LOS ANGELES — For years, veteran left wing Ryan Smyth was a “Kings Killer,” scoring more points (24 goals with 24 assists for 48 points in 48 games) against the Los Angeles Kings than any other team, while wearing the jerseys of the Edmonton Oilers, the New York Islanders and the Colorado Avalanche.
But that was not one of the reasons Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi acquired the 33-year-old native of Banff, Alberta from the Avalanche on July 3, 2009, in exchange for defensemen Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing, along with a fifth round selection in the 2010 National Hockey League Entry Draft.
Indeed, Smyth’s uncanny ability to light up the Kings just about every time he faced them was probably not even on Lombardi’s list. Rather, it was Smyth’s veteran experience and leadership, not to mention the fact that he is one of the best in the game at driving hard to the front of the opposition’s net, parking himself there to create traffic in front of the goalie and get the dirty goals that the Kings have so rarely scored in recent years.
Just four games into the season, the Kings have earned a 3-1 record, and there is strong evidence that Smyth has already made a huge, positive impact on the team.
Most apparent have been his contributions while playing on the Kings’ top line with center Anze Kopitar and right wing Justin Williams.
To say that this line has been hot is an understatement, as the trio has combined for eight goals and twelve assists for twenty points, with Smyth accounting for four goals and three assists for seven points.
“We seem to be finding a way right now,” said Smyth. “The big thing is that we’re communicating in practice and it’s leading into the game situations.”
“I’ve always thought Kopitar was an excellent hockey player and Williams—I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for him,” added Smyth. “He’s won, he knows what it takes to win. When the game is on, he turns it up, too. It’s a good mix right now and things are going good.”
Both Kopitar and Williams have come out of the gate as improved players over last season, but at this early point in the season, Smyth appears to be the key to the line’s success because he always seems to make the right play and, of course, there is always his knack of wreaking havoc in front of the net.
“I think the big thing is that coach has emphasized the shot mentality and the net presence, and that goes with my game a little bit,” Smyth explained. “I don’t want to change my game, but the puck has got to end up towards the net area. Guys are getting it through and we’re getting rewarded.”
“I know Coach Murray has really, really been instilling a shot mentality with traffic in front of the net,” said Williams. “We have one guy just in front of the net and another guy just off a little bit. More often than not, if you don’t get a tip, you’re going to at least get a screen. The goalie’s not going to see them all.”
“The goalies in this league, if they see a shot from the blue line, they’re going to save it every time,” added Williams. “Not ninety percent. Every time. We’re doing our best to try to get in front of the net, but we need to stick with it for the whole game.”
The Kings’ net presence this season has improved dramatically over last season, so much so that their offense looks totally different and has been far more effective through four games than it has been over the last handful of seasons.
Kings head coach Terry Murray pointed to Smyth’s influence and leadership in this aspect of the game as being a key factor.
“Net traffic…it’s coming,” said Murray. “We’re getting pucks to the net, we’re having better presence at the net. It takes a couple of veteran guys like Ryan Smyth to set that example. You can see some of the stuff he brings. Younger guys are looking and watching and doing the same.”
As reported earlier, Smyth is one of the best in the league at getting to the front of the net and scoring the dirty goals.
He learned his specialty from some of the best.
“I wanted to develop something when I broke into the league and establish myself as something,” he said. “I watched guys like Dino Ciccarelli, Dave Andreychuk and Craig Simpson stand in front of the net and take a beating.”
“The puck has to go to the net,” he added. “You might as well get yourself there or bodies there and things will happen.”
Smyth has also made the Kings’ power play, which has scored six goals on eighteen power play opportunities in four games (ranked third in the NHL), more effective.
In fact, three of Smyth’s four goals and two of his assists have been scored on the power play.
“We’ve got good net presence with [right wing Dustin] Brown and Smyth, and we have good shooters with Williams and [defenseman Drew] Doughty,” said Kopitar. “A really good mix of everything is helping us to get through on the power play.”
“It’s a matter of going out there and executing,” added Kopitar. “You’ve got to make tape-to-tape passes. You’ve got to play within the structure that you have.”
The Kings’ biggest problem to open the season has been their horrendous penalty-killing, which allowed four power play goals on four opportunities to the San Jose Sharks on October 6 and then allowed goals on their next two disadvantages against the Minnesota Wild on October 8.
But Smyth, along with Kopitar, came to the rescue, as Murray put the pair out on the penalty-kill to start the third period against Minnesota and the Kings’ penalty-killers have not looked back since.
Indeed, they have killed off seven straight man disadvantages, including their last two against the Wild and then all five against the St. Louis Blues in a 2-1 victory on October 10 in St. Louis.
“The big kill at the start of the third period [against the Wild] was a critical point in the game,” Murray stressed. “There was 1:34 left on that power play. Ryan Smyth slid and blocked a shot from the point. That kind of play could make the difference to turn it around—that kind of play.”
“He’s a quality guy, a quality veteran,” Murray elaborated. “On the ice, it’s present every day. He’s a player who can play in all situations.”
“He really has an effect on our hockey club. That’s why I started using him and Kopitar on the penalty-kill at the start of the third period, because his play was very [much] under control for the whole game. I was [thinking], ‘hey, somebody needs to grab this thing here.’ Again, I talked about the big block on the point shot. That really snapped us to attention.”
There’s that leadership and influence thing again.
“I think it’s his experience and his veteran presence in the locker room,” said Kopitar. “He calms everybody down, including me. When he speaks up, everybody listens. Maybe that’s what we were lacking last year. We didn’t have a lot of old guys who’ve been in the league for five…seven years. It’s helping a lot. The young guys are learning from him. It’s been nothing but helpful.”
“I think he gives us the element of comfort and leadership and knowing that a veteran guy is out there, he’s going to make the right play and he’s going to lead by example is something the [young] core of this team needs,” said Williams. “That’s what we’re trying to build here.”
“I know management is trying to build with character guys and Ryan is one of those guys who is going to take a hit to make a play or block a shot with his face if he has to, and that [trickles] all the way down,” added Williams. “We all need to be professionals and play every game like it’s our last.”
Smyth seems to relish the leadership role, but does not want to shove it down the throats of the young players, either.
“I’ve had my experiences along the way,” he explained. “Went to the Stanley Cup Finals [with Edmonton] and played in the playoffs a little bit and got that experience, that sense of confidence. But I don’t want to be cocky.”
“I just want to rub off in a good way to these young guys and right now, it seems to be working both ways because I’m learning a lot from these young kids with the experience and talent they’ve got, he added. “I just want to be an extra piece to the puzzle.”
Smyth credited his own teachers for what he is now bringing to the Kings.
“I’ve learned a lot along the way from guys like Kelly Buchberger, Doug Weight, Jason Arnott—the list goes on and on,” said Smyth. “When you’re in an older role than a lot of the other guys, you just want to give the a little advice here and there.”
The 2009-10 season is still very, very young. But with the impact Smyth has already had on this young Kings team, what lies ahead for them in a month? January? How about March and April?
Sure, things could still fall apart for the Kings in a big way. But if things continue to fall into place…
…I will leave the possibilities to all of you to ponder and, if you are so inclined, dream about.
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