Thursday, March 01, 2007

In Defense Of The Ryan Smyth Trade

The talk of the town this week has been the trade of career Edmonton Oiler Ryan Smyth from the only club he's ever known to the unknown territory of Long Island. Aside from a very small minority of supporters, reaction in Oil Country has ranged from outraged to disgust. Despite an excellent celebration and ceremony honoring the great Mark Messier, it has not been a good week for the Edmonton Oilers. Fans are mad as hell, and if they are to be believed, not going to take it anymore.

I'm not part of this crowd; I'm part of the few who like this trade. I explained it some over at the Battle of Alberta, but I will elaborate here.

1. The Nature of The Salary Cap and How To Properly Manage It
One of the most common reactions to the trade has been the "this wasn't supposed to happen to us anymore under the CBA" line. "This" being our stars moving on because of contract disputes. That's a bit of a misnomer. It gives every team a fair opportunity at resigning its players because it gives each team an equal amount of money to spend on player salaries. It doesn't guarantee that a player will remain with that club, just that this decision won't be dictated by club revenue. It means that star players will still leave under certain circumstances, namely if:

1. A team has managed its payroll poorly, or has already committed most of its payroll elsewhere, and does not have the money to offer a player a fair contract.
2. A player demands more money (or contract years) than the team's management feels he is worth.

In situation 2, management must make a decision as to whether or not they should overextend to reach a contract. As we're less than 2 years into the salary cap era of the NHL, there aren't many examples on which we can draw, though I suspect that someday this will be called the Patrick Elias Principle. Last year, on the heels of a strong season from the 31-year-old Elias, the New Jersey Devils resigned him to a 7 year, $6 million per year contract. Now, the Devils were already up against the cap, and had to do some nifty maneuvering to make this deal and keep all of their other key players. They might not be able to do so again. Two of their other key players, center Scott Gomez and defenseman Brian Rafalski, are unrestricted free agents. Factor in that a number of other role players are free agents, and youngsters such as Zach Parise who are due raises, and it's going to be very difficult for New Jersey to keep everyone. The Devils may end up regretting the Elias deal if it forces them to let go of Gomez, Rafalski, or Parise down the line. What does this have to do with the Smyth situation? Elias was also a 31-year-old coming off what appeared to be a career year. His signing was a bit more defensible in that the Devils have a very strong team who will contend for the Stanley Cup, but nonetheless has made it difficult for the Devils to keep their nucleus together or to bring in other top talent.

2. What Is Ryan Smyth’s Value?
The Ryan Smyth situation falls into category 2 that I mentioned above. If you look at his career numbers, he's certainly not an elite player, and it would be a stretch to call him an all-star at times. Prior to 2006-07, he had 3 30-goal seasons to his credit, despite playing at times with play-making talent like Doug Weight and Mike Comrie. Comparing him to other free agents to be, his points per game average throughout his career is just below that of Chris Drury (another great character guy), and well below that of Scott Gomez. Gomez is in the range of Calgary Flame Alex Tanguay, whose contract ($5.25 mil a year) we have been told was used as a benchmark in the Smyth’s negotiations. Interestingly, Smyth’s average lands in between that of Tanguay and that of Shane Doan, a character guy who resigned in Phoenix for a “home-town discount”, but closer to Doan’s.

Let’s examine the line:

Player Career PPG Salary Current Age
Tanguay 0.9 $5.25 27
Smyth 0.71 ??? 31
Doan 0.58 $4.55 31

Assuming Tanguay is getting paid a fair salary for a guy entering his prime years who will be the second best forward on a good team, then Smyth’s value should come in closer to the $4.75 range, maybe $5 at tops. Shane Doan has had by far the worst surrounding cast of talent for most of his career, especially his peak years, while Tanguay certainly benefited from playing with the Sakics, Hejduks, and Forsbergs of the world. Still, given their age, and the point discrepancy, I don’t think all of the intangibles in the world peg Smyth at the same value as Tanguay.

Now let’s compare him to Gomez and Drury, two of the other high-profile forwards who can be unrestricted free agents this summer.

