The Big “What If”: Gretzky to Detroit, Part I

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Okay, this one is a doozy. So much so, that I have to split it up into two parts. Part I comes today, while Part II will come next week.


October 6th, 1988

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

“They called it the ‘Trade of the Century’. August 9th, 1988. The holder of 49 NHL Records, #99, Wayne Gretzky!”

The introduction of Wayne Gretzky heralded a new era – not just for the Los Angeles Kings, but also for the game of hockey. Gretzky, the arguable best player in history, and a multi-time league MVP, had arrived in the City of Angels from the Edmonton Oilers, where he had won four Stanley Cups in five years. Once an afterthought in the league, one of the NHL’s background teams, the Los Angeles Kings were set to become a centrepiece team in the hockey universe. As expected for the Great One, the price was steep; L.A. gave up Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three 1st-Round Picks (1989, 1991, 1993), and $15 million in cash for Gretzky, Marty McSorley, and Mike Krushelnyski. As it would turn out, the price was worth it, as Gretzky would not only break the NHL points record soon afterward, but would eventually notch his 2000th career point a couple of years later. Major record after major record fell during Gretzky’s seven-and-a-half year Los Angeles stint, giving the Kings – and in a few years, Southern teams in general – greater relevance in the game of hockey.

Of course, all great journeys have to start somewhere, and Gretzky’s would start on October 6th, 1988, in the Kings’ home opener against the Detroit Red Wings. Wayne’s Los Angeles debut was a box-office smash hit, the likes of which the Kings had never seen before. And the Great One was more than happy to give a whole new set of Kings fans what they wanted to see. Wayne would put up a 4-point night – 1 goal and 3 assists – as his team demolished the Wings 8-2. It was a dream debut, and it was enough to convince all of those new fans to stick around. The Kings would average 14,875 fans at the Great Western Forum that year, a jump of 3,000 from the previous year, in which Los Angeles stood third-last in average attendance.

Wayne’s debut was not just an immediate success, but a great indicator of what was to come. But there was a chance, albeit a very small one, that Wayne would be at that game… in a different sweater.

In the lead-up to the August 9th trade, rumours had flown around about potential destinations for Gretzky. Wayne himself was told that he had the choice of New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles. In addition, there were stories potentially connecting the Great One to places such as Philadelphia and Vancouver. According to Wayne, his new wife Janet Jones Gretzky had suggested that he play in Detroit, only for his father Walter to guide him towards choosing the Kings. After negotiations between Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington and new Los Angeles owner Bruce McNall, a deal was struck that would see L.A. get their man, at incredible cost.

As it would turn out, Los Angeles was the only team that Pocklington had negotiated terms with. He never took the time to contact Detroit owner Mike Ilitch about a deal, a decision that Pocklington regretted. It only leaves one to wonder what could have happened had Pocklington talked further with Ilitch. Could the two sides have struck a deal, and if so, how would the Red Wings fare with Gretzky in their line-up?

 

WHAT IF WAYNE GRETZKY WAS TRADED TO DETROIT INSTEAD OF LOS ANGELES?

 

WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: The entire point of the trade, from Edmonton’s point of view – or rather, from Peter Pocklington’s point of view – was that Gretzky was not going to last much longer with the Oilers. His re-negotiated contract had an out clause that allowed Wayne to hit the free market in July of 1989, and with the owner struggling for money, it was almost inevitable that he would not be re-signing in Edmonton. Therefore, in order to get a return on their investment, the Oilers had to get something back for #99, with cash a major priority. The trading team, at least from the Oilers’ point of view, was unimportant; as long as they could trade Wayne, and get a solid return, they would be happy.

Though a few places were being discussed as potential destinations for Gretzky, it was ultimately Bruce McNall, owner of the L.A. Kings, who stepped up to make an offer. Pocklington was hasty to accept it, possibly even too hasty, by his own admission. If he had brought up the possibility of a deal to other teams, they would likely have been clamouring for a chance to acquire Wayne Gretzky himself. Almost certainly, a bidding war would start, and if so, one of the teams that could afford to make such a trade would be the Detroit Red Wings. Mike Ilitch was no pauper; not only had he built Little Caesar’s into a nationwide chain, but he had made even more money through Ilitch Holdings. He could easily afford to pay the contract that Wayne would eventually ask for.

