There was a time when the two regular-season confrontations between the Oilers and Islanders might as well have been playoff games. They felt like chess matches, stare-downs and tryouts for the titanic clashes to come during the real season. The Oilers' dazzling skill level matched the intrepid fortitude of the Islanders and a fourth-liner such as Billy Carroll could win championships with both teams just by being on the right side of the ledger as one franchise's dynasty (New York's) gave way to the other's. Between 1980 and 1990, the two clubs combined for nine Stanley Cups, 11 trips to the finals, and 11 Hall-of-Famers, including Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier in Edmonton, and Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier on Long Island
On Thursday night, as the promising but inconsistent Islanders held off the struggling Oilers for a 3-2 victory on home ice, the two teams were fighting for traction rather than the Cup. These days, after years of mediocrity, these clubs have genuine reason to hope for better days, even though their bumpy starts may leave them with optimism deferred.
"They're a young team, same as us," says Oilers forward Taylor Hall. "They have some skill and they're putting things together."
Hall has been one of the best Oilers at putting it together. He scored two goals just eight seconds apart late in the first period on Thursday, beating his franchise's old mark for the fastest two goals by a player. The old record holder was none other than Gretzky (9). That would be cause for celebration, except that Edmonton's 2-1 lead fizzled into another defeat, leaving them with a mark of 1-6-1, two more defeats than any other team in the generally strong Western Conference had to date. The Islanders, meanwhile, held onto a 3-2 lead in a scoreless third period, a feat that wouldn't generate much huzzah except for the fact that, only seven games into the season, they had blown a pair of third-period advantages -- to the mediocre Blue Jackets and the woebegone Sabres -- plus a second-period edge against the Predators, en route to four losses in their previous five games. But there isn't much panic on Long Island because the Isles still managed to pick up eight points and they figure to contend for a postseason berth for a second straight season. (They haven't made return trips to the playoffs since 2003 and '04.) Yet. like the Oilers, they remain a work in progress.
Besides developing and augmenting their young talent, both teams are counting on revenues from new arenas to turn their franchises into destination spots -- places that prospective free agents will run to instead of away from. Without those buildings, it's likely that at least one of these teams would have to relocate. The Islanders are due to move into the Barclay's Center, which is already occupied by the NBA's Brooklyn Nets, starting with the 2015-16 season. The city of Edmonton has approved financing for a new arena downtown that the Oilers can move into for 2016-17.
By today's standards, each team's existing home, the Nassau Coliseum and Rexall Place respectively, is considered a relic, devoid of deluxe amenities and located away from a transportation or population hub. The Coliseum is one of the league's louder buildings, but only recently has there been much to cheer about. The Islanders have not won a Stanley Cup since 1983. They've missed the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons, and haven't captured a playoff series since 1993. The Oilers haven't won the Cup since 1990 and have missed the playoffs the last seven years in a row.
Both franchises have also endured ownership woes. After falling on hard times, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was forced to sell the team. He later declared bankruptcy, was placed under house arrest for bankruptcy fraud and sentenced last month to six months in prison for breaching his probation. The low-point for the Islanders, who've had four owners or ownership groups since their glory years, was when they were supposedly sold to John Spano in 1997. Spano didn't have a fraction of the money he claimed he did, kited a payment check, and subsequently served 71 months in prison for bank fraud. He promptly defrauded new companies upon his release and did another 51 months behind bars. It is one thing to operate in a challenging small or mid-sized market, but quite another when your money men turn out to be rogues.
With talent comes hope
So much for the ugly parallels. In 2013, the Islanders and Oilers are two teams with some of the most talented young forwards in the league. Dating back to last year, there was a sense that their days were coming. Play your Taylor Hall; we'll raise you John Tavares. We'll see your Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with Michel Grabner or Frans Nielsen. The Islanders are generally meeting their promise after a strong end to last season. The club went on an 8-0-3 tear in April, barely reaching the playoffs, but took the explosive Penguins to six games in the first round. Tavares, a finalist for the Hart Trophy, was named captain this season at 23. Of the 14 forwards listed on the team's roster, slugger Eric Boulton is the old man at 37. Everyone else is under 30. That's enough to keep even 38-year-old netminder Evgeni Nabokov feeling "like I'm very happy to be here," a far cry from his initial balk when the Isles claimed him off waivers when he thought he was bound for the Red Wings in 2011.
Apart from a 6-1 blowout of the Coyotes at home on Oct. 8, each of New York's games so far this season has been decided by one goal. A strong sustained start is critical, since eight of the club's 12 games in April are at the Coliseum. They'll start December with five of six on the road. They can clearly give any team a fight, but winning the close ones has been tricky.
Also with talented youth come jitters, despite the team's playoff run last year. The Isles had two hiccups earlier this season, dropping a 3-2 shootout decision to Columbus on Oct. 5, despite holding a 2-0 lead with just over 12 minutes to play, and then losing to winless Buffalo, 4-3, in a shootout on Tuesday, after blowing three leads, the last with 2:01 left in the third period. Each time, New York was simply too tentative at the end of the game.
"I don't like to use the word protect," said coach Jack Capuano. "Our system is play on our toes. We need to do that."
On Thursday, the Islanders prevailed over the Oilers, killing three straight penalties in seven minutes of the second period and then outshooting Edmonton 15-8 in the third, heeding Capuano's plea not to be tentative with a lead. "The difference tonight," said Tavares, "was [even with a lead] we were the ones who wanted the next goal because of how much more aggressive we were."
Things are not going quite as well for Edmonton. After missing the playoffs yet again, the Oilers hired a new coach, Dallas Eakins, and acquired a new captain, veteran defenseman Andrew Ference, during the off-season. They are the only squad in the league that can lay claim to having three forwards who were first overall picks: Hall, 21, in 2010, Nugent-Hopkins, 20, in 2011; and Nail Yakupov, 20, in 2012. But there have been growing pains. Hall and Nugent-Hopkins have battled injuries, and after amassing 31 points in 48 games as a rookie, Yakupov went without a point in six games and was benched twice by Eakins. The talented but frustrated Russian winger voiced his displeasure with having to play a more defensive and team-oriented game.
"I love more playing with the puck," Yakupov complained to the media. "I don't really like playing without the puck, skate all the time and do forecheck and hit somebody every shift — I don't think it's my game. I try to do it some time, but I'm not here to crush everything. I just want to play hockey."
There was soon speculation that Yakupov would leave for the KHL, and trade rumors swirled around what the Oilers might ask in return for their young man in the doghouse. The latest suggestion is that he could end up in Buffalo in exchange for goalie Ryan Miller and sniper Thomas Vanek. If not Miller, maybe another netminder can stop the puck more effectively than Devan Dubnyk, the Oilers' starter who has struggled all month. He did make 37 saves against the Islanders in his best outing of the season, but that still left him with some brutal numbers (0-4-1, 4.91 GAA, .854 save pct. for the season.) Is it possible that the Oilers could reach out for an available goalie such as Ilya Bryzgalov to keep them sane, or even compliance buyout Rick DiPietro, who was dismissed by the Islanders last season with a huge chunk of his 15-year, $67.5 million contract dragging behind him?
Edmonton's defense also remains a shambles. The Oilers have allowed a league-high 32 goals and their penalty killing stands last in the NHL at an abysmal 69 percent.
"We're not hitting our heads against walls trying to find answers," says Ference. "We know what's going wrong. It's been a challenge to get ourselves to the point where we want to be,"
For both the Oilers and Islanders, that point is more like where they used to be long ago, but getting there continues to take time.