RE-LIVE THE EDMONTON OILERS 1980-81 SEASON

OilersVintage

The cliché, “it’s not how you start but how you finish,” certainly applies to Edmonton’s second NHL season. The Oilers not only made the playoffs for the second straight year despite another poor start, they grabbed the attention of the old guard by sweeping the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the post-season on the way to a second-round meeting with the New York Islanders.

It was an eye-opening encore for fans around the league who already knew Wayne Gretzky was something special. They’d learn soon enough about a supporting cast that now included Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Kevin Lowe as an Oilers team that would parade up and down Jasper Avenue in years to come began to take shape.

RECORD 29-35-17 74 Pts. .463 

GD 328-327 plus-1 SH% 13.7 SV% — 

NOTABLE TRANSACTIONS

1981-05-05

John Blum signed as free agent.

1981-03-10

Ken Berry traded by Vancouver with Garry Lariviere for Blair MacDonald and Lars-Gunner Petersson.

1981-03-10

Pat Hughes traded by Pittsburgh for Pat Price.

1981-03-10

John Hughes traded to NY Rangers for Ray Markham.

1981-03-10

Garry Lariviere traded by Vancouver with Ken Berry for Blair MacDonald and Lars-Gunner Petersson.

1981-03-10

Pat Price traded to Pittsburgh for Pat Hughes.

1981-03-10

Garry Unger traded by Los Angeles for 7th round pick in 1981 (Craig Hurley).

1981-02-02

Gary Edwards traded by Minnesota for future considerations.

1980-12-15

John Hughes claimed on waivers from Vancouver.

1980-12-13

Tom Bladon signed as free agent by Winnipeg.

1980-10-10

Curt Brackenbury claimed on waivers from Quebec.

1980-10-10

Colin Campbell claimed on waivers by Vancouver.

1980-09-11

Matti Hagman signed as free agent (formerly with Boston).

1980-08-01

Alex Tidey signed as free agent by Los Angeles.

1980-07-10

Tom Bladon signed as free agent (formerly with Pittsburgh).

1980-06-26

John Bednarski signed as free agent by Buffalo.

1980-06-11

Ron Areshenkoff traded to Philadelphia with 10th round pick (Bob O’Brien) for Barry Dean.

1980-06-11

Paul Coffey drafted 6th overall.

1980-06-11

Jari Kurri drafted 69th overall.

1980-06-11

Andy Moog drafted 132nd overall.

1980-06-11

Walt Poddubny drafted 90th overall.

After claiming Lowe, Messier and Anderson in the 1979 draft, chief scout Barry Fraser and the Oilers hit it out of the park again in 1980 as they added Coffey (sixth overall) from the Kitchener Rangers, Kurri (69th) from Jokerit Helsinki and Andy Moog (132nd) from Billings of the WHL to go along with Gretzky and the likes of Brett Callighen, Blair MacDonald and Lee Fogolin.

LEADING SCORERS

Player

Pos 

Age

GP 

G

A

PTS

+/-

PIMs 

EV 

PP 

SH 

GW

EV 

PP 

SH 

S

S%

Wayne Gretzky

C

20

80

55

109

164

41

28

36

15

4

3

69

37

3

261

21.1

Jari Kurri

LW

20

75

32

43

75

26

40

23

9

0

1

34

9

0

202

15.8

Mark Messier

LW

20

72

23

40

63

-12

102

19

4

0

1

30

7

3

179

12.8

Brett Callighen

C

27

55

25

35

60

13

32

19

6

0

1

28

7

0

127

19.7

Glenn Anderson

RW

20

58

30

23

53

4

24

17

10

3

5

20

3

0

160

18.8

Matti Hagman

C

25

75

20

33

53

4

16

18

2

0

0

22

11

0

96

20.8

Risto Siltanen

D

22

79

17

36

53

5

54

9

7

1

3

14

22

0

209

8.1

Blair MacDonald

RW

27

51

19

24

43

-8

27

14

5

0

1

17

7

0

134

14.2

Kevin Lowe

D

21

79

10

24

34

-10

94

6

4

0

2

21

2

1

115

8.7

Stan Weir

C

28

70

12

20

32

-7

40

11

1

0

2

18

1

1

84

14.3

Paul Coffey

D

19

74

9

23

32

4

130

7

2

0

0

16

6

1

113

8.0

Gretzky, edged out of the 1980 Art Ross Trophy race by Marcel Dionne of Los Angeles – both finished with 137 points but Gretzky had two fewer goals – set an NHL record for assists (109) and points (164) on the way to his first of seven consecutive scoring titles and his second Hart Trophy.

Gretzky’s 164 points was a ridiculous 89 points more than runner-up Kurri and 101 more than Messier, who jumped to third in team scoring with 63 points after tallying just 33 as a rookie the previous season. Anderson, who quickly introduced himself to opposing goaltenders by crashing the crease from the wing, scored 30 goals.

SEASON RECAP

Review

Having rebounded from a bad start the previous season, the Oilers would have to do it again as they staggered out of the gate with three straight losses on the way to a 4-9-5 record under new coach Bryan Watson.

