'Small-market syndrome' not to blame in Smyth deal


By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

One of the prevailing themes in the wake of the shocking trade of Ryan Smyth to Long Island, at least in Canada, was that, somehow, the collective bargaining agreement had failed small markets like Edmonton.

Now, hold on an oil-field second here.

Isn't Long Island one of those small markets? And Nashville, which nabbed Peter Forsberg? And Atlanta, which nabbed Keith Tkachuk? And San Jose, which added Bill Guerin?

Ryan Smyth

Calgary, Edmonton's small-market neighbor in Alberta, a team that faced the same crushing economic issues under the old system, added Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau and Craig Conroy and is locked into a playoff berth.

As for the big markets, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York (Rangers), Colorado, Toronto and Montreal were all either sellers or made only small moves during the trade period. It's entirely possible all these big-market teams will miss the playoffs this season.

So, no, this isn't about market size or the system somehow failing the Canadian teams. This is about handling your assets. Or, in the case of the Edmonton Oilers, mishandling them.

In the wake of the lockout, people couldn't line up quickly enough to praise GM Kevin Lowe for his addition of Chris Pronger from perennial fat cat St. Louis. Lowe also brought in Michael Peca from the Islanders, who couldn't afford him (hello, Dr. Irony, please report to Rexall Place). Later, Lowe would make deadline deals to add Dwayne Roloson, Jaroslav Spacek, Sergei Samsonov and Dick Tarnstrom. The Oilers then went to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals and we again praised Lowe for his work. It was well-deserved praise.

But moments after the playoffs, Pronger announced he wanted out, and even though Lowe could have kept him, the Edmonton GM obliged. The Oilers got what appeared to be fair value, given the circumstances, with Ladislav Smid, Joffrey Lupul and two draft picks (one each in first and second rounds) and a conditional pick. The move hurt the team on the ice, but it freed up more than $6 million in cap space for each of the next four seasons. Lowe used that money to lock up other parts of the Oilers core, but not Smyth. In hindsight, Lowe should have focused on Smyth earlier. Perhaps he assumed that, at some point, Smyth and the team would find common ground, as they had in the past.

Regardless, if the team played better, or had been constructed better, if it got more offense out of a group that looked to be dynamic but was far from it, none of this would have happened.

Instead, the team floundered and neither Lowe nor Smyth would budge when the crucial moments came Tuesday afternoon. Blame falls on both sides of this fence, if blame is to be doled out.

But one thought -- with players such as Pronger, Spacek and even Tarnstrom fleeing the city, Lowe might have built up some good will within the hockey community by signing Smyth as a signal to other potential free agents that Edmonton isn't the wasteland it now resembles less than a year after coming that close to winning the Cup.

Still, that was Lowe's choice, not a choice foisted on him by the system. These are the realities all GMs face, the dilemmas all GMs confront, not just GMs in Canada, despite what conspiracy theorists north of the border might think.


Just wondering who figured it would be a good idea to hold the Mark Messier celebration on the same night as the NHL's annual trade deadline.

We know it was nice Wayne Gretzky, coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, could be on hand (with his team), but there are planes even in northern Alberta and the Coyotes don't play every single day.

Maybe the Oilers believed playing Phoenix would represent a sure win to cap off the evening. It didn't, of course, as the Coyotes beat the hometown boys 3-0 Tuesday night, further burying Edmonton's faint playoff hopes. What's worse, the ceremony was tinged by bitterness and despair after the announcement of Smyth's trade earlier in the afternoon. No one could have foreseen that happening, but why take the chance?

We feel for GM Kevin Lowe, who didn't participate in the on-ice ceremony in part because he would have been booed off the ice. Despite his long connections to Messier and the dynastic Oilers teams, Lowe had the good grace to step back and let coach Craig MacTavish handle the introductions even though he would have loved to take part. Even Smyth avoided commenting on the deal so as not to take away from Messier's night.

None of which would have been at issue if the ceremony had been held any other night.
All in all, a grand mess, if you'll pardon the expression.