SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers veteran stars need to light it up

Ryan Smyth takes part in an Edmonton Oilers' team practice at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Tuesday...

Ryan Smyth takes part in an Edmonton Oilers' team practice at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Tuesday Nov. 29, 2011. (DAVID BLOOM/QMI Agency)

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:44 PM ET

There are some nights when instead of a three-star selection, there ought to be something entirely the opposite.

Wednesday, after the Edmonton Oilers’ most putrid performance of the season, with the crowd in a mood to boo, the three worst players on the ice ought to have been forced to skate out and be acknowledged.

The three srats (stars spelled backwards) on virtually everybody’s ballot:

1. Ryan Whitney

2. Ryan Smyth

3. Ales Hemsky

If it was just one of those nights, with no big-picture questions involved, there would be no cause for concern.

But there are three big questions involved here. If Ryan Whitney can return to be the player he was last year, if Ryan Smyth can return to being the player he was to start this year and if Ales Hemsky can finally get his game together to the point you can still believe he’ll ever have his career year, then terrific. Onward and upward.

They are three players who could not only help build the bridge from today to the future, but be there in the team picture when they get there.

But what happens if what you watched Wednesday night is what you are going to get going forward?

What happens if Whitney, 28, never finds that form again? What happens if Smyth, 35, can’t possibly play at the pace he set at the front-end of the season in the final three-quarters of the final year on his contract? And what happens if Ales Hemsky, 28, also in his last contract year, has peaked without ever having that career year?

Whitney, who was a wonderful story as a healthy player last year, scoring 27 points in 35 games before being injured, has one point in the 11 games he’s played this year, is a minus five, and has largely been a liability with no improvement in sight.

With the defence in disarray and the team in a free fall, how do you go forward, with Whitney playing the way he’s playing, to get him back to where you need him to be without helping sewer the season?

“There’s lots of different strategies,” said head coach Tom Renney.

“You show him clips of what he’s done very well, bring him back to that memory, so at least in his own mind, he can visualize that. Communicate with him in a way that puts a challenge in front of him, no question about that. He has no problem with a kick in the ass.

“Because of the time he’s been away, it’s still catching up to getting into mid-season game shape and he’s still a work in progress.”

Not sure there’s an answer in there anywhere, but finding what Whitney had last year is certainly worth the search if there’s the belief it’s there to be found again.

Ryan Smyth, who at one stretch went 11 of 12 games with at least a point in each game, has now gone six straight without a goal and managed only a single assist.

Second only to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the best story of the year here and tied for 19th in NHL scoring, there were no negatives with Smyth until this 1-3-1 homestand.

But he was so out of synch with Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle that Renney moved Sam Gagner (suddenly going good with seven points in his last eight games) to join the two kids, who have produced three goals and three assists each during the first five games of the six-game homestand despite what’s going on around them.

And there’s a big question if the problem with Smyth is mostly the minutes (more than 20 in four of the last six games) Renney is forcing him to play in his old age, while Taylor Hall recovers from injury.

“I don’t think he’s a concern,” said Renney of Smyth’s game suddenly going south.

“He’s too much of a pro not to know what he has to come back to, to be an effective player for us.”

But Renney said he was the poster boy for what was wrong against Carolina.

“I thought we were a turnover machine ... and he was amongst many that turned the puck over. That was our biggest dilemma.”

As for Smyth’s ice time, Renney said, “I’d like to have three bona fide penalty-killing units and back off on his time a bit, and dedicate more of his time to five-on-five and time on the power play.”

If you ignore Smyth’s homestand, he’s had a whale of a season so far, but considering age and mileage and leadership, mentoring and earning a new deal to allow him to finish his career here with a happy ending, he’s going to be under this kind of magnifying glass all season.

Hemsky is another story.

You have to wonder if the series of injuries he’s had, his looming unrestricted free agency and his sudden loss of status as the star of the squad to Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle has negatively affected his play.

“Those are really good questions and maybe best for him to answer, to be honest with you,” said Renney.

“I can’t put words into his mouth.

“I know he’s a team guy. He talks about all the young players all the time. He talks about not having a problem with how he’s deployed. He just wants to have an opportunity to make a difference as any of these great players do. And you certainly want to tap into that as a coach, with this whole new dynamic of all these new players coming in.

“How he deals with that, I guess, is a question better for him,” he said of the player who rivals owner Daryl Katz for media availability.

Renney made the surprise statement that he suspects Hemsky as much as anything just needs a new stick.

“You have to watch how you talk about this kind of stuff because it’s the guy’s tool, but his stick drives me crazy. It looks like a road hockey stick when I was a kid.

“He’s trying to shoot,” he said of the guy who has managed 15 shots in the last four games.

“He’s certainly trying to make his plays. He’s still trying to be an unselfish guy.”

Whatever, it’s not working.

If Ryan Whitney, Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky can get their games back together and be three stars again, then what’s wrong with the Edmonton Oilers at the moment can be quickly cured.

If not, being back in the draft lottery is not out of the question.

Follow me on Twitter.com/sunterryjones

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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