I worry that young OilersNation readers aren’t enjoying the current kids like they should, perhaps overly concerned with wins and losses and the minutiae of day-to-day events. It doesn’t really matter that Magnus Paajarvi has been struggling this season, only that he rights the ship in time for the good times. Taylor Hall’s injuries are a worry, but only if he doesn’t learn to pick his spots and not die on every hill.
I think a good way to show the pure power of this young bunch is through a series of posts that identify the NHL Oilers as rookies. I’ll do this in 5 year installments, so we can see how the dynasty was built, why another dynasties did not follow immediately and the importance of drafting and wise trades.
THE BOYS ON THE BUS
First, we have to take care of something. Wayne Gretzky’s rookie NHL season was 79-80, but the league (in its wisdom) ruled him ineligible for the Calder trophy. Therefore, since the NHL proved that day (and others) that it cares little about the history of the game, I’m going to disregard their ridiculous rookie rules. My “rookie” criteria is simple: 25 years old or younger (with a couple of exceptions who will be noted), NHL debut season with 25 or more games. If a player exceeds 25 games in two or three seasons, his rookie season will be the one that has the highest total games. Clear as mud? Well, it’s better than the NHL rules.
THE ROOKIES 79-80
- Wayne Gretzky (79, 51-86-137)
- Dave Lumley (80, 20-38-58)
- Dave Hunter (80, 12-31-43)
- Ron Chipperfield (67, 18-19-37) traded during season
- Risto Siltanen (64, 6-29-35)
- Mark Messier (75, 12-21-33)
- Kevin Lowe (64, 2-19-21)
- Cam Connor (38, 7-13-20) traded during season
- Dave Semenko (67, 6-7-13)
- Peter Driscoll (39, 1-5-6)
- Jim Corsi (26, 3.65)
There’s so much talent there the mind boggles. Gretzky was the best offensive player in the game in his NHL debut (tied with Marcel Dionne), and Messier would emerge in the coming seasons as an absolute beast. The Oilers were set forever with those two (eventual) centermen, and they were the foundation for most of a decade. It was a dream and we lived through it, loving every minute of it despite perhaps taking it for granted at times.
Below those two HOFers were a “mixed bag” of useful talents including defensemen Kevin Lowe and Risto Siltanen. Siltanen used to shoot the puck so hard it would startle you when it hit the backboards–which was the problem he couldn’t hit the damn net–and Lowe began a long career as a steady, reliable and edgy defender. Although time obscures his contributions because the boxcars don’t favor his player-type, never understimate his contribution to the glory years.
Lumley and Hunter would have solid careers as two-way types, mostly checkers but some good offensive seasons too. Lumley scored the final goal of 83-84 from ten miles away, and sealed Edmonton’s first Stanley in what is one of my favorite memories. Chpperfield was a team leader–captain–whose trade from the Oilers was very sad because it coincided with his Mom’s illness. Connor was a tough guy with some skill, and Semenko and Driscoll were tough guys with some more toughness.
Jim Corsi was an average goalie who would have won Movember by Remembrance Day and is best remembered now for his magic statistic.
THE ROOKIES 80-81
- Jari Kurri (75, 32-43-75)
- Glenn Anderson (58, 30-23-53)
- Paul Coffey (74, 9-23-32)
The 79-80 team had been ripped apart by expansion, but Glen Sather did an exceptional job patching holes. The following season, only three men qualified as rookies–Hall of Famers all. Kurri was very important to the Oilers success, overlooked as time passes but valued for his wonderful two way play, his quick release and his ability to form chem with 99.
If Kurri was out of this world, then Anderson was not of this world. Anderson drove to the net like a guided missile and no matter the result he made an impact. A “free spirit”, Andy never really fit in except on the ice where his outstanding talents were breathtaking. If I close my eyes, I can still see him break in at a rate that must have made goalies shudder.
Coffey was a glorious skater, a Gil Perreault-clone (except a D) with the puck who could dance and swivel and make your heart sing. The anticipation of a Coffey rush was as much fun as you can have and still be legal. I miss him.
