WHAT AILS THE OILERS? That was the hot question-around the NHL after the Revenge of the Mouse-keteers on Oct. 31, when the defending Stanley Cup champions were dismantled by the New Jersey Devils, an outfit Wayne Gretzky had dismissed not long ago as "a Mickey Mouse operation." The 6-5 defeat was Edmonton's third in three games, an almost unheard-of losing streak for the Oilers. What had gone wrong?
Well, for the short term at least, nothing that back-to-back games against the New York Rangers on Nov. 1 and Nov. 4 couldn't cure. The injury-riddled, turn-the-other-cheek Rangers were a panacea for Oiler ills as Edmonton tarred them, away and at home, by a combined score of 14-8. Then, in the latest battle of Alberta's Uncivil War, Edmonton tied Calgary 4-4 in the Saddle-dome—the only NHL arena in which Gretzky is regularly booed. Two days later, the Oilers shut out Buffalo 5-0 to wrap up the week and keep them on top of the Smythe Division, which they have owned since 1982.
"I know you're looking for gloom and doom," said Oilers general manager Glen Sather last Friday. "But the fact is, we still have a great nucleus."
Nucleus shmucleus. Let's talk about what the Oilers lack—while we still can. Their once incomparable depth at goaltender is gone. Missing also are three defensemen from last year—including 26-year-old Paul Coffey, the two-time Norris trophy winner who, when healthy, is one of the best in the game.
When we left them last May, the Oilers were skating happy circles in the Northlands Coliseum, taking turns hoisting their third Stanley Cup in four years. But the rioters in downtown Edmonton hadn't even begun smashing shop windows when Coffey commenced grousing. He had missed 21 games with recurring back problems during the season and felt he had taken undue heat for it. "All the things I've done for this hockey team," Coffey said. "I've played hurt a lot of years. I'm sure I can play somewhere else."
That little outburst was soon overshadowed by an exodus of biblical proportions. Eight players either waved goodbye to the Oilers or threatened to depart, for such varied reasons as:
•Patriotism. Rock-steady defenseman Randy Gregg reported to the Canadian Olympic team in August. In September, Andy Moog, Grant Fuhr's backup and a premier NHL goaltender in his own right, shocked team management by joining Gregg rather than submitting to the Sather Squeeze—Slats's unhurried response to Moog's request for a trade.
•Homesickness. Defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen went to Sweden to play semipro and to be near his wife and ailing mother.
•Fear and Loathing in the NHL. Pacifist pivot Kent Nilsson, who played the log to Flyer Ron Hextall's ax in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, opted for the diminished pressure and less hazardous climes of Italian hockey.
•Lady Lucre. Wingers Jari Kurri and Esa Tikkanen went to arbitration and lost. Coffey and forwards Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Mike Krushelnyski all held out for more dough. Sather called Anderson's and Krushelnyski's bluffs: They promptly reported for duty. He renegotiated Messier's contract—reportedly doubling his $300,000 (Canadian) yearly salary—but when asked about Coffey, Sather said, "Ken Dryden missed an entire season in Montreal."
On the advice of his father and Gus Badali, his Toronto-based agent, Coffey has yet to report. He is four years into a five-year contract that would pay him $320,000 for 1987-88, but he wants between $500,000 and $600,000, or roughly the salary of Boston's Ray Bourque, Coffey's only NHL peer.
Coffey thought long and hard before rejecting the Oilers' latest offer, for $3 million (Canadian) over six years; Badali and Coffey balked at the part that said $1 million of that sum would be in the form of unspecified real estate (later identified as an apartment complex).
"I'm a hockey player, not a real estate guy," said Coffey.
Team owner Peter Pocklington left on an overseas trip last week, freezing negotiations for the two weeks he would be away. In a phone conversation with Badali before he left, Pocklington questioned Coffey's willingness to mix it up in the corners. Badali reportedly relayed the remarks to Coffey, who made them public and said, "It's impossible for me to put on that hockey sweater again," failing to add that he would if they gave him the moon.
Meanwhile, at least 10 teams have expressed interest in Coffey. If Sather intends to deal him, he won't want to wait long. When the Oilers' need for defensemen becomes urgent, Slats may get squeezed himself.
Coffey's forte is the end rush. He comes careening out of the Oilers' end like a night train, too swiftly and suddenly to stop. That is how he scored more goals in a season—48 in 1985-86—than any defenseman in NHL history. But some observers think he has never taken much of a shine to the grittier aspects of his job.
"I think what we've lost in offense, we've gained in defense," says second-year-man Jeff Beukeboom, Edmonton's brightest prospect on defense. After Beukeboom, alternate captain Kevin Lowe, who is almost impenetrable, Craig Muni, Charlie Huddy and Steve Smith, it gets dicey. Until the replacement players, Jim Ennis, John Miner, Jim Wiemer and Ron Shudra, learn the Oilers' defensive system, the team will keep giving up a lot of goals.
Cocoach John Muckler has described breaking in "the kids" as "kind of exciting." Fuhr, who is making a ton of saves these days, might choose a different description. In Thursday's tie with Calgary, Fuhr absorbed 52 shots, 25 in the second period alone, the most Edmonton has had to deal with in a period in eight years. The Oilers simply could not clear the puck.
A cold jolt ran down the Edmonton bench when Fuhr left the Ranger game on Nov. 1 with a bruised shoulder. But unknown quantity Daryl Reaugh, up from the AHL Nova Scotia Oilers, skated out and held the fort. "We're very comfortable playing in front of Daryl," says Gretzky, soothingly. "We're completely confident in him."
A laudable comment, if mildly deluding. Moog's jump to the Olympic team caught Sather by surprise. From Fuhr and Moog as goalies, the Oilers have gone to Fuhr and Reaugh and Dave Roach, late of Michigan Tech. But bruised or not, Fuhr has yet to miss a start this season.
And the Oiler forwards are still formidable. Gretzky passed for his 1,000th career assist in the second Ranger game, while linemate Tikkanen had five points. Of Edmonton's seven goals that night, four were born of artistic passing—breathtaking stuff. And Gretzky's two goals against Buffalo on Saturday gave him a total of 556, moving him into a tie for sixth place on the NHL alltime goal-scoring list, with John Bucyk.
Nevertheless, says Sather candidly, "If this were April, we'd be in trouble." They may be, anyway. A gap between Edmonton and the rest of the league remains, but the desertions have shrunk its size. Meanwhile, some of the Mickey Mouse teams have grown sharp teeth.