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One of the original WHA franchises when the NHL’s rival league opened its doors in 1972, the Edmonton Oilers (briefly known as the Alberta Oilers) had to wait longer than they would have liked to get to the big show. Edmonton Oil Kings owner Bill Hunter had made overtures to the NHL to get a franchise in his city, but had been continually turned down. Hunter went with the next best option at the time. The team boasted some decent talent in its early days, including Al Hamilton, Dave Dryden and Blair McDonald. However, the team didn’t have the power to compete with perennial powerhouses like Bobby Hull’s Winnipeg Jets or the Houston Aeroes. It wasn’t until their final season, after owner Peter Pocklington had acquired a young player by the name of Wayne Gretzky from the Indianapolis Racers, that the Oilers finally reached the Avco World Cup Final. They were beaten that year by the Winnipeg Jets, but the quick improvement was a sign of things to come for the talented young Oilers team.
The NHL Years
The following season the WHA merged with the NHL – the Hartford Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and the Edmonton Oilers were the only WHA teams to survive the merger. The former three teams got off to horrendous starts in the early going, but the Oilers, already laden with talent showed early on they would be a force to contend with in the years to come.
The key of course was Wayne Gretzky, unquestionably the greatest player to ever don an Edmonton Oilers jersey. Peter Pocklington, through a shrewd legal loophole, managed to protect Gretzky when the Oilers entered the NHL, thus ensuring the team would have a competitive edge right off the bat. Gretzky would go on to record 51 goals and 137 points in his first year in the NHL, tying for the league lead in scoring (though Marcel Dionne of the Los Angeles Kings would capture the Art Ross Trophy by virtue of his higher goal total). The Oilers would squeak into the playoffs in their very first season. Though they were swept in the first round by the powerful Philadelphia Flyers, it was evident that this young club would be a powerhouse themselves in the not-too-distant future.
Over the next few seasons the club started to stockpile talent. In addition to Gretzky the club boasted Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Kevin Lowe and Grant Fuhr. In only their second NHL season the young Oilers bounced the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs and took the defending Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders to six games before bowing out.
The following season the Oilers really started to come into their own. Gretzky shattered NHL records, scoring 50 goals in 39 games, 92 goals overall, and 212 points. He would capture his 3rd straight Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, and his second straight Art Ross as the league’s leading scorer. The offensive juggernaut looked poised to challenge for the Stanley Cup, but the wheels fell off in the playoffs, and they were bounced in the first round by the lowly Los Angeles Kings, a team that had finished 47 points behind them in the standings.
The following year saw much of the same. The Oilers continued to be a dominant team in the league, finishing third overall with 106 points. Offensively they continued to fire on all cylinders with Gretzky, Messier, Anderson, Kurri and Coffey all scoring more than 95 points during the regular season. A more experienced, more determined team this time around the Oilers mowed their way through the early rounds of the playoffs. However, they would hit a brick wall in the finals when they met up with the 3 time defending champion New York Islanders. Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Billy Smith and Denis Potvin were too much for the talented young Oilers, and bounced them in four straight in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Dynasty Years
Though they had failed in their first opportunity to claim the Stanley Cup, no one in the hockey world had any doubt the Oilers would have several more chances at glory. Gretzky and crew were simply too talented. A year following their humbling sweep they again faced off against the Islanders in the finals. This time would be different. The Oilers had taken the lessons learned the previous year to heart, and they were a more determined, hungrier team this time around. Relying on guts and grit as much as on raw talent the Oilers turned the tables on the playoff seasoned Islanders, beating the Isles convincingly four games to one, ending the Islanders “Drive for Five” and capturing the first Stanley Cup in team history.
Over the next several years the Oilers would be an almost unstoppable dynasty, and if not for a hiccup in the 1986 playoffs, when Steve Smith bounced a puck into his own net, the Oilers would have been able to make their own “Drive for Five”. As it was they won four cups over a five year span, beating the Philadelphia Flyers in 1985 and 1987 and the Boston Bruins in 1988 to cement their legend as one of the NHL’s all time greatest teams.
1988 – The Gretzky Trade
In the summer of 1988 the unimaginable became reality. Wayne Gretzky, who most believed would retired in an Edmonton Oilers jersey, was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. The deal brought Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, draft picks and cash back the other way, but fans in Edmonton were understandably crushed when the greatest star the game has ever seen was packed up and shipped off to Hollywood.
