I had a fascinating conversation with a buddy yesterday. The basic thrust went like this: buddy suggested that part of the development problem in Edmonton for the forward prospects was lack of room with the big club. He suggested that Teemu Hartikainen and Linus Omark would still be here if there were fewer Hall’s, Eberle’s, Yakupov’s and Hemsky’s. He further suggested that the Oilers current hopefuls had no chance to make it, and used the 1979-88 Oilers as an example of what happens when there’s so much quality at the top.
The Edmonton Oilers began their first season with an impressive group of young forwards. Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were on that team, with a nice group behind them that included Blair MacDonald, Brett Callighen, Ron Chipperfield, Dave Hunter, Dave Lumley, Stan Weir, Cam Connor, Dave Semenko and Bill Flett.
The following season they added Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Matti Hagman, then in 1981-82 along came Pat Hughes and Tom Roulston and then in 1982-83 Ken Linseman, Jaroslav Pouzar and Willy Lindstrom joined the party. By 1983-84 the Oilers had a forward group that could safely be called ‘Murderer’s Row’ and boasted Gretzky, Kurri, Messier, Anderson, Linseman, Pat Hughes, Dave Hunter, Dave Semenko and on and on and on (forgot Lindstrom, who scored 22 goals that season).
The point is this: even in that season, when the Oilers 2nd line was pretty much better than everyone else’s 1st line, the Oilers STILL added players (Kevin McClelland for Roulston) in an effort to get bigger and tougher.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE OILER KIDS WHO DON’T MAKE THE OILERS?
When a team gets so stacked at one position (and the current Oilers aren’t there yet), then one of three things happen:
- the qualified players who aren’t being put to use are traded for futures or a current need
- the qualified players who aren’t being put to use are lost on waivers
- the qualified players who aren’t being put to use sign in Europe (as Omark and Hartikainen have done recently)
The Oilers of the 1979-88 era (as described by my friend) sent away many prospects who couldn’t make the big team. Some of those players went on to have some impressive careers:
- Walt Poddubny played 4 games as an Oiler, and 464 more in other NHL cities.
- Gord Sherven played about half a season with the Oilers before heading out of town.
- Marc Habscheid struggled mightily to make the Oilers several times before finding a home in Minnesota and then Detroit.
- Raimo Summanen was once touted as a natural winger for Gretzky before that other Finn came along.
- Don Barber was still at Bowling Green when the Oilers shipped him off in 1985.
- Todd Ewen had barely finished up his junior career when the Oilers sent him down the line.
TOO MUCH DEPTH!
Imagine poor Marc Habscheid or Summanen or any number of those players trying to break into the NHL with the early 80’s Oilers. Poddubny had two terrific minor league seasons before his Oiler cup of coffee and then success with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
If you’re looking for candidates right now, you’re too early. The Oilers haven’t built up enough depth (no, not even along the wing) to deal from strength to address weakness. Proof of that is the Paajarvi-for-Perron deal that improved the 2line but left the 3line without a 2-way type like Paajarvi.
The things we’ve heard this summer (Pitlick rumored to Minnesota for Clutterbuck, Curtis Hamilton included in the Horcoff trade before the press release was revised) are just the tip of the iceberg. There are going to be prospects in this system who don’t have room to play in the NHL despite being bona fide NHL players.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
The Oilers look set on three of the four skill wing slots (Hall, Eberle, Yakupov) through the end of the decade, and one woud be wise to bet on the blueline being populated by Justin Schultz, Jeff Petry, Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse for a long time too.
If you’re looking for candidates, I’d suggest starting there. A player like Dillon Simpson, who may look at the Oilers depth chart on defense and decide not to sign with the club, may be a candidate. Toni Rajala, should he flourish again this winter in OKC, would certainly be a player of interest.
The Oilers are now building depth and quality with the Russians in their system and at some point Yakimov or Slepyshev or Zharkov is going to push for employment in the NHL. It’s been forever since we could discuss a system deep enough to offload qualified prospects for full value.
The Oilers aren’t there yet. However, there are signs on defense and wing that the kind of quality every team hopes for may be coming here someday. The trick is to turn it into useful riches, as the Chicago Blackhawks have done so beautifully over the last few seasons.
It’s the game within the game. Procuring and optimizing talent. Sather was brilliant. MacT? We wait.