The Edmonton Oilers tried to reach terms on a contract extension with forward Ryan Smyth, but he wound up being dealt to Long Island in the most shockingmove made at Tuesday's NHL trade deadline.
Smyth, the undisputed emotional sparkplug of the Oilers, was traded to the New York Islanders for a pair of coveted prospects in Robert Nilsson and Ryan O'Marra and a first-round draft pick.
"I certainly wasn't out there shopping him," Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe said. "But we had to be prepared, in the sense that something like this could happen."
Smyth, whose salary is $3.5 million US, reportedly was seeking a multi-year extension worth $5.5 million US annually.
The former all-star is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
"I always thought we would get a deal done," Lowe said. "And really, until recently when, in our minds, we really stepped up, thought that maybe it's not so obvious, maybe it's not so easy."
"I'm surprised actually, given what Ryan is to the community and what he has been to the franchise," said Don Meehan, Smyth's agent. "But I understand that, with all due respect, they have the ability to make these decisions and that's what management has to do in these circumstances."
Meehan said both he and the Oilers tried to find some common financial ground, but could not.
"Both sides compromised throughout this process," Meehan said. "But not to the degree where we both felt comfortable that we could come to a deal."
"It was really down to the 11th hour where we realized, financially, it wasn't going to get done," Lowe said.
Smyth, 31, is widely considered one of the NHL's hardest-working forwards and he offers the Islanders a unique blend of grit, leadership and scoring prowess.
The native of Banff, Alta., led the Oilers with 31 goals and 53 points in 53 games this season, his 12th since being selected sixth overall by Edmonton in the 1994 NHL draft.
Concerned about backlash
Mindful of how fans reacted to Edmonton trading Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Chris Pronger, Lowe acknowledged that Smyth's departure will likely incite a similar backlash.
"I'm very concerned," Lowe said. "I've thought about it for months.
"I've been on the job for 6-7 years. But this has been the most difficult one."
"Ryan has meant so much to this organization — as did some of the players in the past," Lowe continued. "So we have to factor those things in.
"We know that's a big part of it. He was a big fan favourite and it made the decision that much more difficult.
"We're not insensitive to our fans, by any stretch. But in the same breath, we have to make decisions we think can bolster the team and help it eventually win.
"We're not a better team with Ryan gone, no question. But in the very near future, we'll be a better team."
Nilsson and O'Marra are former first-round picks drafted 15th overall in 2003 and 2005, respectively.
Nilsson, 22, has posted 12 goals and 45 points in 50 games for the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers this season.
The Calgary native had six goals and 20 points in 53 games as a rookie with the Islanders in 2005-06.
O'Marra has four goals and five points in eight games with the Sound Tigers this season.
The 19-year-old totalled 27 goals and 77 points in 61 games for the OHL Erie Otters prior to being promoted to Bridgeport.
O'Marra also won gold medals with Team Canada at the last two world junior championships.
"We've acquired some very good young assets," Lowe said. "Combined with the ones we already have that are gaining experience, we really like our overall depth.
"The unfortunate part is Ryan Smyth's not a part of it."