The thought of Wayne going to Detroit was certainly enough to catch the attention of his new wife, Janet, who had originally suggested that he make that move. Gretzky, as a young man, idolized Gordie Howe, the long-time Red Wing who, as of that year, still held the NHL career points record. Getting the chance to don the Winged Wheel jersey would almost certainly be a dream come true for Wayne, and to inevitably break Howe’s career records in a Red Wing shirt would be like something out of a storybook for the Great One. Of course, it was his father, Walter, that pushed him to L.A., but it is entirely plausible that Wayne would hold on to the dream of playing for the Wings.

On August 8th, rumours are beginning to surface that a deal has been finalized that would see Wayne Gretzky be dealt out to Los Angeles in a massive transaction involving cash, players, AND draft picks. Though nobody is willing to confirm the deal, private speculation runs rampant. Beyond all the whispers, Peter Pocklington and Bruce McNall seem to have an agreement, but before they get it done, Pocklington wants to shop Gretzky to other interested teams. Despite McNall’s insistence on finalizing the trade they have on the table, “Peter Puck” talks to other owners. Eventually, he finds an interested party in Detroit’s Mike Ilitch, and the two work on putting a deal of their own together.

After a set of meetings between Gretzky and Ilitch, it appears that Wayne is more than willing to make the move to the Red Wings, and Ilitch signs off on a trade. On August 15th, news breaks across North America that the Oilers and Red Wings have struck a deal. Gretzky himself flies from his new Los Angeles home to Edmonton, and despite promises from both Pocklington and general manager Glen Sather that they can cancel the deal if he wants, he still remains adamant that he wants to go to Detroit. His final press conference as an Oiler is held at the Molson House in Edmonton, and immediately becomes iconic for his inability to get through his opening speech without tears. By the end of the night, however, he is in Detroit, ready to embark on a new journey with the Wings.


 

WHAT WOULD THE WINGS GIVE UP?

Now, the piece that was most appealing to Peter Pocklington, obviously, was the cash given up. With Pocklington dealing with several financial issues away from hockey, he would need quite a bit of money to stay afloat. The $15 million that was given up in the original deal is still present this time around. Likewise, the Oilers would still get three 1st-Round Picks in the trade, this time from Detroit instead of Los Angeles. Figuring out cash and draft picks is one thing, but figuring out which players go to Edmonton in the deal is another.

Firstly, to replace Jimmy Carson, the Oilers would want a skilled, young centreman to go their way in the deal. They would need somebody to replace the Great One, however improbable a task as that may be. The primary choice is Steve Yzerman, the Wings’ 4th-Overall Pick in 1983, who has been the captain of the team for the past two seasons. The past year was his first with over 100 points, as well as the first season that he had broken the 50-goal mark. At 23, there was still a long time for him to be a true #1 centre yet. Yes, it would be a steep price to pay, but when the return is Wayne Gretzky, it’s justified.

Secondly, as a replacement for Martin Gelinas, Edmonton would expect to receive a highly-prized forward prospect. Gelinas had managed 131 points in 65 games in his rookie year in the QMJHL, and Edmonton would want somebody that could be as dangerous offensively as he was. The Red Wings’ pick in the 1988 Draft, Kory Kocur, simply wasn’t good enough (only 71 points in 69 games that year in the WHL), and their other notable offensive prospect from that draft, 4th-Rounder Sheldon Kennedy, didn’t have the potential that Gelinas did. The most likely replacement would be 1984 1st-Overall pick Joe Murphy, who had just come off his first full season with the Red Wings.

Though there was no other player or pick present in the original Los Angeles deal, the very fact that there was now a bidding war would mean that the Wings would likely have to send another piece over to Edmonton in the trade. Edmonton would likely want a younger player that not only had talent, but was cheap enough that the Oilers could afford. The most likely fit, in this case, would be Bob Probert, then 23 years of age. Probert had skill (62 points in 79 games the previous year), but was also a feared enforcer; with Marty McSorley going the other way, the Wings wouldn’t need all three of Probert, McSorley, and Joey Kocur in the line-up to protect Gretzky.

