Dancing in the Reign: Smyth, Williams, Answering Offseason Speculation With Production
There were a few players in question coming into the season, veterans Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams were undoubtedly two who captured that spotlight. Williams’, who has an injury-ridden history, is coming off of a disappointing season in which he suffered a broken leg and missed significant time. Williams returned before season’s end, but never recovered on the ice. He was a complete non-factor, and never seemed to restore his mental confidence, which led to hesitant, skittish play. Ryan Smyth, however, received a little more attention than I thought necessary. Coming off of a 53 point season anchoring a powerful 1st line, an off-season injury seeded panic about his age. Smyth suffered a fractured ankle playing for Canada in the IIHF World Championships in May, and suddenly his age of 34 years became a concern. Look, there’s no question Smyth is getting old, but the fact that a fractured ankle fueled most of the concern targeted at his age over-dramatized the speculation. In no way am I guaranteeing huge campaigns from these two, but in five games, the play of Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams has overshadowed any pent-up anxiety regarding their production this season. Below I’ll touch on the two veterans who are setting aside off-season doubt with their solid play.
Justin Williams was on fire to start the 2009-2010 season, which has me a little tentative writing this. Knock on wood, please. He played with consistency and was a regular on the scoresheet, but yet again, an injury stubbed another season for the 29 year-old. He was able to heal before season’s end, but his return to the lineup was abysmal. His inability to regroup at the end of last season carried unease about his recovery into a long summer, which does nothing but open doors for speculation from hockey fans. We’ve got to talk about something, right? Did this add wind to the fire that was the off-season pursuit of a talented left-winger in the open market? Of course. Williams was going to make the roster, but was he going to be first line material? Well, what do you know, he’s got five points in five games, snagging the PA announcer’s tongue in four of those five contests. He’s regained his confidence with great positioning in the offensive zone. He’s not going to produce with speed, strength, or highlight skill, but with his ability to find open space with passing and/or shooting lanes. He’s done that, and he’s jumped on loose pucks, a player who is arguably better without the puck. We weren’t seeing that from Williams at the end of last season. A player such as Williams, who relies on positioning to be a factor in the offensive zone, can’t afford to hesitate on plays. His job is to read his linemates, giving them safe options when pressed, and winning battles to loose pucks. You can throw any questions you have regarding Williams’ recovery out the door. Unfortunately, his ugly injury history has ingrained itself into his persona. I tell myself not to think about it, but I just wrote about it. Don’t think about it.
I love Ryan Smyth. He’s got the class of Steve Yzerman, and #94 had my heart at the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals. Late, I know. I’m young, you mine as well date my fondness of Smyth back to 1994. For the acclaim Dean Lombardi received for the acquisition of Smyth, and the offensive boost he provided to the team last year, he didn’t deserve the negative speculation he received over the summer. A fractured ankle is not a hockey-friendly injury, but Smyth suffered it in May, less than a month removed from the Western Conference Quarterfinals, alotting him more than four months to recover. So really, we’re talking a recovery that depletes leg strength, not lower body endurance. Of course he depends on both, but endurance centers in on his style more than muscle build, especially at his age. He’s not an overpowering forward, he does his best work with his stick and slot positioning in front of the net and with his puck control along the sideboards and the corners. We’re five games in, and Smyth is tied with Dustin Brown for the team-high in points with six. He’s had one rough game, and a couple of his goals have been soft, but early indications are promising. Of course, fatigue is going to be monitored closely throughout the year for the aging winger, but if his surroundings can continue to support his duties, he’ll be just fine.