community with some semi-socialist tendencies that protect the little guy while making sure that the big guys don’t get too big and too powerful. The NHL’s a business, and it’s a very merciless, very American one.
Embracing the economic boom that has been the Albertan Oil Patch? Sure! Admitting that the perceived innocence we attribute to hockey never really existed, and can’t be legislated back into the game, no matter how a certain commissioner promises us he’s tried?
Not so much.
Kevin Lowe made a business decision and a hockey decision; if Ryan Smyth, the Oilers’ heart and soul, the quintessential Alberta boy “done good,” wasn’t under contract before 1 PM Mountain Standard Time, he was done as an Oiler. The money wasn’t as much of an issue as the media will make it out to be, despite the lack of a meaningful revenue-sharing program. It was timing.
I’d love to rail against the CBA and say, “See! It’s merciless! I told you so!” But this is much more fundamental than that. This is a basic truth about professional hockey that we hate to admit exists—except when it benefits the team we follow, anyway.
We see the players we care about on the ice, and passionately cheer them on, hoping that they’ll do their teammates, the franchise we support, and the city they represent proud.
General managers balance the on-ice product with their business interests, basing their decisions upon their owners’ spending habits, public perception, potential off-ice issues, and, in the end, their perceptions of the franchise’s present and future.
For Lowe, his vision of the Oilers is one of dogged progress, and, at present, the process of re-tooling a team that hasn’t performed up to its expectations. The Oilers have become a team defined by its strong developmental system, and if the product is flagging, Lowe defers to that process. He could convert a potential drain upon the franchise in expense and a potential loss of talent into two strong prospects and the potential of a 1st-round pick, thus increasing his assets while removing a potential liability.
What changed between last June and this February to so radically change the Oilers’ management’s view of their franchise?
Much of the change involved the Oilers’ decisions over the summer, but the bottom line was the result of the Oilers’ on-ice performance.
Losing Samsonov didn’t hurt the team, but Lupul wasn’t an adequate replacement for Radek Dvorak. Daniel Tjarnqvist didn’t address the loss of Dick Tarnstrom, and while Ladislav Smid and Jan Hedja’s tremendous performances helped eat up Pronger’s minutes, Lowe’s decision to let Jaroslav Spacek go left the Oilers with a hole that Marc-Andre Bergeron couldn’t fill. Add in the fact that Harvey, Murray, and Laraque’s departures left the Oilers without a shut-down line, the drop-off in Horcoff’s offensive production, stir in the grit factor missing without Ethan Moreau in the lineup, and let that team underachieve at all the wrong times, and you’ve got a team that will follow up a Stanley Cup Finals appearance with mid-April tee times.
In that context, the Oilers’ brain-trust decided that continuing the process of re-tooling with youth was the team’s best option, and if trading Smyth would assist that process, Lowe was comfortable doing that.
Why Lowe was willing to take the public relations hit that is trading away a heart-and-soul player who represented the team’s successes in the eyes of its fans, however, is something that nobody but the man himself can answer. Smyth was a highly symbolic player, not only to the fans of the Oilers, but to all NHL fans, and the Oilers’ rise to prominence in the 05-06 season was personified in Smyth.
Now that he’s an Islander, two seasons into the post-lockout NHL, the veneer’s worn off, and Smyth’s trade simply drives home the fact that a capped NHL is still a league ran by men who make difficult, and sometimes merciless, business and hockey decisions.
Fans were sold on a league whose commissioner explicitly promised the Edmonton Oilers that it would no longer have to witness an exodus of talent because they couldn’t afford to keep their best players.
As it turns out, the exodus continues, and while Smyth’s exit from Edmonton has less to do with the CBA than it does with the Oilers’ on-ice fortunes and the off-ice philosophies, the optics are strikingly vivid:
Last season, Edmonton embraced the New NHL as a means by which it could recapture its former glories, and off the dizzying glow of an almost-there Cup run, all the promises with which Bettman made to his strongest supporters seemed dazzlingly fulfilled, to not only Oilers fans, but also the Canadians and Americans who believed that the new CBA truly made the NHL a league of equals.
Welcome to the new NHL you cozied up to.
It isn’t what you expected to wake up next to, is it?
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