LOS ANGELES — Contrary to reports on June 24 that a deal had been completed, veteran left wing Ryan Smyth is still a member of the Los Angeles Kings, and it appears that no deal will happen for the next few days, at least.
“Without getting into the details, no, I don’t think we’re closer,” Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi told reporters following Day 2 of the 2011 National Hockey League Entry Draft in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 25.
The reported deal had Smyth going to the Edmonton Oilers, where he began his NHL career in 1995-96, playing eleven seasons in an Oilers jersey. In exchange, the Kings would receive a fourth or a fifth round draft pick, and forward Gilbert Brule.
Brule, 24, has one year left in a $1.85 million contract, but that’s $1.85 million more than the Kings are willing to carry on their books for him.
In other words, the addition of Brule in the deal is simply to move his salary off the Oilers’ books. Likewise, the Kings would not have retained his services, either, opting to apply that $1.85 million towards the acquisition of a top six left winger.
But there’s the hitch…Brule is coming off a season in which he played in just 41 games, scoring seven goals and adding two assists for nine points with nine penalty minutes. But he missed 41 more due to various health issues that included a bruised abdomen, an intestinal problem, and two concussions.
Various media reports indicate that Brule’s health problems were the reason the Kings balked at the deal, stating that even though the Oilers claimed that Brule was healthy, they have not filed the paperwork with the league to certify that.
Without that paperwork, and if Brule proves to have lingering health problems, the Kings would be unable to move him off their roster, and his salary would count against the salary cap.
“For this deal to work, under the way Edmonton had proposed it—it’s not done,” said Lombardi. “Obviously, it’s hit, I guess you could say, a technicality. The way we had always proposed it, we were always very clear on what we could take back [in terms of a player and salary].”
“The thing that’s hard about this is that [Smyth] isn’t a player we were counting on losing,” added Lombardi. “Our left wing is, arguably, our weakest position, particularly now that he’s out [of the picture]. That said, when Smyth called me a month and a half ago, and explained me to—well, I first heard it from his agent. My first reaction was, ‘what’s the problem,’ because he actually had one of his best years for us.”
Smyth, who scored 23 goals and added 24 assists for 47 points in 82 regular season games for the Kings this season, along with two goals and three assists for five points in six playoff games, was even more valuable to the Kings for his leadership qualities.
“He was the first one in the weight room,” Lombardi noted. “I thought, in his first forty games, he was one of our best players. He tailed off a little bit in the last forty, but then, in the playoffs, he was Ryan Smyth, everything you want. I can still see those two goals he scored. They’re classic—going to the net.”
“We had him penciled in, and we were totally focused on the middle [acquiring center Mike Richards from the Philadelphia Flyers].” Lombardi added. “Then I get this call, and I talked to [Smyth]. He made it clear that it had nothing to do with hockey. It’s all for his family. His family wants to go home. I thought about it for a week, then I talked to his agent.”
Lombardi was now between a rock and a hard place, without the usual leverage or strength from which to negotiate with other teams.
“Once you get your head wrapped around it, that you might not have him, now you’ve got two holes, and now you’ve got to make this [trade] happen,” he said. “There’s been a number of players who have moved like this during the last year of their contract who are good players. Those were the parameters I set with his agent. I said, ‘I’m not going to come out ahead on this, but this is the market. Here’s what Simon Gagne got. Here’s what Jason Arnott got.”
“That’s what I told Ryan, and I had to be honest with Ryan,” he added. “That’s why I had to include the agent—he had to know that once I had resigned myself to do it, I couldn’t go to Edmonton and say, ‘give me Taylor Hall.’ But the point is, you don’t want the player to think you’re not trying. So I said, ‘here it is. Is that fair?’”
In order to be able to acquire the top six, scoring forward that his team so desperately needs, Lombardi must have all the salary cap space he can get. Having Brule’s salary on the books once the free agent signing period comes on July 1 was simply not an option for him.
“It was kind of simple,” Lombardi explained. “If [a player] has to come back to make this work, then there have to be certain things in place to allow me to run my cap, and if they’re not in place, then this makes no sense, because I have to replace [Smyth]. That’s the only urgency for me, that I have to replace him. In order to replace him, whatever I’m taking back, had to allow me full freedom to keep that space available. If that is not there, I cannot do this deal.”
“Those conditions weren’t there, so there’s no deal,” Lombardi elaborated. “It makes no sense for me to lose this player, and to lose the flexibility I need to replace him. That’s where it broke down. Once it was very clear that I couldn’t do what I needed to do with [Brule, who Lombardi refused to mention by name], then it’s not what the deal was based upon in any stretch of the imagination, and certainly doesn’t make any sense for me.”
As reported earlier, if the Kings went through with this proposed trade and found that Brule’s health would prevent them from buying out his contract or placing him on waivers, which would be required prior to sending him to the minors where they could “bury” his salary (it would be highly unlikely any team would take Brule off the Kings’ hands in a trade).
Indeed, Brule and his salary would be a fixture on the Kings’ roster and their books until it was too late for Lombardi to bring in the kind of talent his team needs when the unrestricted free agent signing period begins on July 1.
“I have to have the flexibility—I can play him, I can trade him, [buy out his contract or send him to the minors],” said Lombardi. “I have to have the last three, because I’m losing Ryan Smyth here, a twenty-goal, proven scorer. I’m not going to get that back from any team. I’ve got to clean this up, keep the [salary cap] space, and try and replace it another way.”
“Look at it this way,” added Lombardi. “I’m being penalized enough, and it’s not anybody’s fault that I’m losing this player. I’m not going pay another penalty, and not be able to go out and, at least, try to get a player of his caliber. The ability to buy out or waive, there are certain things that have to be in place to keep that ability in place. If I’m going to [take on a player and his salary], then I’ve got to have the flexibility [move him, waive him or send him to the minors in order to reclaim that salary cap space].”
For Lombardi, it’s time to head back to the drawing board.
“I’ll keep working on it,” he said. “There’s been another team involved [rumored to be the Calgary Flames], and I talked to them today.”
Only problem with that is the fact that the Flames signed veteran forward Alex Tanguay to a five-year contract extension on June 25, and may no longer be interested in Smyth, a development that Lombardi noted.
“They’ve got some other issues that aren’t related to us agreeing on the compensation,” said Lombardi.
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