's propensity for playing in the hardest areas of the ice isn't just an attractive trait for the surging Los Angeles Kings
. It's part of the team's overall philosophy.
"Smyth's game is very much the template for an NHL player," Kings coach Terry Murray
told NHL.com. "A forward who plays the game in the right places. He comes up with loose pucks, he makes plays in small, tight situations, down below the goal line behind the net, and he takes himself to the net."
After the Kings finished last in the NHL in five-on-five goals for, the club's brass felt that acquiring Smyth (46GP: 19-19-38) represented its best chance to impress the team's to-the-net philosophy on its young roster.
"With the way teams are structured today in the defensive part of things," Murray said, "The emphasis is on that part of the game even more so, in order to score. That is the conversation that we had in the off-season last year."
This season, on the heels of Smyth's arrival, the Kings have improved in 5-on-5 play, recording 114 goals for in 61 games, good for a 10th-place tie with Dallas at the Olympic break.
"We needed (Smyth's) attitude to help us improve in that area, and also the attitude that's going to be contagious with the other members of our hockey club," Murray said. "That they're going to learn and watch from Ryan Smyth
and the style of game that he plays. He's done that."
"The puck's got to end up at the net somehow," Smyth told NHL.com. "Sometimes it's not going to be the prettiest goal. Grinding away down low in front of the net pays off. Whether you're a screen, or whether you get a rebound, those are precious opportunities (in big games). As we're getting into the stretch, (and) hopefully in the playoffs, plays like that are going to make a difference."
Although the Stanley Cup remains a dream, Smyth has seen a good amount of playoff hockey. His longtime club, the Oilers, made five-straight postseason appearances from 1996-2001. Last year's non-playoff season with the Avalanche was his only postseason absence in the past four post-lockout seasons. On the international stage, he won gold with Team Canada at the 2002 Olympics.
Smyth's most famous foray in the postseason came with the Oilers in 2006, when his team, which entered the playoffs ranked eighth in the Western Conference, took the Hurricanes to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. His game-winning goal in Game 3 rescued the series for the Oilers, who would have gone down 0-3 at the time had it not been for Smyth's goal from his typical spot, directly in front of goaltender Cam Ward
His tenacity is exactly what the Kings require as the games get bigger down the stretch, when most nights exhibit a playoff atmosphere.
"I think a lot of the experience that I've gained over the years, whether it be just making the playoffs or going to the SCF, is you learn from those things and you want to get back to that level."
The Kings will return from the Olympic break ranked fifth in the Western Conference, their 78 points just one behind fourth-ranked Phoenix. The Kings have two games in hand on the Coyotes, and are hoping to move to at least fourth place in the West, which carries a guarantee of at least one playoff round with home ice advantage.
Smyth's former club, the Oilers, offer his current Kings a good example of the value of home ice. His 2006 Cup Final started slowly when the team dropped two straight in Carolina. In Game 7, the Hurricanes took full advantage of playing at home by virtue of finishing second in the East, skating away with the Cup in Smyth's only final series thus far.
"Home ice is huge in today's game," Smyth said. "As it gets down to the finals, you get seeded by how you do during the year and that's why you play the whole season. You get rewarded for that and hopefully we can keep ourselves in the top four."
As the Kings attempt to return to the postseason for the first time since 2002, the club's style of play under Murray has fueled its ability to generate offense and win games. Simply put, the Kings spend less time playing on the perimeter than most NHL teams, and that's exactly how Murray wants it.
"(NHL) teams are structured so well," Murray said. "You see everyone collapsing with five (players) back to that home plate (defensive configuration). It can discourage a lot of players. You start to play on the perimeter, and throwing pucks into areas where you don't have any traffic, you don't have any presence. Any goaltender is going to be able to stop that. We really encourage that drive mentality. Get to the net, stop in the blue paint. Looking for second, third and even fourth opportunities."
Murray says that Smyth fits the bill when it comes to implementing the team's system.
"The way it is today, that first shot probably is not going to go in, so you've got to stay in there and battle and fight for your ice. It is yours, if you get there first. It belongs to you as much as it belongs to the defending team. (That mentality) has been bought into. With Smitty coming in, that's the style of game he's always played. (Smyth) reinforces what we're pushing and more players buy into it."