With one early-season flourish, the doubts that arose after Edmonton's shocking ouster in the Smythe Division finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs last season would have stopped. Order would have been restored and the two-time Cup winners could have proceeded along their merry way toward recapturing the title.
"A good start would have taken a lot of heat off us," said Oiler All-Star defenseman Paul Coffey, shaking his head after a dispiriting 5-5 tie with Smythe Division rival Los Angeles early last week. "Obviously we're not playing well." But surely that was destined to change later in the week, when the Oilers were scheduled to play a home-and-home series with Calgary—the team that had bounced them from the playoffs—followed by a game at Northlands Coliseum with the new Stanley Cup champs, the Montreal Canadiens. What better time to prove that what happened last spring was an aberration, a uniquely unfortunate alignment of the stars?
But by week's end the auguries for the Oilers looked, if anything, murkier than ever. They lost both games to Calgary, 3-1 Wednesday in Edmonton and 6-4 Friday in Calgary, before managing their only win of the week, a 4-3 victory over the Canadiens on Saturday night.
Forget that the season is only 16 games old. The Oilers, Stanley Cup champions in both 1984 and 1985, needed to come busting out of the gate with anger and passion following last spring's early playoff elimination—and stories in this (SI, May 12, 1986) and other publications providing details of legal and financial problems and charges of alcohol and drug use involving some Oiler players. They haven't. The Oilers began the season 4-4 and are now 9-6-1, four points off last year's pace. What is more galling is the fact that they have lost to Calgary in all three games played between the Smythe Division rivals this season. The question persists: Was last season an anomaly, or are the Oilers in fact as vulnerable as they have appeared to be?
"When the Islanders won four Stanley Cups, how many times did they finish first overall?" says Oiler co-coach John Muckler. "Twice. How many times did they go through difficult stretches throughout the regular season? I realize the Hollywood script has us losing the Stanley Cup, then coming back the next year and absolutely blowing everybody away. I don't think that's realistic."
Probably not, particularly with the improvement of Smythe Division foes Calgary, Winnipeg and Los Angeles. But for all that, Edmonton's early-season sluggishness has reaffirmed that this often-brilliant team simply can't turn it on and off at will anymore. Pure talent no longer is enough. Throw a well-conceived, tight-checking game plan and a lot of heart their way and the Oilers can be beaten.
Their reaction to the slow start seems to be typical of a team whose cockiness has been both its best and worst quality. "We can go 75-5," says Coffey, "but if we lose in the playoffs, the season is a disappointment." President/general manager/coach Glen Sather looks at it philosophically. "In the long run," he says, "it'll do us good when we have to scratch for every point we can get from teams like Calgary and Winnipeg."
Adds defenseman Kevin Lowe, "Actually, getting off to this kind of start is the best thing that could have happened to this team. Now the papers get on us, the people jump on us, there are question marks. It makes us do a little more soul-searching. That's not something we've had to do in the past."
Searching for silver linings is not what the Oilers expected to be doing in what was supposed to be a year of redemption. High up on the list of things they hoped to put behind them were the allegations of drug use that surfaced last spring. SI's story on the subject rankled in particular. Sather and his players reacted to that story by angrily denying that the team had a drug problem, but other publications, including The Toronto Star and The Hockey News, subsequently ran stories further detailing alleged alcohol and drug use by Oiler players and concern about the matter on the part of the NHL.
Recently Sather told hockey writers that he had given his last interview on the subject, and the Oilers have apparently left it up to the league to deal with the matter. But the NHL has publicly expressed no interest in looking into the reports of drug use by Edmonton players. NHL president John Ziegler and NHL Players Association executive director Alan Eagleson did make a big show of calling for mandatory drug testing of all players, but the idea of implementing a testing plan was scuttled during negotiations for a new contract between the league and the union.
The SI story had questioned whether Edmonton's off-ice difficulties were signs of an immaturity that may have contributed to the Oilers' early demise. "We did not get beat because of anything that was mentioned in that story," Muckler said last week. "We got beat by a team that simply played better than we did."
Sather claims that the drug charges had limited his ability to make trades during the off-season. "We weren't able to make one trade," he told Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal. "I knew that as soon as I traded someone, everybody would be saying, 'That's one of the guys SI was talking about.' " The drug allegations also may have affected the Oilers' relationship with their fans. "The [SI] story did two things," says All-Star center Wayne Gretzky. "First, it got the city to rally behind us. People have been very good to the players and their families. But it also scared some of the players and made some of the relationships between the fans and players that much more difficult. The players have become a little more defensive about how they deal with people off the ice...."
And now, to their further chagrin, the Oilers have been swept by the Flames so far this season. In the first matchup between the teams, on Oct. 22 in Calgary, the Flames won 6-3, and only Grant Fuhr's goaltending prevented a full-scale rout. Gretzky called it one of the Oilers' "worst games ever." Coffey said, "We should have been frothing at the mouth."
Heading into last week's miniseries, the Oilers were clearly trying to whip themselves into a frenzy for the Flames. "For the first time, we have something to prove against them," wrote Lowe in his Nov. 4 column for the Edmonton Sun. "We never considered games against them as key games. Now we do."
Steve Smith, the Edmonton defenseman who gave the Flames the score that eliminated the Oilers in Game 7 of the division finals—he was trying to clear the puck from behind Edmonton's net late in the game when his pass went off Fuhr's leg and back into the Oilers' goal—was remembering how the organist in the Calgary Saddledome played Santa Claus Is Coming To Town when he stepped onto the ice for the Oct. 22 game. "I hate Calgary with a passion," he said. "And it's got nothing to do with my particular situation...."
