You can go home again

by Patrick Williams

More than a few AHL observers raised an eyebrow when the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers engineered an AHL-style blockbuster just prior to Clear Day. Two feuding rivals who could be on a collision course for the Calder Cup Playoffs exchanged key parts back on Mar. 13.

A couple of familiar AHL veterans proved that you can go back home when the Blueshirts sent rugged, nasty defenseman Joe Rullier off to the Los Angeles organization, setting up a reunion for Rullier with the Manchester Monarchs and a fan base that welcomed the blueliner back home with welcome arms.

The AHL’s most active team around Clear Day, the Monarchs badly needed the snarl in their defense corps that they reeled in with Rullier.

But the old veteran heading in the opposite direction from Manchester may have been even more welcomed, and he has since proven that this old guy can still bring it.

On his way to Hartford was right wing Brad Smyth, he of the 68-goal season back in 1995-96. Smyth is a pure sniper, the type of raw scorer that had mostly disappeared over the past decade and only now is beginning to show signs of returning as the game shows signs of opening up once more.

At the ripe old age of 33, Smyth has piled up 32 goals and 49 assists for 81 points this season, and Smyth, typically one of the AHL’s more durable players, is on pace for an 80-game regular season in 2005-06.

No question, Smyth is also something that the Hartford Wolf Pack desperately needed if they wanted to be taken seriously as a Calder Cup contender. At the time of the deal, the Wolf Pack found themselves immersed in a scoring drought.

Though the Wolf Pack had enjoyed a balanced scoring attack for much of the season to that point, a three-goal March week — three goals on 106 shots in those three games, to put it another way — gave rise to the thought that a young team might be able to find a use for one of the AHL’s best snipers of all time and give themselves three deep lines up front.

That the move in the process would also relieve a potential playoff partner of one of its most dangerous weapons certainly did not hurt matters, nor did Smyth having been a member of the Wolf Pack’s 2000 Calder Cup championship group.

However, the deal, Smyth admits, caught him off guard.

“To get (loaned) 10 minutes before the (Clear Day) deadline, I was a little surprised,” said Smyth after his first game back with the Wolf Pack on Mar. 15.

That the Wolf Pack and Monarchs, whose rivalry is a stout one, would exchange vital parts so close to the postseason left Smyth a bit surprised.

“That caught me by surprise, too, because there is a chance that these teams are going to meet in the first round of the playoffs.”

After leaving the Wolf Pack in 2002, the move back to Hartford was something of a homecoming, though the vast majority of Smyth’s teammates from those days have long since departed.

But in assistant coach Ken Gernander, a teammate during Smyth’s two earlier stints, and defenseman Dale Purinton, there are at least a few familiar faces still hanging around.

“Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” Smyth replied when asked whether the Wolf Pack scene seems familiar. “Obviously, it’s different. It’s four years ago.”

But Smyth made himself right at home immediately in his third Wolf Pack stint in Philadelphia in that return on Mar. 15. Smyth’s two-goal, three-assist effort that night led the Wolf Pack as they humiliated the defending Calder Cup champion Phantoms on Wachovia Spectrum ice by an 8-2 count.

Since then, Smyth has cruised with the Wolf Pack, putting up 12 points in the nine Hartford games following the debut in Philadelphia. In total, six of Smyth’s 10 Hartford games this season have been multi-point outings.

The Wolf Pack, 7-3-0-0 in Smyth’s 10 Hartford games, have put a nine-point gap between themselves and the Monarchs with six games to play. This recent run means that home ice for a probable first-round date with the Monarchs or Providence is looking very solid heading into the next-to-last weekend of the 2005-06 regular season.

Anyone with any of idea of the AHL knew what the Wolf Pack were getting themselves with Smyth, an Ottawa native who spent his OHL days with the London Knights, finishing up his OHL career with a 54-55-109 regular season back in 1992-93.

Since his AHL debut during the 1994-95 season, Smyth has dominated the AHL, and this season will be Smyth’s eighth season with 20-plus goals. Along with the 68-goal season a decade ago that earned him the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s most valuable player that season, Smyth also has a 50-goal season back in 2000-01 on his record.

For his AHL career alone, Smyth owns 324-338-662 numbers in 604 regular-season games. Only 10 players in 70 years have scored more AHL goals.

Smyth’s skating has taken some knocks, and a goal-scorer like Smyth had the bad timing to come around just as the NHL entered its defensive-shell period. Still, Smyth certainly has been serviceable at the NHL level and has 88 games with Ottawa, the Rangers, Nashville, Los Angeles and Florida over his 13-year pro career.

And now Smyth finds himself back in Hartford.

“I wasn’t even thinking of getting (loaned), but that’s when it happens. But the number-one destination would be (Hartford).”

“It’s a good organization.”