Deadline looms large

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:08 AM ET

SAN JOSE -- At this rate, everyone in the NHL is going to be bending his thumb back until it snaps.

If it does for them what it seems to have done for Ryan Smyth, why not?

Ever since the Oilers winger returned from 10 games on the shelf with a broken thumb, he and that splinted-up hand have been playing their best hockey - or, at least their most productive hockey - of the season.

With five goals and five assists in seven games since coming back (reaching the scoresheet in all but one game) he's still on pace for the highest goal and point totals of his distinguished career, despite the 10-game absence.

Nobody expected he'd come back like this, not even Smyth.

"I didn't think it would be this good," the 30-year-old said. "There is a great deal of ache and pain that I have to deal with, but I've been fortunate and lucky how things have been going personally. I'm really happy how things have progressed."

He has 21 goals in 32 games played, and with half the season left has a very good shot at 40.

"I was not expecting this,'' said head coach Craig MacTavish, who notices a new spring in Smyth's step.

"In a lot of ways he's benefitted from the rest, I think. You'd think it would be a real impediment to performance having to play with a splint, but he's really come back. Right from the first game I thought he had more jump."

Smyth, whose game-winning assist in overtime on Monday snapped Edmonton's two-game losing streak, says the splint hasn't been the anchor he thought it would.

"It's a challenge, there's some things I can do and some things I can't," he said. "I don't have the full range, but the doctor said if you feel comfortable and can deal with the pain, go. I tried to keep my conditioning up when I was off, and I'll give credit to the brace. It does help. It restricts me, but it does help."

It'll also help if Smyth and the Oilers can hammer out a contract. Negotiations kick off in the next day or so, and how long they last is anyone's guess.

"We're imminently close to starting," said general manager Kevin Lowe, who has no idea how long things will take, or if they'll even get it done before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

"He'll be weighing his options, between committing here long term and seeing what's out there in the summer."

Conventional wisdom says that you don't want to let an impending UFA get past the trade deadline unsigned because you risk losing him for nothing in the summer. Lowe doesn't want to get into hypothetical what-ifs, but admitted yesterday that Feb. 27 will loom very, very large in all this.

"You don't want to have too much uncertainty," he said. "We need to get it done before the deadline, have some sort of answer one way or another."

Smyth, who's taken the hometown discount at contract time before, has said he'll bring a little more conviction to the negotiating table this time around.

Forty-eight days and counting.


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