In the mid-1990s with the Glory Days officially in the rearview mirror, the Oilers looked to rebuild their team through the draft.
This proved to be a difficult endeavour for general manager Glen Sather. Outside of an incredible run of drafting in the franchise’s first few years (acquiring Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, and Grant Fuhr in a span of just three years), the Oilers otherwise had terrible luck at the draft table.
Things started to improve in the 90s as the Oilers hit home runs with some of their high picks, like Jason Arnott at No. 7 overall in 1993 and Ryan Smyth at No. 6 overall in 1994, but they still had some major whiffs. In 1994 and 1995, the Oilers used No. 4 and No. 6 overall picks on Jason Bonsignore and Steve Kelly, who were supposed to solidify a strong forward group along with Smyth and Arnott to build around.
Half-way through the 1997-98 season, Sather flipped his two prized prospects along with rugged defender Bryan Marchment to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for former No. 1 overall pick Roman Hamrlik and Paul Comrie.
This was a really gutsy move to make. Though we know now in hindsight that both Bonsignore and Kelly were well on their way to becoming busts, this wasn’t clear at the time. In the previous season, a 20-year-old Bonsignore had put up 54 points in 78 games in the AHL while Kelly, as a 19-year-old, scored 38 points in 48 games.
But even though Kelly and Bonsignore still had hype surrounding them as prospects, there was no denying what the Oilers got in return from Tampa Bay. Hamrlik was the first-overall pick at the 1992 draft and was emerging as a stud defenceman in the NHL. As a 22-year-old in 1996, Hamrlik had scored 65 points for Tampa and finished seventh in Norris Trophy voting.
Hamrlik would be a massive boost to Edmonton’s blueline, solidifying the team’s top pairing with Boris Mironov. He would put up 26 points in 41 games for the Oilers the rest of the way in 1997-98 and played a key role in the team’s upset over the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay, none of the players the Oilers sent back to the Lightning made an impact. The Lightning would finish the season dead-last in the league, winning just 17 games. Though Bonsignore and Kelly were viewed as long-term acquisitions, neither player panned out. Bonsignore wasn’t even qualified by Tampa when he entry-level deal expired in 1999 and Kelly was dealt a few months later to New Jersey for a seventh-round pick.
The biggest difference-maker in the deal for Tampa was Marchment. He only played 22 games for the Lightning, but he was involved in a trade to San Jose that secured Tampa the 1998 first-overall pick, netting them Vincent Lecavalier.
That’s obviously a stretch, but even if you tell yourself that this deal helped the Lightning draft Lecavalier, this trade is still highway robbery by the Oilers. They managed to package two soon-to-be draft busts in exchange for a legitimate top-pairing defenceman. By today’s standards, this would be like trading two Jesse Puljujarvis for Aaron Ekblad.
The only unfortunate part about this deal for the Oilers was that Hamrlik didn’t spend more time in Edmonton. He would play two more full seasons with the Oilers after 1997-98, scoring 22 goals and 103 points 196 games before, like many players from this era, becoming too expensive to keep around.
Fortunately, Hamrlik was a gift that kept on giving for the Oilers. He was shipped in June of 2000 to the New York Islanders for Eric Brewer, Josh Green, and a second-round pick (Brad Winchester). A few years later, the Oilers would end up using Brewer, the centrepiece from the Hamrlik deal, in order to make another incredible trade. We’ll get to that one in a few days.