As it stands, the final deal is as follows:

To Detroit: F Wayne Gretzky, F/D Marty McSorley, and F Mike Kruhselnyski

To Edmonton: F Steve Yzerman, F Bob Probert, F Joe Murphy, Three 1st-Round Picks (1989, 1991, 1993), and $15 million in cash


FROM EDMONTON’S PERSPECTIVE

The immediate reactions in Edmonton are of shock and outrage. It didn’t matter that rumours of an imminent deal had been in the news for the past week; seeing Wayne’s face at that press conference finally drove it home that he wasn’t playing for the Oilers anymore. Within hours, fans had begun to protest outside the Northlands Coliseum, with Peter Pocklington getting the brunt of the rage. This was, after all, the greatest player in the game at that time, and Pocklington had sold him off for $15 million. Another story had surfaced that it was Wayne’s newly-wedded wife Janet that had ultimately suggested that he choose Detroit. She, as a result, took heavy flak in Canadian media, with one outlet going so far as to call her a “Jezebel”.

Glen Sather, who had little input on the deal at the time (primarily due to having no desire to trade Gretzky), tried to put on a brave face in public. In an interview soon after the deal, Sather would hype up Steve Yzerman as someone who could replace the Great One for years to come. And even if he was so-so in his first year, the team still had Mark Messier. They still had Jari Kurri, Esa Tikkanen, and Grant Fuhr to lead the way, and a host of strong supporting players still in Edmonton uniforms. Glen would argue that even without Gretzky, the Oilers were still a Stanley Cup contender, and looked to be so for a long time yet.

Whether due to being on the stacked Oilers, or due to an internal feeling of pressure to live up to the greatness of Gretzky, Steve Yzerman shines in his first season in Edmonton. Having been one of the youngest captains in NHL history, “Stevie Y” was already used to having a franchise on his shoulders. With so many skilled teammates to play off of, he is more than capable of producing in great quantity, and notches a career-high 155 points. While it is not enough for the league lead, or even enough to eclipse Gretzky (168 points), Yzerman’s efforts are enough to earn him the Lester B. Pearson award as the best player in the league as voted on by fellow players.

Though Yzerman thrived, one of the other former Detroit players, Bob Probert, didn’t. In the early part of 1989, he would be arrested for cocaine possession when flying across the border for a road game. The amount of cocaine (14 grams) was significant enough for him to get arrested and subsequently jailed for three months. He would also be suspended indefinitely by the NHL, with the ban ending in early 1990. It was just the latest in a long string of run-ins with law enforcement for Probert, who had already been fined for impaired driving.

Though they were already a good enough team, Yzerman’s production helped Edmonton remain competitive in the Smythe Division, as they would grab 89 points en route to 2nd place. This would put them up against the Los Angeles Kings, the team that Gretzky very nearly went to prior to the season. That wrinkle in the story would lead to Bruce McNall unleashing several verbal bombs on Peter Pocklington over the course of the series, and even further measures were taken by McNall to make the Oilers as miserable as possible when they were in Los Angeles. It would take overtime in Game Seven to solve the heated series, but Steve Duchesne’s short-handed goal would be the decider, as Los Angeles’ 6-5 win put the final touches on a stunning upset.

It was a stinging loss for the Oilers, who would spend their next couple of months hearing from local media about who they never should have let Gretzky go, and how Yzerman had shown he wasn’t good enough to be the man to carry the team going forward. It also hurt to see Bruce McNall celebrating at the Northlands Coliseum in Game Seven, not even bothering to shake Pocklington’s hand after the series was decided. But Edmonton had other matters to attend to. Though they had received a pick from Detroit in 1989 as part of the Gretzky deal, it would be dealt to New Jersey in a trade that saw Corey Foster go the other way.

Though there was doom and gloom over what was expected to happen to the Oilers’ dynasty over the next few years, the players still in the locker room were not willing to give up on competitive hockey just yet. Mark Messier, who had long been in the shadow of Gretzky (and now Yzerman), stepped up and delivered with 129 points to lead the team. Yzerman sat just behind him with 127, and the two combined to be one of the most lethal centre duos in all of hockey. Their 1-2 punch made the Oilers a force to be reckoned with, even without the Great One, and the contributions of players like Esa Tikkanen, Jari Kurri, and Glenn Anderson didn’t hurt, either. Edmonton would once again finish 2nd in the Smythe Division, managing 94 points.

