Flames face Smyth-like dilemma with Iginla, Kipper

The sad but overwrought scene played out at Edmonton International Airport last Tuesday had resonances well outside the Alberta capital's city limits.

"I just want to say thanks to everybody," began Ryan Smyth as he awaited a connecting flight to begin the daylong odyssey to Long Island. "This is not what my family and I had in store. I never thought I'd come to this day. It's time to turn the page and go there and give my best to make the playoffs, win the Cup and bring it back here to Edmonton.

"That's where my heart is."

During the teary farewell, Smyth broke down as often as a '70s Pinto. He was a man obviously shattered. He felt the ache in his gut. What's amazing is he and the Edmonton Oilers reportedly were between $100,000 and $300,000 apart per season in their negotiations. Chump change on a deal that would've paid him $27 million over five seasons.

He could've started as an Oiler and remained one his entire career -- something Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr can't say.

If the city of Edmonton and that big Oil drop meant so much to him, if he indeed bled blue whenever he trudged back to the locker room to have athletic therapist Ken Lowe stitch him up, why on earth was he there at the airport in the first place?

Smyth supporters can argue that he'd taken less to stay put before, a valid point. And they want to know why, if the difference was so slight, didn't the team just eat the difference? A fair question. But the fact remains the Oilers were willing to make him their highest-paid player. But when the time came to fish or cut bait, the Oilers wouldn't blink and Smyth couldn't believe it. If, in the end, it's all business, fine; you make your decision and move on. Don't turn the goodbye into a Harlequin tale of ill-fated romance.

The Smyth saga is what the new CBA apparently was supposed to prevent with small-market teams. Never again were the Ottawas and Edmontons and Calgarys of this world supposed to lose top players before their "best before" date passed. But that foolish naiveté has been cruelly put to rest.

Lest others feel the slightest bit superior, the Smyth scenario threatens to play out elsewhere across the NHL. Down the road a piece, three and a half hours south, for instance.

The same day Smyth moved on, Calgary general manager Darryl Sutter held a media conference of his own. With the acquisition of New Jersey spare part David Hale the only thing to chew over (inquiring minds desperately wanted to know: Is he any kin to Alan Hale Jr., the beloved Skipper of "Gilligan's Island" fame?), the conversation swung to Smyth's situation. Sutter, a poker-faced cowpuncher if there ever was one, backed up his northern counterpart, Oilers GM Kevin Lowe.

"You can't make emotional decisions," lectured Sutter, who practices what he preaches in that area. "You have to make business decisions when you're talking about that kind of money."

He didn't blink when asked a follow-up question about how many GMs would've shown the kind of guts Lowe did, dealing away a franchise player on Mark Messier Night and with the playoffs still a faint spark in the distance.

"Kevin did. I know I could," Sutter replied. "That makes at least two of us."

The first subtle volley for future skirmishes, perhaps?

Both of Sutter's star men, Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents as of July 1, 2008.

Iginla is paid handsomely at $7 million this season, but he probably will be seeking Jaromir Jagr-type money ($8 million range) in his next deal. He'll be 31. His agent, Don Meehan, just happens to be Smyth's agent, too. Meehan fully understands what his client is worth in goals, leadership and good-guy profile.

Iginla, believe it or not, means more to the Flames than Smyth does, uh, did, to the Oilers. By the time Meehan and Sutter get down to hammering out a new deal for the Calgary captain, Iginla will be threatening all Theo Fleury's career Oilers offensive records. His is unquestionably the face of the franchise. He wears the "C."

Kiprusoff, meanwhile, is going to be in search of a significant upgrade -- he's earning $3.5 million this season -- and deservedly so. He might be quiet, but he's not slow. Nikolai Khabibulin is hauling in $6.75 million this season; Roberto Luongo $6 million; Olaf Kolzig $5.45 million; Martin Brodeur $5.2 million; Rick DiPietro $4.5 million.

At those rates, the defending Vezina Trophy winner is an absolute steal. Heck, even Dwayne Roloson -- off the pedestal and out of the playoffs in Edmonton -- is collecting a cool mil more than the Kipper this season.

By summer 2008, will the Flames be willing to pour potentially $13.5 million of cap space into two players, no matter how valuable, with other key components -- such as Robyn Regehr, Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius -- in line for major raises at the same time?

The quick, knee-jerk reaction is yes, of course. How could they do without either? But the reality, Edmontonians will tell you, can be quite different.

Summer 2008 seems an awfully long way away. It's impossible to predict what will happen, but it's certainly not out of line to wonder.

The hope that something contractual will get done early with both Kiprusoff and Iginla is faint. It's not out of the question the same teary fate seen in Edmonton could be in store for Flames fans. It should, at the very least, put people on guard.

There are more direct U.S. flights out of Calgary's airport than Edmonton's.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.