It has been a treacherous last 6.5 years of being an Oilers’ fan. There’s really no other way of putting it. Watching a Stanley Cup-calibre team be assembled and then dissembled within 12 months between the summers of ’05 and ’06 was at once both disheartening and completely predictable. This is a franchise that used up a lot of its karma in essentially one game of backgammon in 1978, a move which set it up for unbroken success for the next 14 years or so.
I remember the first dark era of Oilers history well, between 1993 and 1996 — when names like Petr Klima and Shayne Corson would help pummel a once proud franchise into 4 straight playoff absences. That really did feel like an eternity at the time, as the club was not only terrible, but no one in Edmonton seemed to care much about it anymore. I remember getting my classmates to sign an ‘Oilers SOS’ faxed petition to keep the team in Edmonton by suggesting the Oilers’ departure would be sad because we wouldn’t get to watch the other, good teams anymore. Having lived through that time, I can say with certainly that apathy is worse than failure. It’s pretty damned amazing that during this current stretch of 6 straight missed playoffs, so many people have kept going to games, stayed interested in the club, and listened to people like Dan Tencer wax idiotic (seriously, that’s dedication).
But, are there better times ahead? Is our long, silent shame about to lift? What I’d like to do in this post is outline my 2013 season prediction for the Oilers. First, I compiled the goal differential (goals for minus goals against) for every team for every season going back to 1997-98, stripping out empty net goals along the way. Then, I tried to find the population of teams that had a season within +/- 15 goals of the Oilers’ goal differential in the 2010-11 season (-66) and then directly followed this up with a season within +/- 15 goals of the Oilers’ 2011-12 season (-20). Basically, I’m trying to find a list of teams that went from being abhorrent to merely notably bad (like the Oilers the last two years) and then trying to observe what followed in their next season.
I found a sample of only 11 such teams, outlined in the table below:
So, for instance, Florida went from having a -54 goal differential in the 1997-98 season to having a +26 goal differential two years later in the 1999-2000 season, and jumped from being the 25th place NHL team to the 8th place team in that time. Of the 11 teams listed, 6 made the playoffs in the year after their notable year 1 to year 2 improvement (these teams have a grey background), while 5 teams missed the playoffs in that 3rd year (noted with red font). Only 2 of these teams continued to be truly terrible teams (’03-’05 Coyotes and ’06-’08 Coyotes), while the other 3 non-playoff teams at least were within 3 positions of making the playoffs.
The average conference placing of all 11 of these teams in the 3rd year is 8th, the final playoff spot, and I think that’s a fairly optimistic but reasonable prediction for where the Oilers could end up this season. So, what went right for the teams that progressed to the playoffs, and what went wrong for the ones that stagnated?
First, what went right. The ’97 Panthers disappointed everyone, but acquired Pavel Bure in 1998-99 and rode his 28-year-old 58 goal season to the playoffs the following year. The late 90s Canucks went through a wholesale change, getting rid of Bure, Messier, and Mogilny while bringing in early-to-mid-20s players like Bertuzzi, Naslund, Jovanovksi, and Morrison who all developed steadily into top drawer NHL players. This is a good example of a team that allowed young leaders to grow and develop into surefire stars.
The early 00s Lightning had just been sold and stripped down, while drafting Lecavalier and Brad Richards in the 1998 draft. Lecavalier was forced immediately into the NHL in 1998, while Richards was held back until he was 20 in 2000-01. The team stumbled badly that year, but made some bets in acquiring mid-20s players Martin St. Louis, Modin, and Dan Boyle — Lecavalier and Richards also kept maturing in their early 20′s into legitimate scoring threats. It was an acquisition of one Nik Khabibulin in 2001 that seemed to ignite the rebuild, who won 30 games for them on the way to their 02-03 playoff birth. This was a combination of good drafting, slow development, and smart, timely acquisitions for players in key roles
Over the same time frame, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks also made the playoffs after having been in the western cellar in 2000-2001. Teemu Selanne was traded in 2001, and Kariya had very down seasons offensively around a true mish-mash of forward talent. What turned 2002-2003 around for the Ducks was the acquisition of 26-year-old Petr Sykora, a resurgence in the career of 31-year-old Steve Rucchin, a last bout of glory from 40-year-old Adam Oates, and noteworthy goaltending from 25-year-old JS Gigeure and Martin Gerber who all helped 28-year-old Kariya regain his form for 81 points in 82 games. Hard to say what happened here, but adding in-prime scoring along with much improved goaltending will make any team better.
