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Greatest NHL team: The case for the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers

Photo: Paul Bereswill/SI

Though his dynasty was just getting started in 1984, Wayne Gretzky was at the peak of his amazing powers.

In the mid-1980s, it felt like such a fait accompli that the Edmonton Oilers would win the Stanley Cup that were you not a fan of the team, you could find yourself balking a bit at getting caught up in the drama of the playoffs because the ultimate outcome seemed to be already secured.

Such was the Oilers' dominance that it's easy to think that they won the Cup every year when, in fact, their dynasty claimed the chalice four times in five (1984, '85, '87, '88) with their fifth coming in 1990, two years after Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles.

Few clubs -- the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, who went 60-8-12 en route to a second straight Cup, come to mind -- have ever boasted Edmonton's deep, mind-blowing mix of speed, souped-up stats, flash, swagger, star wattage, and the incredible advantage of being able to deploy the best player ever (Gretzky), possibly the scariest (Mark Messier), and conceivably the fastest (Paul Coffey). And if that trio wasn't enough for you, the Oilers also had one of the all-time great snipers—and two-way wingers—in Jarri Kurri, yet another Hall of Famer in the manically intense Glenn Anderson, and a somewhat underrated goalie in Grant Fuhr, who enjoyed the luxury of playing behind all that firepower but could still be counted on to make crucial saves.

We tend to forget that the Oilers' dynasty was forged from failure. In 1981-'82, a season in which Gretzky had a campaign (92 goals, 212 points in 80 games) that ranks, in the grand scheme of North American sports, at the level of Babe Ruth in 1927 or Wilt Chamberlain in 1961-62, the mighty Oilers were dispatched by the dreadful L.A. Kings in a best-of-five first round series during which Edmonton blew a 5-0 third period lead in a pivotal Game 3, an event that came to be known in L.A. as The Miracle on Manchester. The next season was supposed to fulfill the Oilers' massive potential, but after leading the NHL with 424 goals (5.3 per game) -- 74 more than Montreal, which ranked second in that category -- they were completely shut down and swept in the Cup final by the dynastic New York Islanders, who extended their streak of championships to four. Gretzky was held without a goal in the four games and his teammates managed to produce only six.

And so came 1983-'84. When the Oilers finally won the Cup by dethroning the Islanders, it felt as though a new natural order had been imposed on the NHL. Gretzky later claimed that Edmonton's 1987-'88 squad was the best he played on, but that one lacked Coffey, who produced 126 points from the blue line during Edmonton's first championship season. Kurri well exceeded the century mark as well, despite missing almost a quarter of the season. And then there was Mark Messier, who rang up 101 points despite an injury of his own. If you go back and watch him in his prime, you'll see that number 11 was the Oilers' most dominant player in nearly as many games as Gretzky, the total package of enforcer size, elite speed, finesse, controlled rage, and playmaking dazzle.

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As for Gretzky, in 1983-84 he produced the best points per game average (2.8) of his storied career as well as a record 51-game point streak. But these Oilers were unlike their earlier editions because they had more than their high octane run-and-shoot offense. They had a fierce determination to do whatever it took to win the Cup. En route, Edmonton set franchise marks for regular season wins (57) and points (119) and extended its single-season NHL goals record to a still-unbroken 446 (or a ridiculous 5.57 per game). Fuhr's stats (3.91 goals-against average; .883 save percentage) were pedestrian, and he could give up some softies, but when it was time for a big save, starting in '83'-'84, he became money, much the way Billy Smith had been for the Islanders.

Other teams have had better records than Edmonton's 57-18-5 of that season, but you'd have to like your chances with this particular edition of the Oilers during the course of a seven-game series against any NHL roster that has ever taken the ice. Gretzky's career was almost all prime if we're talking about elite numbers and elite play, but this particular campaign fell squarely within his mega-prime. It's hard to think that this team, led by that player and layered with Hall of Famers, checkers, defensive defensemen, face-off specialists and tough guys couldn't find a way to get the job done.

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