**The fourth post in an ongoing series – Lowetide re-lives the 2003-04 Oilers season **
The 2003-04 season was a disappointment for the Edmonton Oilers. They were in 12th place on February 1, a full 10 points out of the playoffs before charging hard and missing the postseason by an eyelash. The real pain for Oilers fans came in the success of the Calgary Flames, who came close to winning it all in wildly different seasons for Alberta’s teams.
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The Oilers spent a lot of time during the last part of the 1990’s and early 2000’s hovering around the No. 8 to No. 10 position in the Western Conference. The frustration created a sense of resignation among fans and (I believe) management, leading ultimately to the decision to rebuild the team at the very end of the decade. In 2003, Edmonton had substantial talent and that group pushed hard down the stretch, falling just short of victory.
This is a team in transition, moving away from the Doug Weight (and Bill Guerin) era and finding a new style reflected in the sound two-way play of forwards Radek Dvorak, Shawn Horcoff and others. The offense, led by heart-and-soul Ryan Smyth and a group of youngsters that ran from the sublime (Ales Hemsky) to the ridiculous (Raffi Torres) delivered enough goals for the team to be competitive.
The iron on this edition of the Oilers came from the blue. Jason Smith was a warrior and Steve Staios was forged from similar stock, and when added to youngsters like Eric Brewer and Marc-Andre Bergeron it worked well enough to get the club close to the postseason.
Goaltending. The team’s incumbent (Tommy Salo) continued to erode and rookie Ty Conklin took over the job as the season wore along. Conklin’s .912 save percentage trumped Salo’s .896 although both men won 17 games during the year. Source
Kevin Lowe was active during all parts of the season, beginning with a draft day trade that would impact the organization for a long time. Edmonton passed on Zach Parise and a plethora of quality talents and chose to deal down in an effort to add quantity. Marc Pouliot would have injury issues and fall short of promise, effectively leaving the Oilers outside in the cold as other teams added one or more impact players from the generational 2003 entry draft.
In December, the long and difficult divorce from Mike Comrie finally occurred, with Jeff Woywitka and picks being the return. Lowe famously passed on a far more lucrative package from the Anaheim Ducks, another legendary story from early in the century.
FREE AGENT WINS AND LOSSES
- Lost C Todd Marchant to Columbus
- Lost R Daniel Cleary to Phoenix
- Lost C Brian Swanson to Atlanta
- Signed C Adam Oates in November
- Signed D Igor Ulanov in January
It looks bad, and losing Marchant (he was a helluva player) really hurt. However, Ulanov came in damn handy and Oates did help the young C’s in the faceoff circle. Igor, though. Lordy he was good that year.
Here’s the 2003 draft, with Kyle Brodizak miles and away the best pick. Marc Pouliot is a punch line now but he had legit talent and could have had a much better career save for a laundry list of injuries and maladies. From concussions to ribs, from mono to pubis thing, Mr. Pouliot taught us all about the body and what can go wrong. Shout out to Zack Stortini, who exacted every damn drop out of ability, and then some.
The low point of the season came right at the end of January, but the
Oilers picked up points in 22 of their final 26 games—only to miss the
playoffs by two points! It was a gut wrenching disappointment for Oilers
fans, who had to watch the Calgary Flames win the west and come within a
hair of winning the Stanley Cup.
This is one of the seasons where Craig MacTavish really found a bunch of players who could play his style. From Radek Dvorak to Fernando Pisani, from Shawn Horcoff to Jarrett Stoll, this generation of Oilers were a lot about what they left positioning. Lots of speed, sufficient offense, and mountains of hard work. The Edmonton Oilers 2003-04 under Craig MacTavish were the thinking man’s hockey team. Smart play, add in blood, sweat and tears and my word they were easy to cheer for, but I can tell you we needed a goal scorer in the worst damn way.
A quick note on Georges Laraque. It was during this time Oilers fans (well, many of them) began to appreciate his ability to cycle the puck in the offensive zone. This Oilers team could rely on the big man to keep the puck many miles from their own net on 4line shifts. Craig MacTavish used him a lot, and successfully, during this time. A lot of what is remembered about Laraque is about the fists, and rightly so he was an absolute hammer in that department. That understood, I think it’s important to acknowledge that BG had real hockey value and a coach who used him in the proper role.
Points: Ryan Smyth, 59
He grew so much, you know. As a kid he was all piss, vinegar and cash what Weight gave him, but by 2003 Ryan Smyth was a man and an outstanding passer and playmaker. Curse the heavens for not gifting him Weight and Guerin in his prime.
Goals: Ryan Smyth, 23
Humble total for a humble team. The Oilers couldn’t compete with all those western teams with gunners and snipers.
Assists: Ryan Smyth, 36
I miss the big lug. He was a beauty.
RETHINKING THE 2003-04 OILERS
I loved this team. They were loaded with two-way wingers and hard workers, and if they’d had a sniper and a goalie they might have gone a ways. It took all season for Kevin Lowe to get the goalies in order and the major miss at the draft that summer absolutely sewered the decade. Dammit!
These men absolutely deserved better. The Oilers of this era were always pinching pennies, trading Bill Guerin for Anson Carter and a draft pick and hoping like hell that pick turned into Ales Hemsky. The draft was sending substantial talent (Jarret Stoll, Ales Hemsky) and Kevin Lowe was doing pretty well as Sather 2.0 during this period (the trades that brought in Eric Brewer, Radek Dvorak and others worked out pretty well). Lowe was two summers from his peak as a GM but was doing alright save the draft table.
If Lowe could have given Craig MacTavish a better goalie, and a sniper, they could have had more success. As it was, this year was another period of transition, with Ales Hemsky, Raffi Torres, Jarret Stoll, Ty Conklin and others offering hope for the future while also being unable to contribute enough to the peak seasons of Ryan Smyth, Jason Smith et al.
This was the story of the Edmonton Oilers, time and again in this era.