Though many believed the Oilers dynasty was finished the moment Gretzky jumped on the plane for Los Angeles, the remaining Oilers weren’t quite ready to concede their place as the NHL’s elite team. Messier took over the captaincy, and Jari Kurri proved his past stats weren’t just the result of playing with Gretzky, putting up 102 points in his first season without “The Great One” at center. However, the Oilers would struggle to find their identity without Gretzky and finished the season with 84 points. Strangely, they would draw the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs, and would ultimately bow out in seven games, the first time since 1982 they’d lost in the first round.
The following year the Oilers would show the hockey world that they weren’t quite done yet. In round one they staged an improbable comeback. Down 3 games to 1 to the Winnipeg Jets and trailing in game five by that same 3-1 score, the Oilers managed to claw their way back, winning the game, and eventually the series, in 7 games. The following round would be a rematch against Gretzky and the Kings. Hungry for revenge the Oil crushed the Kings, sweeping them and outscoring them 22-10 for good measure. The Oilers would encounter more adversity in the semi-finals, down 2-1 in the series to the Chicago Blackhawks. Messier, now comfortable in his role as captain, put the team on his shoulders and willed them to victory. The Oilers won the final three games of the series and earned a date with the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Sadly, for Bruins fans who were hoping to see their team hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1972, the result was exactly the same as it had been in 1988. The Oilers, this time led by Messier, and backstopped by Bill Ranford, handled the Bruins easily (with the exception of one marathon overtime game) sweeping Ray Bourque and co. out of the finals for the second time in three years.
2007 Stanley Cup Run
The next few years saw the dismantling of the once powerful Oilers franchise. With Gretzky and Coffey already gone, the Oil could ill afford to lose anymore of their cornerstones. However, economic reality intruded and ultimately Messier, Anderson, and Kurri would all depart for greener pastures. Messier would go on to captain another team – the New York Rangers – to a Stanley Cup, while Kurri would wind up joining Gretzky in sunny L.A.
It can be argued that the franchise really hasn’t ever recovered from the loss of so much talent in such a short span. However, though most years they’ve found themselves either outside the playoff picture looking in, or barely managing to cling to the final playoff spot, in 2006 the Oilers gave their fans a playoff run reminiscent of the great charges by the circa-1980’s Oiler teams.
Led by Chris Pronger, Ryan Smyth, Mike Peca and Shawn Horcoff, the Oilers shocked the hockey world that spring. The 8th seed going into the playoffs, they were given zero chance against the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings in the first round. Ironically, it would be a trap style system – once anathema to the offensive Oilers – that would help them to victory. They stifled the stars of the Red Wings, knocking the President’s Trophy winners out in six games.
The next two rounds would be more of the same. In the second round the Oil dispatched Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks, again in six games, before sending the Anaheim Ducks packing in the semi-finals, and earning a meeting with the Carolina Hurricanes to battle for the Stanley Cup.
In the end the Canes, led by Eric Staal and rookie netminder Cam Ward, proved to be just a tad too much for the exhausted Oilers. The Canes took game seven at home, and ended the Oilers bid for the franchise’s six Stanley Cup.
Today’s Edmonton Oilers
Following that remarkable Cinderella run, Chris Pronger, who’d signed a long term deal with the club just the season before, demanded a trade, citing personal reasons. Pronger was eventual moved to the Ducks. Pronger and the Ducks would win the Stanley Cup the following season. Edmonton has missed the playoffs every year since.
However, though the city has suffered through the departure of Pronger and heart and soul player Ryan Smyth, and in 2009-10 hit an all-time low, finishing dead last in the league, the mood in the city of Edmonton is surprisingly upbeat.
After their last place finish the team had the best chance to win the draft lottery, and that is exactly what transpired. With the first overall selection the Oilers took highly-touted prospect Taylor Hall from the Windsor Spitfires. When Hall pulled on his Edmonton Oilers jersey for the first time a cheer erupted throughout the city that immediately dispelled the gloom that had been gathering there for so long. Along with Hall, the Oilers can also look forward to young stars like Jordan Eberle – who has been a hero again and again for Team Canada at the World Juniors – and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, a Swedish star who many feel is better than either Hall or Eberle. These three will join a stable of young talent that includes Sam Gagner and Alex Cogliano, and though they might not be able to turn the franchise around in a single season, it is only a matter of time until the Oilers are cup contenders once again.