Player Career PPG 06-07 Salary Current Age
Gomez 0.825 $5 27
Smyth 0.71 $3.5 31
Drury 0.74 $3.1 30(will be 31 in Aug)

Gomez was awarded his contract in arbitration in 2006, Smyth signed in 2005, and Drury in 2003. If this set of numbers tells you anything, it’s that Chris Drury is underpaid. He was a point a game player in the 2006 playoffs (18 in 18) and was a plus 5. Smitty put up 16 points in 24 games, and was a minus 2 despite getting 2 more minutes of ice time per game. While Drury’s career numbers probably benefit from playing with better overall talent, it’s still a stretch to say that Smyth is clearly a better player than he is. If anything, I’d call it a wash, and over the next five years I’d bet that Drury is more likely to hold up and continue to produce.

Finally, let’s compare Smyth to Daniel Briere, the late-blooming Sabres sniper who could also hit the market this summer.

Player Career PPG 06-07 Salary Current Age
Smyth 0.71 $3.5 31
Briere 0.77 $3.1 29(will be 30 in Oct)

Briere is also scoring over a point a game since coming to the Buffalo Sabres at the 2003 trade deadline. Smyth’s over the same period is about 0.84, but given the physical style he plays, he’s less likely to keep up this pace than Briere is.

3. What Would Signing Smyth Have Accomplished?
They would have tied up $5.5 million of their payroll in a borderline all-star about to hit the downside of his career. Smyth may have another good year or two left in him (probably not point a game good), but the Oil have to resign Marc-Andre Pouliot and Jarrett Stoll in 2008, and Shawn Horcoff and Joffrey Lupul (who you shouldn’t give up on after one rough season) in 2009. Let’s also not forget that Raffi Torres is a RFA this summer, and unless they lock him up to a long-term deal, will be hitting the UFA market in ’08 or ’09.

While Smyth is a better player and more valuable than everyone (except for arguably Horcoff), are you willing to bet that he will continue to be from 2008-09 on? And would you be willing to bet a no-trade clause for #94 that he will be? Signing Smyth to the deal he wanted would have limited the team’s ability to keep the aforementioned players as they were entering their prime years. For the majority of the coming five years, this money would be better tied up elsewhere. The team still has needs on defense, and after Roloson’s contract expires in 2009, they will need to sign a number one goaltender (which will likely cost them at least $4-5 million on the open market).

Let’s also not forget that the Oilers, as constituted before the trade deadline, were not a championship club. They had lost a series of parts (some key, some not) from the Stanley Cup Finalists a year before; let’s also remember that that club was just as likely going to be a one-year wonder as it was going to be a sustained contender. After all, in the San Jose series, they spent two and some overtime periods being one shot away from a 3-0 series deficit to the Sharks, which they likely wouldn’t have rebounded from.

In terms of this season, the team is hurting, and the defenders that were available on the market wouldn’t have been significant upgrades to their blueline (Zhitnik, Stuart, Norstrom), nor would they have justified the cost.

Given the state of their team, its strengths (young talent and assets) and weaknesses (NHL club core, defence), it made sense to sell instead of buy at the trade deadline in 2006. They’re at least one all-star away from putting together a championship core; Smyth tying up $5.5 mil of their payroll would have made it more difficult to get one piece on defense, and near impossible to add a second defenseman or another all-star forward to this club. Going forward with Ryan Smyth as “the franchise” would have led to another two and a half years of being entrenched in the 7-10 spot in the West, and a subsequent two and a half years of hoping to unload his albatross of a contract. Moving forward without him gives the Oilers two major advantages – payroll flexibility and increased assets (both prospects and picks).

Because they should have been sellers, Lowe deserves flack for not also moving impending UFAs Petr Sykora and Jussi Markannen.

4. Having Let Him Go, Where Do The Oilers Now Sit?
It’s unlikely that they will contend in 2007-08, but could have a good nucleus together in ’08-’09 and ’09-’10. Horcoff should be peaking during those years, and players like Hemsky, Pouliot, Stoll, and Torres, Lupul should continue to improve. Prospect at forward such as Robbie Schremp, Andrew Cogliano, Robert Nilsson, and Ryan O’Marra should continue to progress, giving the Oilers a surplus of assets to move for all-star talent, rentals to complement their core, or future assets (more prospects and picks) that will mature into talent when the aforementioned names hit free agency.