THE ROOKIES 81-82
- Grant Fuhr (48, 3.31 .899)
- Charlie Huddy (41, 4-11-15)
- Tom Roulston (35, 11-3-14)
- Ken Berry (15, 2-3-5)
The Boys on the Bus were unique in Oilers history in many ways, one of which is the following: under Sather, the club solved an enormous number of problems in a timely fashion via the draft and minor league free agency. Grant Fuhr was drafted in the summer of 1981, not long after Andy Moog had been so impressive the previous spring. However, when fall arrived it was Fuhr who wrestled the starting job away from Moog and the veterans, and it was Fuhr who became the face of the franchise through the decade (with Moog being sent away). Grant Fuhr faced more breakaways and 2-on-1’s while playing for the Oilers than Carter has pills. Oilers hockey in those years resembled a jailbreak–both ways.
Huddy was not a famous prospect when he arrived, but displayed a nice range of skills in all areas and quickly became a big part of the solution. If you asked me to name a most “underrated” Oiler from that era, Lowe or Huddy would get my vote. Calm feet, good shot, ability in all areas. There’s never been an NHL team that had too many Charlie Huddy’s.
This is the season we also see some of the good young kids getting castoff. Tom Roulston could play hockey, Ken Berry was a decent option and Walt Poddubny had a fine career elsewhere. There was no room in Edmonton.
THE ROOKIES 82-83
- Andy Moog (50, 3.54 .891)
- Jaroslav Pouzar (74, 15-18-33)* overage
- Randy Gregg (80, 6-22-28)* overage
- Marc Habscheid (32, 3-10-13)
- Ray Cote (14, 3-2-5 all in playoffs)
By this point the Oilers were a formidable team, and two of the three regulars I’m counting were in fact overagers. I included them to point out how good Edmonton was during the early Sather years at addressing need. Pouzar had his flaws (slllllllllllow), but was an effective player in specific areas. Gregg was a former U of A defender playing in Japan and looking at playing for Canada at the Olympics, but Sather got his name on a contract. Gregg was an important part of the Stanley teams, big, strong and underrated offensively.
Moog was a terrific goalie, I don’t know if young Oiler fans know that because Fuhr got the HOF nod and is so closely associated with the other greats. Anyway, I think they could have been champions with Moog as #1 too,but he was a hair shy of Coco during these years.
I thought Habscheid would make it as an Oiler, he had all kinds of talent and worked hard. It was not to be, and I sometimes wonder about how much timing had to do with some of the draft picks later in the 80s. Many failed, but breaking into the Oiler lineup was a huge mountain to climb, even by 1982.
THE ROOKIES 83-84
- Pat Conacher (45, 2-8-10)
By this time the Oilers weren’t solving problems via the system, they were acquiring top end talent to make a Stanley run. This was in fact the season that would result in their first Stanley, and only Conacher (a useful 2-way player from the Hunter, Hughes, Lumley family) played enough to qualify as a rookie.
After the pace of the previous four seasons, there wasn’t a lot of room for new hires.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
If we constructed a game that replicated the 79-84 NHL perfectly, no one would win the day like Glen Sather, Barry Fraser and the Edmonton Oilers. Luck, guile, scouting, coaching, circumstances, I’m running out of words. It was an amazing feat, one that allowed a team that was left as a shell by the old, spent, miserable men of the NHL to rebuild overnight and appear out of the sky like a Starman.
You couldn’t create a story as unlikely if you tried, but there it is. The Oilers 79-84 rookie team might look like this:
- GOAL: Grant Fuhr, Andy Moog
- DEFENSE: Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe, Charlie Huddy, Randy Gregg, Risto Siltanen
- CENTER: Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Pat Conacher
- LEFT WING: Jaroslav Pouzar, Dave Hunter, Dave Semenko
- RIGHT WING: Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Dave Lumley
WHAT ELSE DOES IT REALLY MEAN?
Along with the wonder of Marian Ravenwood, there’s also a sadness about these Oilers. We’ll never really know how much this group could have accomplished without outside interference. And by outside interference I mean inside interference, problems that went back long before 99’s sale (Coffey, Moog, the list of contract squabbles was endless). Had this group been drafted and procured in New York and under quality ownership, their light would have shone a full decade longer. That’s the other side of this amazing story.