The Oilers may have been looking a little bit too far ahead, as they seemed to be focusing on potential match-ups with either Los Angeles in the second round, or Detroit in the Conference Final. Their tunnel vision allowed Winnipeg to make the opening round more competitive than it really should have been. Though the Jets were a good team, they should have been easily dealt with by so strong an Edmonton team. The series would go to Game Seven, where the Oilers would finally put it away with a 4-0 win. As it would turn out, the Oilers would not face the Kings in the second round, but the Calgary Flames. The defending Cup champions had easily dealt with L.A. in six games, and had a slight energy advantage. They would need it for a slugfest of a series, in which the Flames would prevail in six games, claiming the latest victory in the Battle of Alberta.

It is yet another stinging loss, this time to their provincial neighbours. The loss of Gretzky was truly beginning to be felt, and as he left, other Oiler players were looking for their way out. Also of concern for Edmonton was that they would not get an extra 1st-Round Pick from Detroit this season, and instead had to rely on the 18th Overall Pick they had, which they would use on North Bay winger Shawn Antoski. Though not quite an electric prospect, Antoski was somebody who could contribute a few points, and had a knack for dropping the gloves, something that would be very useful should Bob Probert incur any further legal troubles.

The penny-pinching of Peter Pocklington would continue in the 1990 off-season, as Jari Kurri would not accept a contract offer, instead choosing to play in Italy during the 1990-91 campaign. With Paul Coffey and Wayne Gretzky already out in recent year, Kurri’s departure only further highlighted the inability of Pocklington to keep star players in town. There would be further setback for the team in the pre-season, when Grant Fuhr was suspended for cocaine usage, only re-instated late in the year. Mark Messier, meanwhile, would suffer injury setbacks, limiting him to only 53 games. It seemed, at times, as if Steve Yzerman was the only player keeping the Oilers competitive. His 108 points were far and away the highest total on the team, and contributed to the Oilers finishing the 90-91 season with 83 points.

Edmonton was set for a first round battle with the Los Angeles Kings, who had eliminated them in 1989. Bruce McNall would confidently boast of his team beating the Oilers once more, and even suggested it would be a four-game sweep. As it would turn out, he was right; he just picked the wrong team to win it. The Oilers would feast on the poor play of Jimmy Carson, and though the first three games all had one-goal differentials, the fourth was a decisive 4-1 victory in Edmonton’s favour. This time, it was Peter Pocklington who got the last laugh, as McNall was left watching his team be eliminated in the Northlands Coliseum, where the 1989 series had ended.

It was hard enough facing one rival, but the Oilers would be faced with another one in Calgary, who had eliminated Vancouver in six. Edmonton’s rested bodies took advantage of their additional energy, overwhelming the Flames in their own arena to win the opening game. Though they would lose Game Two, the Oilers would win both of their own home games to put the Flames on the brink. Though Calgary would fight back and force the series into a seventh game, they wouldn’t be able to close it out, as Esa Tikkanen’s OT winner would send the Oilers to the Conference Final. The team was clearly riding an emotional wave, and there was a serious belief that they could knock out anybody that crossed them. But in winning the series with Calgary, it set up a clash with none other than the Detroit Red Wings.

For the first time, it was Gretzky and Yzerman squaring off in opposite colours. The players themselves made little of the trade, saying that they were just concentrating on winning. But for Edmonton fans, it was a final test of whether they were truly ready to move on from the Great One. The Oilers strike a huge blow by splitting the opening two games with the Wings, then moving on to claim the next two at home. They would travel to Detroit looking to clinch the series, and would do so with a convincing 6-1 win to claim the Conference Final in five games. After taking down two major rivals, the Oilers had taken down the team that now housed their former superstar; it now seemed like a Stanley Cup was Edmonton’s destiny.

In order to fulfill that destiny, the Oilers would have to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final. The Penguins had started their building process in 1984 with the drafting of Mario Lemieux, who was making a serious claim to being the best player in the game. His five assists in the opening two games served as a major wake-up call that the Oilers had to answer, and after dropping the first two games, they would claim their first two home games of the series, both in overtime. The two sides would trade road victories, but it would be Pittsburgh that prevailed in the decider at the Civic Arena, claiming the 1991 Stanley Cup.

