EDMONTON — There is a trend at work here, one that gets mixed reviews from fans but seems a necessary course of business for Edmonton Oilers management.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins wanted to finish his career in Edmonton. The Oilers furnished him with that contract.
Duncan Keith requested a trade to Edmonton. He wanted to play here and he will, for the next two seasons at least.
And Mike Smith, who signed a two-year deal with Edmonton worth $4.4 million in total, said this upon his signing:
“My goal was to come back to Edmonton. To finish my career in Edmonton,” Smith said. “There would be no better way to go out than bring a Stanley Cup back to Edmonton, and finish off my career. I never really explored other options.
“We’re very close to being an elite franchise, and have the right players to make that happen.”
Elliotte Friedman reported last week on the growing sense among NHL players to avoid all that comes with playing in a Canadian city: The bludgeoning on social media, the daily recognition wherever one goes with his family, the pressure on kids and spouses that simply does not exist in most of the 25 American NHL centres.
The stigma is very real on a macro basis across Canada, and grows more acute when you talk about Edmonton as the Northern outpost among Canadian clubs.
You can refute reality, and stand up for your city/country in the face of what has become a growing trend as social media has taken such a grip on people’s lives. Or, if you are Ken Holland and you’re trying to build a winner in a city that annually ranks among the most popular destinations on players’ “no trade” lists, you can adapt.
You can say to yourself, if not Nugent-Hopkins, then where am I going to find a similar replacement at an AAV of just over $5 million? Well, it appears that Holland has found one in Hyman. But if he’d have sent Nugent-Hopkins to free agency, would there be another?
You can pick apart Duncan Keith’s game, and convince yourself that there is better on the UFA market. But players of his pedigree who wants to be an Oiler — who only has two years left on his contract — don’t fall off trees in today’s NHL.
Now, those players have to be able to play. You can’t get better by signing players who can’t play. Duh.
Nugent-Hopkins, there is no dispute, can still produce as a Top 6 left-winger, subbing in at centre, killing penalties and working the power play.
There is a greater argument on Keith. But we contest that his numbers as a first-pairing defenceman in Chicago playing with various inexperienced partners, in front of average to poor goaltending, will improve greatly on a better team with a better partner in front of better goaltending in Edmonton.
(Chicago was the seventh-worst goals against team per game in the NHL last season at 3.29. Edmonton was 12th best at 2.75.)
Then there is the 39-year-old Smith, who signs quite possibly the last contract of his career with Edmonton, a two-year deal worth $2.2 million per.
Can he still play?
Well, among goalies who started half of their team’s games last season (28 starts), Smith’s .923 saves percentage ranked fifth in the NHL. That put him ahead of Jacob Markstrom and Connor Hellebuyck, among others.
His 2.31 goals against average ranked sixth, better than a host of netminders who you would be thrilled to have on a $2.2 million AAV.
How many of those goalies would sign in Edmonton as a free agent? Well, with Smith as his safety net, now Holland can find an answer to that question when free agency begins on Wednesday.
Now he just needs one. Not two.
And of course, there are the intangibles — another area that GMs, coaches (and hockey writers) value far more than your average Twitter expert.
Smith is a leader on a team that lost assistant captain Adam Larsson last week — another reminder that even players who appear happy in Edmonton can jump at their first opportunity. Smith brings an attitude that has been eradicated during 20 years of mediocre hockey in Edmonton. An obstinance; an expectation to win that has slowly been building under this uber-young leadership group.
When your captain Connor McDavid is 24, his lieutenant Leon Draisaitl just 25, and Darnell Nurse 26, a 39-year-old who has played on teams with people like Jere Lehtinen and Sergei Zubov, Martin St. Louis and Mark Recchi, Shane Doan and Mark Giordano, has value.
Value that this dressing room requires if the team inside it is going to grow from being a good regular season team to a good playoff team.
“With defeat comes growth and maturity. A realization that these opportunities don’t come around every year,” Smith began, when asked to outline the next steps after that Round 1 sweep by Winnipeg. “We’re trying to build something here in Edmonton … there’s an excitement around the team. You don’t just go out there and win — there’s a way we went about it this year that everyone thought we improved on. Obviously it didn’t carry over into the playoffs, but there were a lot of valuable lessons learned in that series against Winnipeg.
“The team understands the mistakes we made that cost us the series that we have to clean up. I’m sure everyone will come back looking to improve on that.”
Now, Holland needs a better goalie to make up his tandem. Bringing back Mikko Koskinen isn’t a disaster — the Oilers team saves percentage at all strengths (.910) ranked seventh with that duo between the pipes last season.
But if Smith is your second best guy — not your best guy — you are a far better team.
Now, to find another good ‘tendy that wants to play in Edmonton…
As we know, there are no guarantees.