Smyth A Perfect Fit

Wednesday, 10.21.2009 / 3:07 PM / Features
By Rich Hammond
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Smyth A Perfect Fit
The Kings welcomed Ryan Smyth with open arms this summer after the veteran forward waived his no-trade clause.
At age 33, and after 13 full seasons in the NHL, Ryan Smyth would have been easily forgiven for turning up his nose at the idea of a new beginning.

Ryan Smyth highlights

Smyth had little left to prove in hockey, his resume already highlighted by an Olympic gold medal and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. He could have played out the final three years of his contract in Colorado and perhaps retired to his beautiful Denver-area home.

Yet here Smyth is, living in traffic-choked Los Angeles, playing for a Kings team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2002. Smyth made the choice to be here, waived his no-movement clause and accepted the July 2 trade from the Avalanche to the Kings.

Why? Because it’s a challenge, and because everything Smyth does in hockey - from his playing style to his choice of teams - seems to revolve around embracing challenges.

"A lot of times, when you watch a guy’s game, it reveals his character," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said. "In Ryan’s case, there’s no 'cheat’ in his game."

Lombardi had to be certain. Criticism had grown increasingly loud that Lombardi was incapable of making a big move, the big signing or trade that would bring a top-level forward to the Kings. Lombardi knew he had to make a move, and the correct one, soon.

When Lombardi looks into acquiring players, he practically puts them through a vetting process. Does the player want to come to Los Angeles because he thinks the Kings can win, or because he enjoys the 75-degree weather and the Hermosa Beach surf?

With Smyth, Lombardi had no such concerns, so he shipped promising defenseman Kyle Quincey, defenseman Tom Preissing and a draft pick to the Avalanche for Smyth, a hefty investment given that Smyth also brought a salary-cap hit of $6.25 million and was coming off one of the least-productive seasons of his career. Lombardi still felt confident.

"I’ve known Ryan since he was 18 years old," Lombardi said. "There’s a lot of Mike Ricci in his game, a lot of similarities. When I acquired Mike Ricci from Colorado (as San Jose’s GM), it was time for the team to take another step, and he was a big part of that. There are a lot of similarities in their games and there are a lot of similarities in the way they come to play every night. I had no doubts. His game speaks for itself.

"It’s not an issue, just like it wasn’t for Ricci. I had no concerns when I brought him in at that time. These guys are just too competitive to go to the beach."

What about Smyth’s motivation?

Sure, Colorado was the worst team in the Western Conference last season, but the Kings were the second-worst. Surely, Smyth could have used the no-movement clause to manipulate a trade to a team closer to winning the Stanley Cup right now.

That’s not Smyth’s style, though. In his 13 full NHL seasons, Smyth has made the playoffs nine times, but rarely with a team expected to be a Stanley Cup contender. When Smyth’s Oilers reached the Finals in 2006, they did so as the No. 8 seed in the West.

"I’ve always been on teams that have had to work their way into making the playoffs," Smyth said. "Not to say that other teams don’t, but I’ve always been on the underdogs, so to speak. I don’t know any other way."

So maybe Smyth didn’t have reservations about the team he was joining, but how about the move itself? With a wife, Stacey, and three kids, none older than 6 years old, Smyth knew a trade would mean a major lifestyle change.

Smyth and his family had put down roots in Colorado after he signed a five-year contract with the Avalanche in 2007. He said he had no thoughts of leaving until last season’s trade deadline, when he heard through the grapevine that Colorado was shopping him.

A trade never materialized then, but Smyth continued to hear about teams expressing interest in trading for him. Finally, in early July, Smyth had to make a choice. The Kings wanted him. Would he agree to waive his clause and start over in Los Angeles?

"Obviously my wife and I had to really think about it," Smyth said, "because we enjoyed the city there, we had a nice home and we would be picking up the whole family and moving. We had already moved from Edmonton to New York, and then to Colorado. Four cities in two years is a lot.

"We really thought about it, but at the end of the day I saw the great direction that the Kings were going in, and the excitement that Dean Lombardi showed and the interest that he showed in myself. On the hockey front, that excited me a lot."

It also excited Lombardi, because Smyth gave him something the Kings have rarely had during Lombardi’s tenure: a proven 30-goal scorer and a proven net presence.

Almost nothing about Smyth’s game suggests flash. He arrived in the NHL with high expectations, as the No. 6 overall pick of the 1994 Draft, and quickly met them as he scored 39 goals, at age 20, in his second season with the Edmonton Oilers.

Don’t bother looking for Smyth on many highlight reels though. Most of his goals are scored from close range. He parks himself in front of the net, specifically looking for rebounds and redirections. That gritty style has endeared him to teammates but also cost him games, at times, due to feet and hand injuries.

Kings head coach Terry Murray paired the newly acquired Smyth with center Anze Kopitar and winger Justin Williams early in camp and the line has produced.

Kings coach Terry Murray didn’t even wait until training camp to decide that he would put Smyth with center Anze Kopitar and right wing Justin Williams on the first line.

Murray admired Smyth’s scoring ability, yes, but even more so, he liked what Smyth could do for Kopitar. Smyth gives Kopitar something he has too often lacked: a winger who would go to the front of the net, stay there, and make life easier for his center.

Kopitar has the ability to make plays for himself and others. With Smyth parked in front, defenders are drawn to him, which gives Kopitar more space to make a play or to simply throw the puck at the net and give Smyth a chance to do something with it.

It meshes nicely with the "shot mentality" that Murray often talks about, and through nine games, it has worked well. The Kings, overall, are struggling offensively, but Smyth (six goals, seven assists), Kopitar (five goals, eight assists) and Williams (three goals, six assists) have been strong.

"For me, it’s just good to have a presence around the net, in front of the net," Kopitar said. "It’s huge for us, because Justin and I are maybe more of outside players. Just having Ryan around the net, or in front of the net all the time, it helps a lot. You’re confident, if you throw it at the net or behind the net, that there’s a really good chance he’s going to get it and make the play, if not score."

Offensive depth is already an issue for the Kings this season, but if the first line can maintain something close to its current torrid pace, the Kings’ playoff chances will be greatly enhanced.

They’ll also be enhanced by having Smyth, who has played 81 playoff games - almost a full season - in his career, won a gold medal with Canada in the 2002 Olympics and captained his country in several international events. He’s not an exuberant leader, but teammates know that in tight situations, they can follow Smyth and his calm consistent demeanor.

"Obviously the group has been missing the playoffs, and that’s what everybody wants, to get to the playoffs and give yourself a chance," Smyth said. "Bringing in Rob Scuderi and myself, with a little experience in that regard, hopefully that will be an added extra piece to the puzzle. By no means do we not have to work for it.

"It’s important that we know we have to bear down and get some confidence in the locker room and show that we’re for real."