The Oilers are a great team, with or without Wayne Gretzky.
Those were the words of The Great One himself 25 years ago at his emotional news conference after Edmonton traded him to the Los Angeles Kings along with fellow forwards Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley for forwards Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, L.A’s first-round draft choices in 1989 (later dealt to New Jersey, which chose Jason Miller), 1991 (Martin Rucinsky) and 1993 (Nick Stajduhar) and cash.
The Oilers, with the likes of Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson, lost to Gretzky and the Kings later that season in the division semifinals. But they rebounded to win their fifth Stanley Cup in seven years the following season in 1990.
Edmonton made the playoffs the next two seasons before failing to qualify the following four campaigns as a weakening Canadian dollar forced management to sell off its high-priced talent. Dwindling attendance, the sale of the team and first-round playoff exits led the team to the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
There was a glimpse of the glory days coming out of the work stoppage with a seven-game loss to Carolina in the 2006 Cup final, but it’s been seven years of mediocrity, at best, ever since.
From afar, Gretzky remains hopeful that better days lie ahead in Edmonton. In January, he told fans during an appearance on Hockey Night in Canada Radio to remain patient and that building a winning product in Edmonton will take time.
"You just don’t throw three of four first[overall draft] picks on one team and say, ‘Now we got a really good team.’ The intangibles come into play," said Gretzky, who starred for a young Oilers outfit in the 1980s when the NHL team won four Stanley Cups. "You’ve got to become a group and you’ve got to become a team."
Equally important to a team blessed with skilled forwards was the heavy lifting by others, including defenceman Lee Fogolin and centre Craig MacTavish. Gretzky called them "the glue that held the entire team together and made us a better team."
Below, we examine the highs and lows of the Oilers franchise since Gretzky left Edmonton.
Eight months after Gretzky was traded, the Oilers turned in their eighth consecutive winning season (38-34-8) before The Great One led Los Angeles back from a 3-1 series deficit to oust Edmonton in Game 7 of Round 1. The Oilers would exact revenge in the spring of 1990, sweeping the Kings in the Smythe Division final en route to their fifth Stanley Cup in seven years, a five-game victory over Boston.
In the 1990-91 season, Edmonton went 37-37-6 despite the absence of star forward Jari Kurri, who played in Europe due to a contract dispute. The Oilers upset Calgary in seven games and downed L.A. in the Smythe final before the Minnesota North Stars eliminated them in the Campbell Conference final.
A weakened Canadian dollar spelled the end of the Oilers’ championship foundation. Kurri ended up with Gretzky in Los Angeles via a trade from Philadelphia. On Sept. 19, 1991, goalie Grant Fuhr and forward Glenn Anderson were sent to Toronto and leader Mark Messier was dealt to the New York Rangers, who also signed former Oiler Adam Graves. Still, Edmonton managed to reach the conference finals, falling to Chicago in four straight games.
In December 1992, general manager Glen Sather moved defenceman Kevin Lowe and forward Esa Tikkanen to the Rangers in separate trades. Edmonton would miss the playoffs for the first time since joining the NHL in 1979 with a lowly 26-50-8 record.
There were whispers the Oilers might leave Edmonton, perhaps for Hamilton, as owner Peter Pocklington couldn’t reach a deal on a lease with Northlands, which built the team's arena, now called Rexall Place. Season-ticket sales were dwindling but fans witnessed the emergence of young players Ryan Smyth and Doug Weight.
The Oilers made the playoffs in 1997 for the first time in five years but fell in the second round. One month later, Pocklington announced the team was for sale, and he sold it in February 1998 to a group of 37 businessmen who formed Edmonton Investors Group and kept the team from leaving town.
Edmonton earned a post-season berth in five of the next seven seasons leading into the lockout that would wipe out the 2004-05 campaign. However, the Dallas Stars were their nemesis, ending the Oilers’ Stanley Cup aspirations in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2003.
See you, Salo
The Oilers’ two-time all-star goalie was never the same after a 90-foot shot from Belarussian defenceman Vladimir Kopat bounced off Salo’s mask, caromed high in the air and landed behind him to eliminate Sweden at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Salo struggled the next two seasons before Edmonton traded him and turned its focus in goal to Ty Conklin. Salo retired from hockey in 2005 due to hip injuries.
Return to Cup final
With the NHL salary cap set at $39 million US after the 2004-05 lockout, the Oilers increased their spending and added all-star defenceman Chris Pronger and checking forward Mike Peca for the 2005-06 season in a pair of moves that had fans clamouring for a return to glory.
The Conklin experiment didn’t last because of injury and subsequent struggles by backup Jussi Markkanen led Oilers management to acquire netminder Dwayne Roloson from Minnesota. He played well enough to get Edmonton to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 16 years.
Following a 3-1 loss in Game 7 at Carolina, Pronger demanded a trade and was moved to Anaheim, while forwards Sergei Samsonov and Peca, along with blue-liner Jaroslav Spacek, departed as free agents.
Second-half collapses in 2007, 2009 and 2010 led to a pair of coaching changes as Pat Quinn would replace Craig MacTavish in 2009 and a year later was replaced by Tom Renney. The one positive to Edmonton’s inept play was an improved draft standing.
Trio of No. 1 draft picks
Following a fourth straight season out of the playoffs, the rebuild in Edmonton was in full swing. The Oilers chose left-winger Taylor Hall first overall at the 2010 NHL entry draft in Los Angeles and he went on to score 22 goals and 42 points in 65 games in his rookie season.
The next summer, Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini kept the first overall selection and picked centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who scored in his first game and had a hat trick in his third. Despite a strong start to the season, the Oilers struggled in the middle portion before showing an improvement in February and March. But losing Nugent-Hopkins and Hall to injury for 20 games apiece was too much to overcome for Edmonton, which fired Renney after the 2011-12 season and brought in Ralph Krueger.
In June 2012, Tambellini selected a forward first overall for the third year in a row, welcoming Russian right-winger Nail Yakupov. He finished fourth in Oilers scoring in last year’s lockout-shortened season with 17 goals and 31 points in 48 games but a team of youngsters finished 10 points out of a playoff spot.
Despite the presence of standout young forwards Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov, along with up-and-coming defenceman Justin Schultz, the Oilers missed the playoffs for the seventh straight season in 2013.
The team’s 19-22-7 finish cost Ralph Krueger his job — the fourth coaching change since 2006 — even though Edmonton’s third-place standing in the Northwest Division was its best since 2006.
In April, former coach MacTavish was brought back as general manager and immediately challenged his players to elevate their game with urgency and toughness come next season. He also vowed to add depth to the roster.
MacTavish has followed through by adding four NHL veterans: forwards David Perron and Boyd Gordon, defenceman Andrew Ference and goalie Jason LaBarbera. He’s also re-acquired blue-liner Denis Grebeshkov and signed young forward Sam Gagner to a contract extension.
Former Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe, now president of hockey operations, has also brought back one-time Oilers assistant GM Scott Howson as senior vice president of hockey operations while Dallas Eakins, 46, takes over behind the bench. Eakins said he’ll try to mold the team’s young and talented forwards.