**The third post in an ongoing series – Robin Brownlee re-lives the 2002-03 Oilers season **
In an era when the Oilers were either just in or just out of the Western Conference playoffs, the 2002-03 season started badly and ended worse. In between, it was a campaign that would see the Oilers just in again with 92 points, a gaudy 13 points ahead of the ninth-place Chicago Blackhawks.
Making the post-season at all was quite a feat, considering the Oilers survived a start in which they won just two of their first 10 games and endured the miserable failure that was the acquisition by GM Kevin Lowe of washed up Czech Jiri Dopita. “Dopi” arrived via trade from the Philadelphia Flyers with considerable international credentials and produced nothing.
Dopita, 33, tallied just 1-5-6 through 21 games before Lowe pulled the pin on the experiment and bought out his contract, leaving the Oilers with a group of forwards that didn’t need him – Edmonton ended up with five, 20-goal scorers that season in Ryan Smyth, Todd Marchant, Anson Carter, Mike York and Mike Comrie, all of whom also had at least 50 points.
Coach Craig MacTavish had balanced scoring in his top six to start the season and Lowe would add Radek Dvorak from the New York Rangers and Brad Isbister and Raffi Torres (he didn’t play in Edmonton in 2002-03) from the Islanders at the deadline. MacT also had 2001 draft Ales Hemsky, just 19, and 24-year-old Shawn Horcoff playing their way into bigger roles.
In a reversal of the previous season, the Oilers scored just fine – their 231 goals left them ninth in the NHL – but they went from allowing a franchise-low 182 goals in 2001-02 to giving up 230. Tommy Salo, who fashioned a .913 save percentage a season earlier, dropped off to .899 in 65 appearances. Jussi Markkanen wasn’t much better at .904. Team defense was spotty.
The Oilers ran hot and cold down the stretch. They won 10 of 13 games from March 4-28, then went winless in their last four regular season games with a comfortable lead over the ninth-place Blackhawks. Faced with yet another first-round date with the Dallas Stars, the Oilers never managed to find the “on” switch again.
The 2003 series with Dallas went six games, just like the 2001 meeting did, but that’s where any resemblance ended. Five of the six games in 2001 were decided by one goal, four of those in overtime. In 2003, the Stars won by scores of 6-1, 3-1, 5-2 and 3-2.
Edmonton’s best players weren’t, to use the cliché, their best players. Horcoff, Eric Brewer and Georges Laraque led the Oilers in scoring during the series with four points each. Smyth had two goals, Comrie one. York and Marchant none. Salo got lit up, going .888 in six games. It was not remotely close, and that would produce more than a little fall-out.
RECORD: 36-26-11-9 92 Pts .561 8TH Conf.
Goal Differential: plus-1
2002 Draft: Jesse Niinimaki 15th overall, Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers 31st, Jarret Stoll 36th, Matt Greene 44th
- June 18, 2002 – Oilers acquire Jiri Dopita from the Philadelphia Flyers for a third-round pick in 2003 (Ryan Potulny).
- June 22, 2002 – Oilers trade Jochen Hecht to the Buffalo Sabres for the 31st pick in 2002 (Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers) and the 36th pick in 2002 (Jarret Stoll).
- June 22, 2002 – Oilers trade the 14th overall pick (Chris Higgins) to the Montreal Canadiens for the 15th overall pick (Jesse Niinimaki) and the 245th overall pick (Tomas Micka).
- Oct. 7, 2002 – Oilers trade Mike Grier to the Washington Capitals for the 53rd pick in 2003 (Evgeny Tunik) and the 94th pick in 2003 (Zach Stortini).
- March 11, 2003 – The Oilers acquire Radek Dvorak and Cory Cross from the New York Rangers for Anson Carter and Ales Pisa.
- March 11, 2003 — Oilers acquire Brad Isbister and Raffi Torres from the New York Islanders for Janne Niinimaa and the 53rd pick in 2003 Entry Draft (Evgeny Tunik).
- May 28, 2002 – Mike Bishai signed as UFA.
Ryan Smyth 27-34-61
Todd Marchant 20-40-60
Anson Carter 25-30-55
Mike York 22-29-51
Mike Comrie 20-31-51
Shawn Horcoff 12-21-33
Ethan Moreau 14-17-31
Marty Reasoner 11-20-31
Ales Hemsky 6-24-30
Eric Brewer 8-21-29
RETHINKING THE 2002-03 OILERS
Lowe, frustrated by seeing his team fail to get past Dallas in the first round of the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons (the Oilers missed the playoffs in 2002), tore a strip off his team behind closed doors when the series was over.
It did not sit well with several players, particularly Comrie. By the 2003 Entry Draft in Nashville in June, word was trickling out Comrie wanted out of Edmonton and Lowe was shopping him. Comrie would sit out the start of the next season and was traded to Philadelphia in December 2003 – after Lowe quashed a deal with Anaheim that would have landed the Oilers Corey Perry by asking Comrie to pay back $2.5 million in bonus money to complete the trade.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.