On defense, Smid, Gilbert, and Syvret will continue to mature, but the Oilers will need to add a franchise defenseman, or two bona fide top defenseman. They have depth, but they lack top-end talent.

Under the new salary cap system, teams are going to have to make tough decisions on who to keep and who to discard. It’s unlikely that a team will be able to keep more than 2-3 “big ticket” players, therefore it’s even more important that you make smart decisions about whom you give your big contracts to. The Oilers were smart in targeting Chris Pronger in the summer of 2005, since St. Louis had maneuvered themselves out of a position to keep him due to the “big ticket” contracts that Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk were pulling in. They now have the assets to make a move the next time an all-star is forced onto the trade market because of a situation like this. It could happen, as lowetide pointed out, as early as this summer if Ottawa decides to sell Wade Redden instead of banking on having the cap space to resign him in 2008 or Tampa Bay decides that investing heavily in three players (Lecavalier, St. Louis, Richards) isn’t working out for them. And for those who doubt Lowe, let's remember that he just got three mid-first round picks (Nilsson, O'Marra, this coming year's) from New York for 20 games, (hopefully) a playoff run, and a four-month window to negotiate exclusively with Ryan Smyth. The Pronger deal may not have worked out so far they way we would have hoped, but the guy has a pretty good track record with trades.

And remember what Brian Burke said in today’s Edmonton Journal article:

The only way you can compete in a cap system is with quality young players. If you’re going to have (older) stars on your team, then you also need guys who are going to contribute at the $450,000 level. And there’s only one place you get those guys and this summer it’s in Columbus, Ohio (at the draft).

5. Moving Forward

The Oilers have three first round picks in this year’s draft, one that is seen to have good depth, though it lacks the top end talent of recent years. With those pieces, the Oilers should be able to continue to stuff the cupboard, and when the timing is right, they will have the cap space and the assets to make the moves to put together a Stanley Cup run, just like they did in 2005. If they continue to draft and trade well, they will have the cheap talent to surround their veterans with that Burke was talking about, and the flexibility to give up talent for rental players without sacrificing their future.

It’s sad to see Smyth go, but Lowe made the right move by holding his ground. Someone is going to give Ryan Smyth $5.5-6 million a year, and a couple of years from now when he’s scoring 38 points while only staying healthy for 55 games of a year, we’ll be glad it’s not the Edmonton Oilers. It may be tough to imagine a future where the Oilers have a championship club, but they have the pieces to make it happen now if they can swing the right couple of signings and trades. I have confidence in Kevin Lowe, and I look forward to seeing the Oilers back in the championship hunt sooner rather than later.


At 5:38 AM, Blogger sacamano said...

Hear, hear!

Such lucidity could only come from a Celtics fan.

At 9:21 AM, Blogger Black Dog said...

I'm one of that minority as well, Alex.

Its now, for better or for worse, an NFL like system. Tough choices have to be made.

As much as I love Smyth (my favourite player) I think Lowe did the right thing.

At 1:47 PM, Blogger Kirks said...

I love how different numbers can be used to support both sides of the argument, though I believe the "should have signed Smyth" camp are using more qualitative factors.

Good post Alex but I would have loved to see a reference to "He who should not be named."

At 11:02 AM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

People still read and write on this site? Sigh. I miss this place...

At 11:29 PM, Blogger Nathan Muhly said...

Good post Abboud. I disagree with you, but good post nonetheless. I think the argument that Smyth won't hold up physically over the next 3-5 seasons lacks supporting evidence. I believe it is entirely possible that Smyth will be capable of producing multiple forty goal seasons from here on until the end of his career. If anything, we know that it has become easier for guys to stand in front of the net because of the post-lockout rule changes. Smyth is just finding out now that he can be the Gary Roberts of his generation by driving opposing goalies batshit crazy when he stands directly in front of them, whilst tipping shots and driving in rebounds.

The Oil will regret not signing him. Unless of course Nilsson (sp?) and O'mara become total studs.


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