Without question, the biggest issue surrounding the New York Islanders this off-season will be the efforts to re-sign Ryan Smyth. The Isles, as usual, have many other outstanding issues to resolve before the 2007-08 campaign, including the possible buyout of captain Alexei Yashin, re-signing leading scorer Jason Blake, and whether or not to bring back two suspended players, forward Chris Simon and defenseman Sean Hill, both of whom have a large portion of their sentences still to serve. All that aside, retaining Smyth could very well be a critical decision for the franchise.
Smyth is the type of player that championship teams are built around - the type of player that the Islanders simply have not had in recent years. He did absolutely everything right during his short stay with the Isles after the trade deadline, both on and off the ice and seemed to enjoy his time on the Island. While unrestricted free agency, as Smyth himself has said, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the Islanders appear to be willing to do what is necessary to ink the man that could become the 11th captain in team history.
Athletes facing free agency often cite the desire to play for a winner as the reason to jump to a new team, but whatever happened to MAKING the team you currently play for the WINNER that is so desirable? Chicago's Michal Handzus, an impending free agent himself, recently touched on both sides of the issue.
"I'm leaning both ways," Handzus said. "I like the city and, although I didn't play a lot, I feel the job is unfinished. I'd like to play for a winning team. I know they're trying to win here and I'd like to be a part of the puzzle."
A lot can be said for a guy who is willing to bear the load as "The Guy" on a team trying to take that next step. Ryan Smyth, by all accounts, would be willing to be that guy.
Islanders coach Ted Nolan quickly fell in love with Smyth's play and has gone on record as saying that retaining Smyth is all but essential.
"It was a pleasure to coach him and get to know him. What he added to the team was immeasurable," Nolan said. "So, we have to bring him back."
As an Islanders fan, to hear the coach put such emphasis on the NECESSITY of retaining a player of Smyth's calibre can be taken one of two ways. Did he make such an impression in such a short amount of time that he so quickly cemented his role on the team? Or, if the team falls short of bringing Smyth back, are they that much worse than they were before his arrival?
Personally, I like the urgency. I think it is JUST THAT important that Smyth be brought back to lead the Islanders to the next level. Players flock to a leader like Smyth. Fans flock to a player like Smyth. Coaches dream of a player like Smyth. And he is EXACTLY what the New York Islanders need.
Anything less will be a major disappointment, at the very least, for a franchise that can ill afford to add to its recent history of disappointments.