It was a hell of a run for an Oiler team that looked to be past their best, and it served to remind Edmonton fans that although they no longer had Wayne Gretzky around, they got a damn good replacement for him in Steve Yzerman. In 23 games, Yzerman would put up 32 points to lead the team, and got consideration for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Having already let go of Jari Kurri, the time was right to find a prime winger to play alongside Yzerman in the future, and the Oilers would use their 16th Overall Pick, acquired from the Red Wings, on Markus Naslund, a promising prospect from Sweden. Their natural pick was at #13, which they used on Granby Bisons defender Philippe Boucher.

Despite the great run of the previous year, things were beginning to fall apart off the ice. The Oilers would continue their sell-off in the 1991 off-season, parting with all of Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson, Steve Smith, and Mark Messier prior to opening night, striking a heavy blow to team chemistry, but also making the payroll considerably less of a burden to Peter Pocklington. Much like the Gretzky deal, the news would anger Edmonton fans, and those who had stuck with the team following #99 being shipped to Detroit would now look for the exits. Steve Yzerman, who had been a captain in Detroit at such a young age, was given the “C” in place of Messier, signalling that it was his team now.

For all of the doom and gloom being predicted for the Oilers, the younger players that were brought in actually seemed to rejuvenate the squad. Vincent Damphousse, acquired from Toronto, managed 89 points in his first year with the Oilers. Scott Mellanby, brought in from the Flyers via the Kurri trade, managed a 50-point season. And while many of the new players were finding ways to contribute, the new captain Yzerman led the way with 103 points of his own. All in all, the rebuild seemed more like a reload; Edmonton would be surprisingly competitive in the Smythe, eventually finishing 2nd in the division with 92 points.

The Oilers’ first-round series would be against the Winnipeg Jets, who were riding the hot hand of Bob Essensa for much of the season. Essensa’s save percentage of .910 was second in the league behind only Patrick Roy, in an era where having a SV% above .900 would be considered fantastic. Essensa’s hot hand would go extremely cold in the Edmonton series, however, as the Oilers torched him for 13 goals in the first two games. To their credit, Winnipeg fought back admirably, taking three of the next four, but Game Seven would be a 7-1 demolition, leaving the Jets grounded. Edmonton’s second-round opponents were the Smythe-leading Vancouver Canucks, who had easily knocked out the Los Angeles Kings. Vancouver, too, was unable to keep up with the Oilers; not even having the likes of Trevor Linden and Russian rookie Pavel Bure was enough to match Edmonton’s top young stars. The Oilers would win the series in five games, securing their second-straight Conference Final appearance.

This time, Edmonton was set to square off with the Chicago Blackhawks, a team chock-full of in-their-prime talent, and a dangerous young star of their own in Jeremy Roenick. Much like the Jets, the Hawks were riding their own hot netminder in Ed Belfour, who had been solid in the first two rounds of the post-season. Unlike Bob Essensa, however, Belfour would not falter against Edmonton, as Chicago took three of the first four games. Though Edmonton climbed back into the series and forced a Game Seven, it was there that the Blackhawks stuck a dagger in the Oilers, winning 7-2. Edmonton was out, but to even get this far was great for a team that had shed so much salary in the off-season. They would get the 19th Overall Pick in the 1992 Entry Draft, using it on Martin Straka.

Even continued playoff contender status wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding off of talent. Joe Murphy, fresh off an 82-point season (a career high), would hold out for a larger contract that neither Peter Pocklington nor Glen Sather were able to give him. He would not see the ice for the Oilers again, being traded to Chicago just before the 1993 trade deadline. Also shipped off in that season were Kevin Lowe, Esa Tikkanen, and, surprisingly, Vincent Damphousse; despite his impressive first year with the Oilers, he was quickly dealt to Montreal in a trade that saw Shayne Corson, among other players, join Edmonton.

The constant exodus of players would finally take its toll in the 1992-93 season. With older players getting dealt, and young players not quite good enough to play regularly just yet, the Oilers collapsed down the standings. Finishing last in the Smythe Division was never an option, as the sophomore San Jose Sharks would have that covered, easily. Edmonton still did miss out on the playoffs for the first time in the NHL, though, ending up 5th in the division with 71 points. It easily could have been worse for them; Steve Yzerman chose a rather poor time to have one of the best seasons of his career, racking up 58g-79a-137p for the second-highest scoring total he had registered in the NHL.

