The Edmonton Oilers were terrible last year, right from the outset.
With NHL training camps gearing up for the start of a new season, Wayne Gretzky is confident the Oilers can bounce back and join the ranks of the elite.
“Our defence will be better, of that you can be assured,” Gretzky said during a brief interview on Monday night. “I fully expect that Cam [Talbot, last year’s No. 1 goaltender] will bounce back from the struggles that he had. I think last year was just an outlier for him.
“Add to that the addition of the Finnish goalie [Mikko Koskinen], I think we have a solid two-goaltender system ready to roll.”
This will be Gretzky’s second full season as partner and vice-chairman of the Oilers' parent company, Oilers Entertainment Group, working closely with team owner Daryl Katz.
For the 57-year-old, it marks a return to the city where he skyrocketed to fame as hockey's premier offensive force, starring there for the first nine years of his NHL career, leading the Oilers to four Stanley Cup victories.
Gretzky was in Toronto on Monday to help commemorate the 25th anniversary of his downtown restaurant, Wayne Gretzky’s. A quarter-century run is pretty good for a Toronto eatery.
It is not the only restaurant he has lent his name to. He recently established Gretzky’s Wine & Whisky, at the Edmonton International Airport.
The restaurant business is one of several off-ice ventures Gretzky has had since he walked away from the game as a member of the New York Rangers after the 1998-99 NHL season. He holds or shares 61 individual NHL records and is the league’s career leading scorer with 2,857 points.
He is also the part-owner of a winery, complete with an outdoor skating rink, in the Niagara region. He was a former partner with the Phoenix Coyotes and he was their head coach from 2005 until 2009 when he stepped down amid the club's bankruptcy proceedings. He is also a former co-owner of the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL for three years in the early 1990s.
In October of 2016, Gretzky returned to the NHL with the Oilers and he relished the opportunity to reconnect to the game.
Gretzky’s return to Edmonton coincided with the club’s renaissance in the 2016-17 season, moving into its new downtown arena, Rogers Place. Led by second-year phenom Connor McDavid, the Oilers ended an 11-year playoff drought and made it to the second round of the Western Conference semi-final before losing an agonizing seven-game series to the Anaheim Ducks.
Many believed the Oilers would challenge for the Stanley Cup last season, but the team stumbled badly, finishing with 78 points and missed the postseason with the fourth-worst record in the West.
The Oilers were considered one of the NHL’s biggest disappointments, even though McDavid won the league’s scoring title for the second straight year.
Gretzky said last season's downfall could be traced to the team's terrible start, when it lost eight of its first 11 games.
“I don’t care what sport you are playing, it is almost impossible to fight back after a start like that,” Gretzky said. “The pressure just continued to build, and we could never really fight our way back out of that hole.”
Over the past two years, Gretzky has become a regular confidant of McDavid’s, meeting him on a regular basis for a coffee or just wandering up to his locker for a brief chat after practices.
He said last season was frustrating for McDavid and the entire organization. He was asked what lessons McDavid could learn.
“Just never stop working,” Gretzky replied. “Although the season went well for him he never stopped working even as the team struggled. The other players can sense that, can feed off that.”
Gretzky said he is certain that the Oilers will be better this season, but he added a caveat.
“But the Flames will also be better as will several other teams in the division,” he noted. “So nothing will be easy.”