16 Edmonton Oilers A young, hungry and defensive-minded club on the brink of making the playoffs

October 13, 2002

The Oilers appear to be stuck in small-market purgatory. They are
too well-managed to be terrible, and because they can't afford to
keep the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier or Doug Weight,
they won't be terrific. But Edmonton always comes up with players
who make the club competitive. In 2001-02, a year after captain
and leading scorer Weight signed with the Blues as a free agent,
the frugal Oilers--at $26.7 million their payroll ranked 26th in
the league--amassed a respectable 92 points. Despite closing out
the season with 10 wins in 14 games, they missed the playoffs by
two points.

A far cry from the franchise that won five Stanley Cups between
1984 and '90 with a high-scoring attack and All-Stars at nearly
every position, the Oilers rely on defense and goaltending by
up-and-comers and cagey vets. Only the Avalanche allowed fewer
goals than Edmonton's 182 last year, and netminder Tommy Salo had
a sparkling 2.22 goals-against average. The heart of the
defense--Eric Brewer, Janne Niinimaa and Jason Smith (average age:
27)--is as mobile as any in the league. NHL commissioner Gary
Bettman may have made a plea for more freewheeling play this
season by saying, "Let's play Oilers hockey," at the general
managers' meetings this summer, but he wasn't talking about this
edition of the team.

Still, Edmonton does have skilled young forwards. Emerging star
Mike Comrie, 22, led the team with 33 goals; Mike York (60
points), Anson Carter (28 goals) and Ryan Smyth (50 points in 61
games) are coming on, but what the Oilers need most is more
experience. Edmonton's only major acquisition in the off-season
was 33-year-old Czech forward Jiri Dopita, who scored 11 goals
with the Flyers last season, his first in the NHL.

The fans--a strong base, with 15,000 season-ticket holders from
a metropolitan area of less than 700,000--long for the success
of the team's glory days, but they will have to be patient.
Dopita and Salo are the only players over 30 years old, and
general manager Kevin Lowe has every key player signed through
the end of 2003-04. The young talent will enable the Oilers to
be competitive again, and perhaps they'll even make the
playoffs. --B.C.

COLOR PHOTO: GERRY THOMAS Mike Comrie

FAST FACT

The Oilers set a team record last year by allowing only 182
goals--30 fewer than their previous standard for a full season
(1999-2000).

INSIDER

CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY

OFFENSE 20 Speedy group should create chances off the rush
DEFENSE 16 Niinimaa, Brewer, Smith solid, but a fourth must
emerge
GOALTENDING 7 Salo most underrated goaltender in league
SPECIAL TEAMS 16 PK strong with Marchant, Grier; PP needs more
shots on goal
MANAGEMENT 12 G.M. Lowe has done good job despite lack of
resources

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)