While Sather would not be drawn into the war of words, he did make a rare on-ice appearance at Tuesday's practice in Edmonton. If nothing else did, that meant the Oilers were serious about the next night's game.
But so was Flames goalie Mike Vernon as Calgary won Round 2 in the Northlands Coliseum. So much for all the talk. As he had in the playoffs, Vernon stonewalled the Oilers with his singularly unspectacular style that calls only for standing up and playing the angles. Vernon stopped 38 shots, including two Gretzky breakaways, and thwarted at least a dozen other good scoring opportunities. "Vernon was the difference," Sather said.
The Flames stuck with the same gritty strategy that had brought them success in the playoffs: Pack the middle, string four men across the blue line, neutralize at least two or three of the Oilers' big guns, wear them down with depth and take advantage of high-percentage scoring chances. "We know what it takes to beat them," said Vernon.
Now the question becomes. Are the Oilers willing to do the things it takes to beat the Flames? After last year's elimination, Sather seethed over his team's refusal to dump the puck in and chase it, then use the defensemen at the points to create scoring opportunities. Instead, the Oilers insisted on making cute passing plays in the offensive zone, only to have their passes toward the slot intercepted and cleared by a picket line of Calgary defenders. "I don't blame them," said Flames right winger Jim Peplinski. "If I had the talents of a Gretzky or a [Jari] Kurri or a Coffey, I wouldn't want to throw the puck in either."
In Wednesday's game, though, the Oilers did show more of an inclination, albeit grudgingly, to swallow their pride and play dump-and-chase. "Tactically, we played well enough," Sather said. "Our defensemen had 15 shots, so we definitely did the things we wanted to do." Then Sather offered a crooked half-smile. "We beat them six of eight in the regular season and they beat us in the playoffs," he said. "Maybe we're employing a similar strategy this year."
If that be so, the strategy is being executed to perfection. Two nights later in Calgary the Oilers were beaten by the Flames in every phase of the game. Calgary blew an early 2-0 lead, fell behind 3-2, then dominated most of the final two periods to win convincingly, limiting the Oilers to 23 shots on goal. After the game, Sather bristled at the suggestion that it might be time to get concerned. "What's Calgary's record?" he asked. "Last I checked, we were still in first place."
True enough, but the team's vital signs are not nearly as strong as they've been in past seasons. The Oilers have lost five games to Smythe Division teams—Los Angeles, Winnipeg and Calgary—after losing only three all last season. And three times in five road losses they have blown third-period leads. After the Big Six—Gretzky, Mark Messier, Coffey, Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Esa Tikkanen—the Oilers have gotten little production from the third and fourth lines.
Further, the defense has been so shaky that Sather coerced defenseman Randy Gregg to get back on skates. Gregg, a medical school graduate who retired at the end of last season to continue his studies in orthopedic surgery at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, was in the lineup Friday. "If we were 13-0," said Gregg, "I obviously wouldn't be here."
And not all has been love and roses in the locker room. Sather and Coffey engaged in a mid-October spat over what the coach felt was Coffey's substandard play. According to Sather, that's water over the dam. "Ridiculous," he says. "That was blown all out of proportion. Paul was at my house for dinner a week ago. There's no problem with us. In fact, I asked if he wanted to go duck hunting. But he said he was such a bad shot, he'd shoot out the front of a canoe, so he didn't want to go."
Meanwhile, the fans and the local media are beginning to get on the Oilers' case. Wednesday night's game with Calgary was the first sellout in eight Oiler home games this season. Last Friday, Dick Chubey of the Edmonton Sun wrote, "...it's plain to see there's an unwillingness among the Oilers to pay the price of climbing back to the top. There's a distinct lack of sticking their noses into traffic. Do that and it's apt to get dirty or, gawd forbid, bloodied."
The Oilers seem to believe that their stutter start is just the thing to shock them out of complacency. But, then, what was the playoff elimination? A speck of dust in their eye? For all of the talk, where's the fury, the single-minded-ness the Oilers said they were going to display this season?
Some observers trace the roots of the Oilers' slippage to Dec. 27 of last year, when they played an exhibition game with a touring team from the U.S.S.R. The matchup of North America's best with the Soviet Union's best should have provided all the challenge anyone could ask for, but the Oilers played listlessly and wound up losing 6-3. Then they seemed to go out of their way to underline the failure by saying that their minds were on the holidays.
Even with their substandard play this season, the Oilers are still two points ahead of second-place Winnipeg in the division. The often-overlooked goaltending tandem of Fuhr and Andy Moog has been a bulwark while Sather and Muckler have been trying to figure a way to shore up the defense. Gretzky, who is receiving a strong challenge for the scoring title from Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, is off to a blazing start (13 goals, 26 assists). "If Lemieux beats me because I have an off year, then I'll be angry," says the Great One. "But if he gets, say, 210 points and I get 209, I'll be the first to shake his hand."
And as if the Oilers don't have enough raw talent and speed, they have former Ranger All-Star defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen waiting in the wings. On Oct. 2, Sather traded defenseman Don Jackson to the Rangers for "future considerations"—which turned out to be the rights to Ruotsalainen, who had bolted New York to play in Switzerland. The swift-skating offensive defenseman is planning to finish the Swiss season and join the Oilers in late February or March. He could make the Edmonton power play a fearsome thing.
Meanwhile, scrutiny of the Oilers will go on.