The miserable start prompted Glen Sather, who’d been promoted to GM and president by owner Peter Pocklington after coaching the Oilers in 1979-80, to step back behind the bench – Watson was retained as an assistant. The Oilers were no great shakes record-wise under Sather, either, at 25-26-11 the rest of the way, but as was the case in 1979-80, the Oilers got hot when it mattered, losing just one of their final 11 games. Messier, in particular, hit his stride as he counted 35 of his 63 points in the final 24 games.

The hot finish left the Oilers sixth in the Clarence Campbell Conference and 13th overall, setting up a first-round series with the Canadiens, who’d won the Prince of Wales Conference and finished third overall with 103 points. Truth was, most fans outside Edmonton thought the Habs, while not the same team that won four straight Cups 1976-79, would mop the floor with the Oilers.

Montreal goaltender Richard Sevigny certainly seemed to feel that way, dimly providing all the bulletin board material the Oilers would need when he told a reporter star Guy Lafleur would put Gretzky “in his back pocket.” The Great One responded by opening a big can of STFU with five assists as the Oilers cruised to a 6-3 win in the first game of the series.

The Oilers followed that stunner with a 3-1 win thanks to a 40-save performance from Andy Moog to lead the series 2-0. They completed the sweep by pounding the Habs 6-2 in Edmonton with Gretzky getting the winning goal. In the end, Gretzky would finish the series with 10 points, while Lafleur had one assist.

Then came the Islanders, the defending Stanley Cup champions and coming off a season in which they led the NHL with 48 wins and 110 points. This would be the first time – not the last – the Oilers would measure themselves against the Isles, and they came up wanting.

Al Arbour’s Islanders – Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin, Bob Nystrom, John Tonelli and Billy Smith, to name just seven – were at the height of their powers. They spanked the Oilers 8-2 and 6-3 in the first two games in Long Island.

The Oilers won Game 3 by a 5-2 score back in Edmonton, but the Islanders took a 3-1 series lead with a 5-4 overtime win – Ken Morrow, of all people, deciding it. The Oilers narrowed the series to 3-2 with a 4-3 win back in Uniondale, but the Islanders closed the deal with 5-2 exclamation mark in Edmonton on the way to their second of four straight Stanley Cups.

RETHINKING THE SEASON

Hindsight

In the simplest terms, the Oilers of 1980-81 were going through the necessary growing pains that every championship team experiences on the way to the top. In Gretzky, the Oilers had the best player in the game. With Messier, Kurri, Anderson and Coffey, Edmonton’s core players were as talented as any group in the NHL, but not one of those players had reached their 21st birthday when the season started. Coffey was a teenager.

While talent alone carried the Oilers past the fading and over-confident Canadiens, it wasn’t enough to get them past the battle-tested Islanders, a team with its best players right in their prime years on a roster that simply boasted more playoff experience.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.

  • I really liked the playoff format they used back in the day. Basically, they took the teams and sorted them by points. Then 1 vs 16, 2 vs 15 etc.. would play each other. That’s why Edmonton played Montreal even though they were in different divisions. They should scrap the divisions and go back to this.

    • Spydyr

      I agree it would be nice to see some cross conference match ups before the Stanley cup final. However, I don’t think pooling all 16 teams together would be a good idea. For one, it would make for some pretty lopsided matchups right off the bat if one conference is considerably stronger than the other (which is the case now). And secondly, the idea behind the divisional structure were to increase the odds of an intra-divisional rivalry matchup in the playoffs, which I would argue is a great selling point.

      Personally, I think the ideal solution would be to re-pool teams for the conference finals. It might be a bit weird to see an Eastern team win the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl or a western team win the Prince of Wales trophy, but are fans REALLY concerned about that? (Full disclosure, I had to google the name of the Eastern conference trophy because I had no clue what it was). That structure would allow for divisional rivalries to play out early in the playoffs, and will also allow two teams from the same conference to face off in the finals. It would add the chance for some increased drama, and help to ensure that the SCF is actually between the two best teams.

  • Oh the memories! One of my all time favorite time frames of being an Oiler fan. The “habs”, one of the two teams I loath, were beaten by an Western expanion team from little ole Edmonton. CBC went into deep depression! Hab fans were going crazy mad!

    I loved every minute of the whole event and was crazy with pure joy.

  • fran huckzky

    I can still picture Peter P proclaiming on national TV that Edmonton wold have a Stanley Cup within 5 years. I despised some of the stuff he did but on the other hand======???

  • O.C.

    Claude Ruel was heard to say (after game 2?) “They play with no nerves!”

    He was a successful coach. Only 82 losses in 305 regular season games. (seriously!)

    That series made him look like very poor, he had no answers, and even with that record, he never coached again.

    I’m guessing the young Oilers ended a few opposing coaches’ careers.

  • Spydyr

    I could not help notice that the shooting percentages that Robin included in the stats were quite high for a number of players. Was that a constant theme for the Oilers during the 80’s? I followed the team closely back then and was fortunate to have a father with season tickets but can’t recall the team needing 40 shots to score 5 or more goals (which happened on numerous occasions).
    I would interested in seeing a comparison of Oiler shooting percentages with the rest of the league over the years. Is that info readily available?