When the Edmonton Oilers acquired Ryan Smyth from the Los Angeles Kings in June, they knew he'd be a positive example for the team's young stars.
What the club didn't expect 24 games into Smyth's 17th NHL season was he'd be on pace to score more than 40 goals.
At 35, Smyth isn't only providing leadership. With 12 goals and 24 points, he's also showing Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins a thing or two around the net.
Smyth sat 12th in league scoring heading into Tuesday night and is on pace to set career highs in goals and points.
“I wouldn't say it's a surprise,” Smyth said when asked about his torrid scoring pace. “You always want to be hopeful and contribute as much as you can.
“Obviously, things have been going really well these first couple of months. It's a process, though. It's a day-by-day thing and it's a confidence thing. Right now, the confidence is pretty good.”
Smyth, who spent his first 12 seasons with the Oilers before being dealt to the New York Islanders at the 2007 trade deadline, has scored at least 30 goals four times and has 367 for his career. He's clearly no stranger to the scoresheet, having scored 23 goals for the Kings in 2010-11 and 22 the season before.
That said, not even the most optimistic fan expected the Banff, Alta., native to be this prolific in his return to Edmonton.
“He's definitely motivated,” Eberle said. “He loves playing in this city and he loves this team. I think he's been motivated by how much youth we have on this team. I think it's energized him a bit.
“I love playing with him. He's a smart player. He always knows where the puck is going to be and you know where he's going to be. He's been a great asset to this team with his leadership and how productive he's been.”
When Smyth, drafted sixth overall by the Oilers in 1994 from Moose Jaw, scored a career-high 39 goals in 1996-97, Nugent-Hopkins was four years old, Hall was six and Eberle was turning seven.
“He's been a great player in the league for a long time now,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I knew that coming in. When I got drafted here and then he got traded here, it was pretty cool.”
Going into Wednesday's game against Minnesota, Nugent-Hopkins leads the Oilers with 25 points (10-15), while Smyth is next with 24 points.
“He practises hard,” coach Tom Renney said. “He plays hard. He takes care of himself. He's in great shape. All those things. That's the ultimate respect right there, how you approach your job. Certainly, he's done that.
“He'd tell you first and foremost that all he wants to do is be a good player and help his team win.”
Smyth, who'll be an unrestricted free agent next July, is still one of the first players on the ice at practice and one of the last ones off.
“During the exhibition season, he had me over for dinner a couple times, which was really nice,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He kind of made me feel comfortable right away about coming here. Having a guy like that to look up to and just talk to, it helps to have that kind of guy.”
The attention to detail Smyth has made a habit of in his career — he still does extra work on tip drills during practice — remains. His willingness to battle in the corners for pucks and stand in front of the net screening goaltenders and taking abuse from defencemen hasn't diminished either.
“You can talk all you want. He's a guy who still goes out there and does it,” Eberle said.
“With the rules now, not so much, but back when he started you'd get the crap beaten out of you in front of the net. He took it. You see that as a teammate, you watch this guy, how hard he battles to score goals, it's contagious throughout the locker-room. We need more of that.”
The way things are shaping up, Smyth could end up in a battle for the Oilers' scoring race with teammates who were toddlers when he was drafted.
“I feel very blessed to be able to play the game,” Smyth said. “My approach has been that it's a matter of taking the talent you have and utilizing it as best you can for the good of the team.
As for the team scoring race, don't count Smyth out.
“The big thing is being around these young kids is pushing me,” he said. “I want to be better.
“At the same time, the experience I've gained over the years is something that I want to pass along. It's a two-way street.”