The Oilers of the Gretzky-Messier-Coffey era matured together and in their third season made a quantum leap forward – from 74 points in the 1980-81 season to 111 in 1981-82. They were off and running, the first of six consecutive first-place finishes in the Smythe Division. In the third of those, they won their first Stanley Cup.
So now here are the 21st-century Oilers, having assembled a team that looks good on paper and now just waiting to see how it translates on the ice, whenever the NHL eventually resumes play.
In the meantime, the Oilers have Schultz, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and until he left to join Canada’s world junior team, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, all playing for their minor-league affiliate in Oklahoma City this year. For most of this year, Schultz – a defenceman – has been leading the AHL in scoring, and Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins were in the top five.
“It’s tough that there’s no NHL this year,” Eberle said. “We’re heading in the right direction and I think this year would have been a great season for us to test where we would have been – new coach, bunch of new guys on our team. There really was a lot of excitement with this.
“It’s good we’re all down in Oklahoma playing together because we’re going to be the core guys in Edmonton, I believe. It’s good we’re gaining some chemistry off the ice.”
Two of their key pieces – Schultz and Nail Yakupov, chosen first overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft – have yet to play their first NHL games. Nugent-Hopkins has only 62 NHL games under his belt, after shoulder surgery caused him to miss 20 games last season, an injury which cost him the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Hall has played just 126 games over two years because injuries derailed him at times, too.
The most accomplished of the lot is actually Eberle, who was 22nd overall in 2008, a player who slid in the draft because of concerns about his size. But Eberle’s darting style is perfectly suited to the new NHL, and last year, he had a breakthrough season, scoring 76 points, which left him tied for 15th with Marian Gaborik of the New York Rangers in the NHL scoring race.
Eberle and Sam Gagner, who has shown flashes of skill – he had an eight-point game last year – were the only two of the Oilers’ young guns to stay more or less healthy last year and injuries undermined Ales Hemsky’s season at well. But with all hands on deck, and assuming normal development, they will be one of the most exciting offensive juggernauts for a while.
In determining when the Oiler turnaround might come – next year, or some additional years down the road – the two key question marks are the team’s defence and its goaltending. If the Oilers want to emulate the dynasty years, someone needs to play the part of Coffey – and thus far, Schultz has met the early expectations. His transition to professional hockey has been remarkably smooth. If that can spill over to the NHL, he will add some offensive pop to a defence corp that last year was led offensively by Jeff Petry, with a mere 23 points.
In goal, the Oilers are relying on 26-year-old Devan Dubnyk, who had a 20-20-3 mark last year, with a respectable save percentage of .914. Developing goaltenders is a notoriously capricious science and if Dubnyk falters, the Oilers may need to wade into free agency, or the trade market, to land a proven No. 1. But if Dubnyk evolves into that starter and the Oilers stay healthy, it is only a matter of time before all the time and effort they’ve invested in development pays dividends.
“Up front, they’re okay,” assessed John Garrett, a former NHL goaltender who now works as an analyst for Rogers Sportsnet. “They have all those young guys. They make mistakes, but they can score goals. They just have to get better on defence and in goal.”