No season during the Oilers’ long post-2006 walk in the wilderness saw the team get closer to the playoffs than 2007-08. Paradoxically, arguably no season was more damaging to the team’s long-term fortunes.
The average NHL team allowed and surrendered 228 goals in 2007-08, so these Oilers were the very definition of a high-even team. In large part that was due to the percentages. Edmonton’s 10.2 percent shot conversion rate was well above the league average of 8.9 percent, while the club’s 0.904 save percentage fell below the 0.907 number posted by the average NHL team.
Transactions, Summer 2007
- June 22-23, 2007: Oilers drafted C Sam Gagner (No. 6), RD Alex Plante (No. 15), C Riley Nash (No. 21), LW Linus Omark (No. 97), C Milan Kytnar (No. 127) and LW William Quist (No. 157)
- July 1, 2007: Oilers dealt LW Joffrey Lupul and RD Jason Smith to the Flyers for LD Joni Pitkanen, LW Geoff Sanderson and a 2009 third-round pick (Cameron Abney)
- July 1, 2007: Oilers sign UFA LD Dick Tarnstrom
- July 3, 2007: Oilers sign UFA G Mathieu Garon
- July 5, 2007: Oilers dealt a 2008 second-round pick (Travis Hamonic) to the Islanders for a 2008 third-round pick (Kirill Petrov) and LD Allan Rourke
- July 12, 2007: Oilers sign UFA LD Sheldon Souray
- August 2, 2007: Oilers sign RFA LW Dustin Penner
In a lot of ways, the summer of 2007 was all about filling holes created in the previous calendar year. The loss of Chris Pronger (and to a lesser degree Jaroslav Spacek) had left the defence in brutal shape; the additions of Souray and Pitkanen were expected to help address that. Dustin Penner, fresh off 29 goals and a Stanley Cup win, was brought in as the team’s new top winger, replacing the departed Ryan Smyth.
The team’s losses weren’t too great. Arguably the club gave up on Lupul too soon, as he rebounded with Philly, but it was clear that he wasn’t going to work out in Edmonton. Smith, the team’s captain, is a fan favourite to this day but was 34 years old and had less than 150 games left in his NHL career when the Oilers dealt him.
Surprisingly, the move which would prove to have the greatest impact on the season-to-come was the under-the-radar acquisition of Mathieu Garon as backup goaltender.
Individual Scoring & Team Leaders
The team’s leader in both assists and total points was Ales Hemsky, who finished 21 points ahead of the next-best player on the team. In hindsight, we know these were his prime years, the seasons before injury and age would take their toll on him. He was an exceptional asset to the Oilers, and in terms of entertainment value he was pretty clearly the show.
Shawn Horcoff had a splendid season (21 goals and 50 points in 53 games) which was prematurely ended by injury and which prompted one of the great explanatory pieces I’ve ever read. Horcoff’s shooting percentage basically doubled (18.3% vs. 9.5%) from the previous season and the Edmonton Journal’s Joanne Ireland dug into the reasons for that leap. Horcoff credited a trip to Easton’s stick factory in Mexico and a new shoot-first mentality while Craig MacTavish put it up to “confidence”.
The newly-acquired Penner had what was in some ways a disappointing season, but he still managed to lead the Oilers in goals with 23. He delivered particularly strong work in front of the net on the power play; more than half of his goals (13) were scored on the man advantage.
Up front it was, for the most part, all about the kids. Penner was 25, Hemsky 24, and in all nine of the team’s top-10 scorers came in at age 25 or younger. The kid line of Andrew Cogliano, Sam Gagner and Robert Nilsson caught fire in the latter half of the season and seemingly couldn’t be stopped. Cogliano set an NHL record with three consecutive overtime goals:
Garon eclipsed incumbent starter Dwayne Roloson by midseason and was especially good in the shootout, going 10-0 and helping to power the Oilers’ late-season drive for the playoffs.
- February 1, 2008: Oilers dealt LD Dick Tarnstrom to Blue Jackets for LW Curtis Glencross
- February 22, 2008: Oilers waived LW Patrick Thoreson, who was claimed by the Flyers
Season in Review
Hope was in the air.
In a single season, the Oilers had gone a long way back toward respectability. A young veteran line featuring Hemsky, Horcoff and Penner was backstopped by the young guns trio of Cogliano, Gagner and Nilsson; only Horcoff was even close to 30 and it was easy to calculate an upward trajectory. Toss in good health for some veterans (Raffi Torres, Fernando Pisani, Ethan Moreau), a bounceback season for 25-year-old Jarret Stoll, the arrival of the shockingly good Glencross and the emergence of Kyle Brodziak and this looked like a heck of a group.
The picture wasn’t quite so rosy on defence, but it really wasn’t bad. Tom Gilbert had been excellent as a rookie and Denis Grebeshkov had shown the ability to play top-four minutes. Pitkanen had disappointed but was just 24 and had value, while Souray had been really good when healthy and with a full season would make life easier on anyone. Young shutdown types Matt Greene and Ladislav Smid were still on the upswing, too, and Garon looked like the answer in net.
Not only did the roster look good, but it was young and the team was trending in the right direction. Mired in the league basement as of January 1, the Oilers went 25-15-2 to finish the season and nearly made the playoffs, largely with Gagner, Cogliano and Nilsson popping in the goals.
“I think if we’d have stayed healthy, we had a team that would have been in a position to challenge,” then-GM Kevin Lowe told NHL.com after the season ended. “Our goal going into the season was to try to make the playoffs, and to also be in a development year. We didn’t accomplish the playoffs – it was a good effort by the boys – but we had probably our best development year in 12 or 15 years. I can’t wait for next year.”
Re-thinking the 2007-08 Oilers
It’s easy to forget now, but when Lowe handed the general manager job over to Steve Tambellini, he didn’t leave in disgrace; it was a dignified step back for a man who had managed to largely right the ship.
In hindsight, we can see why things fell apart after his departure. Garon’s 10-0 run in the shootout was remarkable. Those last-second overtime heroics from Cogliano were remarkable. The shooting percentage managed by Horcoff in particular but the whole team in general was remarkable. All of those things were, if not pure flukes, at least the sort of achievements that are difficult to sustain over multiple seasons.
The 2007-08 Oilers were not a good team. They won a lot of hockey games and they inspired a lot of hope, but they did it with the fourth-worst Corsi number in the NHL. The bubble was always going to pop, and when it did it left quite a mess.