I was among the 17,000 and change at Rexall that fateful Saturday night, for Ryan Smyth’s swan song. Others will have done a better job than I of recounting what was an absolutely magical evening in this franchise’s history. What I want to focus on is how that experience may affect the 2014-15 edition of the Edmonton Oilers.
First, don’t underestimate the importance of replacing the player. Smyth is a unique figure in this community, and replacing him off the ice will be near impossible. Retire the number, already. But while in the twilight of his career, Smyth remained a productive player this past season. His net presence and work along the wall needs to be filled by someone else, at least as well, and preferably by someone younger and bigger. Is this player currently on the Oiler’s roster? I don’t think so. The closest version, Tyler Pitlick, didn’t inspire confidence during his late-season audition and can’t seem to stay healthy. This “piece” will probably need to be acquired, via trade or UFA signing.
Second, Smyth’s retirement saves a little cap space. This is not a huge deal as it might have been, if the cap was not going up. But given the price of a good UFA defenceman this summer such as Brooks Orpik or Andrei Markvov (I’m not saying either is necessarily a good choice, or even likely to sign here), every little bit of cap space may count.
Third, and most importantly, that Saturday night, with the electricity pulsing through the building each shift, surely gave all the young Oilers a tantalizing taste of what it would be like playing in this town on a contender.
I’m not one of these people who suggest this year’s edition of the Oilers “did not try hard enough”. That’s ridiculously over-simplistic. These players did not make it to the NHL without knowing how to try. I don’t buy that for a second.
But for one night, instead of just wondering what it would be like to play a playoff game at Rexall Place, those young players got to experience something comparable to a post-season atmosphere in the old barn. It was infinitely more positive than anything else we’ve seen since 2006.
Short of being able to transplant Ryan Smyth’s DNA into every single one of them, that Saturday night spectacle was probably the biggest favor Smytty could done for any one of them. Lets hope it sunk in.