Carolina managed to do the impossible, going from the league basement in 2002-2003 to winning the Stanley Cup (can’t recall the other team) in 2005-2006. 2002-03 was a disaster season, with long time coach Paul Maurice being fired and Kevin Weekes acting as starting netminder. Curiously, they employed the same forward corps the following season, starring Cole, Brind’amour, and O-Neill whose point totals dropped while the team improved. The lockout team allowed their youth of Staal (21), Williams (24) to develop, and they acquired reliable veterans Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen, and Cory Stillman to round out the scoring lines. Their D was really quite bare throughout, and in 05-06 they acquired totally new netminding in Gerber (31) and rookie Cam Ward (21) who still were terrible (combined 0.898). I think the key here was the acquisition of veteran forwards to complement the young scoring leaders.
Finally, Boston between 06-07 and 08-09. The 06-07 Bruins were a team still reeling from the trade of a generational talent in Joe Thornton. His old wingman Glen Murray was leading the charge along with young players like Bergeron and journeyman forward Marc Savard. Their real liability was defensively, where they were 29th in goals against even though Tim Thomas was their starter (0.905 sv%) and Zdeno Chara their new #1 dman. By their resurgence in 08-09, they had added young scoring forwards in Krejci (22) and Kessel (21) along with a 28-year-old Michael Ryder who had one of his ‘on’ seasons. The biggest improvement was on defence, where they had now allowed the LEAST amount of goals in the league behind a Vezina worthy year from Tim Thomas (0.933 sv%).
If we look at the 5 teams that didn’t evolve well, there are some common threads. Atlanta and Phoenix are on here twice, accounting for 4 out of the 5 stagnating teams. These are teams that never had the same purse strings as other franchises, relied too much on young forwards, or had Wayne Gretzky coaching them.
Atlanta in 2002-2005 were a team stuck in transition. Probably the biggest reason for this was a horrific car accident in which Heatley was injured and teammate Dan Snyder was tragically killed in 2003. Heatley came back that season, but was traded before the 05-06 season. Another key reason for that season’s failure was goaltender Lehtonen injuring himself in the first game of the year, and his backup Mike Dunham getting injured 3 games later. Replacement Michael Garnett spotted their injury time with a save percentage of 0.885. Their scoring forwards scored them into 5th for goals for (Kovalchuk(22), Savard, Hossa), but they couldn’t keep the puck out of the net, finishing 24th in goals against.
Atlanta later in 2007 were essentially a one person team in Kovalchuk, while Hossa and Lehtonen missed a quarter of the season. They failed to sustain progress over this window due to a failure to retain Hossa, who left in 2009, trading Lehtonen in summer 2009, and Kozlov’s production falling dramatically. They still almost made the playoffs in 09-10, finishing 10th
I don’t really have the energy to comment on Pheonix. The team was sold during this time, and was experiencing heavy ($40M/year) financial losses. They hired Gretzky, hired and fired his agent to be the GM, employed a fat-assed Brett Hull for 3 games, and relied on sub 0.900 goaltending from over-the-hill Curtis Joseph. It’ll be hard to recreate this clusterf_ck.
Florida between 2002-03 & 2005-06 weren’t really a horrid team, they were just never really that good. They traded Pavel Bure in 2002, and spent the next two seasons depending on his crappier younger brother and crazy-man Jokinen for scoring. They were never bottom 5 in goals against, what with Roberto Luongo in the crease, but they seemed to be absent of any scoring depth at all — during this period their second line seemed to be Stephen Weiss and some guys I seriously have never heard of. They made a splash in 05-06 by acquiring oldies Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts, but couldn’t rely on anyone beyond Jokinen for secondary scoring.
To sum up, it seems as though the Oilers of 2013 have more in common with the teams that succeeded rather than the teams that stagnated. They will have secondary scoring, they employ a league average starter, they haven’t lost any superstars, and they’re not coached by Wayne Gretzky. There is precedent for successful teams to rely on their younger stars maturing (Lightning, West coast express Canucks, Carolina), but these teams always had support from reasonably solid veterans. The Oilers have a hard minutes line in Horcoff and Smyth, but lack a goodly depth of veterans both on forward and on D. I suppose they might be waiting to see if they’re in playoff contention before making some of those depth moves, but it would be nice to have that critical mass of support to help the kids find out what it takes to win.