The 2004-05 lockout changed everything for small-market teams like the Edmonton Oilers.
Through the 90s and first half of the 2000s, the Oilers had scratched and clawed to get by, constantly reshaping their roster in a neverending game of musical chairs as star players would inevitably price themselves out of Edmonton.
That was all going to change in the new NHL. With the implementation of a salary cap that would limit the spending of the league’s richest clubs while simultaneously driving down player salaries, the Oilers would be put on a level playing field with the rest of the league. After watching stars like Curtis Joseph and Doug Weight leave in recent years because the Oilers couldn’t afford their price tag, the tables were finally going to turn.
Free agency, which began on Aug. 1, 2005, was like a gold rush. There were the players un-signed from the previous off-season when there wasn’t a collective bargaining agreement and a whole bunch of new players who had been bought out from their contracts in order for their teams to get under the salary cap. The market featured a star-studded list of names like Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Scott Niedermayer, and Nikolai Khabibulin, among many, many others.
But rather than making a splash in the free-agent market, Kevin Lowe instead made a sneakier play, opting to take advantage of one of the teams who was dealing with a new issue that would soon be known as Salary Cap Hell.
Already paying Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk large salaries, if the Blues had re-signed Pronger (who was a restricted free agent), they would have had three players accounting for half of their salary cap. St. Louis decided it would be best to deal Pronger for a collection of younger, cheaper players, so Lowe jumped in and sent them Eric Brewer, Jeff Woywitka, and Doug Lynch in exchange for the star defenceman.
At the time, Brewer was a young, stud defenceman who, just a few years prior, won gold with Team Canada at the Salt Lake City Olympics. He was the fifth-overall pick of the New York Islanders in 1997 and had been sent to Edmonton when Roman Hamrlik became too expensive for the Oilers to keep around. Now it was the Oilers on the other side of this situation.
Also going to St. Louis were two of Edmonton’s top prospects, Woywitka and Lynch. Woywitka, a local product from Vermillion, had been part of the return that the Oilers got back when they sent Mike Comrie to Philadephia a couple of years earlier, while Lynch was the team’s second-round pick from the 2001 draft.
But despite the fact the Oilers had given up a good, young defender in Brewer and two top prospects, everybody knew they had received the best player in the deal. Chris Pronger was one of the best defencemen in the NHL. Back in 2000, he had become the first defenceman to win the Hart Trophy since Bobby Orr won it three-consecutive times in the early-70s.
This was a player that nobody would have dreamed the Oilers could acquire before the lockout. The promises of the new NHL and its level playing field were already coming into fruition.
The Edmonton Journal, Aug. 3, 2005
Pronger certainly didn’t disappoint. He immediately stepped in and became the No. 1 defenceman the team had coveted for years. Pronger was a rock defensively, playing an intimidating, physical game in his own end, and he could produce offensively, offering an elite first-pass on the breakout and a booming shot from the point.
His strong play led an incredibly strong blueline. Though the Oilers were having an up-and-down season, underachieving largely because they didn’t have a true starting goaltender, their defence was actually a strength. When it was all said and done, the 2005-06 Oilers allowed fewer shots on goal than anybody else in the league. A key part of that was Pronger, who logged just a shade under 27 minutes per night for the Oilers over 80 games.
The team wouldn’t really hit its stride until the playoffs started. Lowe had rounded out the roster ahead of the trade deadline, acquiring Pronger a defensive partner in Jaroslav Spacek, a power-play weapon in Sergei Samsonov, and a legitimate goaltender in Dwayne Roloson. Edmonton just snuck into the playoffs, but this was a team much stronger than your average eighth seed.
The Oilers would dispatch the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings in the first round, Hart Trophy-winner Joe Thornton and the Sharks in the second round, and then the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the Western Conference Final. Edmonton came within one win of winning the Stanley Cup, ultimately losing to the Carolina Hurricanes after goaltender Dwayne Roloson was injured in Game 1 of the Final.
While this team had a lot going for it — amazing goaltending from Roloson, clutch scoring from local hero Fernando Pisani, and a well-executed trap system — Pronger’s dominance on the blueline was the driving force behind the playoff run. He logged an average of 30:57 in the playoffs, posting 21 points and a plus-10 rating in 24 games. Had the Oilers won Game 7, he easily would have been named Conn Smythe Trophy winner for playoff MVP, and you could have honestly made the argument in his favour even in a losing effort.
After years of losing good players because of being a small-market team without a deep bank account, the acquisition of Pronger represented a complete shift for the Oilers. Finally, they were the team grabbing elite talent from somebody else. They went from being a middling team that hadn’t won a playoff series in years and hadn’t been a legitimate contender in even longer to a team that came within one win of winning the Stanley Cup.
Though the Pronger story ended poorly as he asked for a trade shortly after the playoffs, I picked this as the best trade in Oilers’ history because nobody else has come in and had such a massive impact on the team like he did that season. It might have only been one year, but Pronger’s regular-season and playoff was the best performance from an Oiler that the franchise had seen since the Glory Days.