Edmonton would have two picks available in the 1st Round of the 1993 Entry Draft, their natural pick at #5, and their pick acquired from Detroit at #17. The Oilers had recently drafted some solid wingers and a defenseman or two, and now needed somebody that could take a bit of the heat off of Steve Yzerman in the future. Instead of going for just one extra centreman, however, Edmonton went with two: Jason Arnott with the 5th Overall Pick, and Jason Allison with the 17th. In addition to both being centremen, they were both based out of the Ontario Hockey League, with Arnott playing his trade for the Oshawa Generals, and Allison for the London Knights. The two gave the Oilers a sense of security; if one of them were to succeed quickly, it could make the other expendable in a trade.

Not only would Jason Arnott make the Oilers immediately, but he would thrive in his rookie year, managing 68 points. But he wasn’t the only new centreman making an impact; Doug Weight, brought in from the New York Rangers in the Esa Tikkanen deal, would have a fantastic first year in Edmonton colours with 74 points. Both of them certainly helped lessen the blow of Steve Yzerman’s setback year, as he missed over 20 games with injuries. On many an occasion, Yzerman would play on the wing alongside either Weight or Arnott, acting almost as a mentor of sorts. Even at 28, with a few more years ahead of him, he still took his captain’s role seriously, and took it upon himself to make sure the team was in good hands should Yzerman himself either be traded or let go in free agency.

 

Edmonton would finish 4th in their division with 76 points, but there was a catch. Because of rule changes across the league, playoff spots were decided by conference standings rather than division rankings. As such, having finished 9th in the Western Conference, the Oilers would not qualify for the post-season. They would once again have two picks in the 1st Round in the 1994 Draft; while they had their own natural pick at #9, they also had the #4 pick due to a trade with Winnipeg which saw blue-liner Dave Manson join the Jets. The Oilers would use their picks on two more Ontario-based forwards, using pick #4 on Jason Bonsignore, and pick #9 on Brett Lindros.

Having already lost Joe Murphy from the original Gretzky trade, the Oilers would lose Bob Probert in the 1994 off-season to free agency. Any plans Edmonton had to re-sign him would be scuttled on July 15th, when he was charged with impaired driving after crashing his motorcycle into a car in Michigan. Though he would sign with the Chicago Blackhawks eight days later, he would spend the 1994-95 season on the inactive list while he underwent rehabilitation. This left Steve Yzerman as the only direct piece remaining on the Oilers that had been acquired from Detroit in the Gretzky deal; the Oilers had also received three draft picks, which turned into Jason Miller (selected by New Jersey in 1989), Markus Naslund (1991), and Jason Allison (1993).

What was expected to be a continuation of the rebuild ended up being a shockingly competitive season for the Oilers, who remained in the thick of the playoff race throughout the lockout-shortened 1995 campaign. Edmonton was good enough to be buyers late in the year, trading away Martin Straka to Ottawa for veterans Troy Murray and Norm Maciver. They could afford to let go of Straka due to their multi-faceted offense, with all of Yzerman, Weight, Arnott, Shayne Corson, and rookie sensation David Oliver all grabbing more than 30 points in the 48-game year. The Oilers would ride their attack to a surprise playoff spot, finishing 6th in the West with 45 points.

Edmonton was fated for another match-up with the Detroit Red Wings, and the Wings had back-up of their own. With a centre tandem of Wayne Gretzky and Sergei Fedorov, Detroit could match the Oilers down the middle of the ice at any time, and they had some extra defensive punch thanks to the addition of Slava Fetisov. The offense that had been so potent throughout the regular season was stymied, and the poor play of Bill Ranford in goal was exploited by Detroit’s own attack. The Wings would eliminate the Oilers in five games, which was still seen in a positive light in Edmonton, considering the failures of the past two years. Edmonton would hold the 9th pick in the 1995 Entry Draft, using it on defender Kyle McLaren.

Throughout the 1995-96 season, rumours of major trades would pop up on two players: Steve Yzerman and Markus Naslund. Though Yzerman had been the captain since the departure of Mark Messier, the Oilers hadn’t won the Stanley Cup with him on the team, and there was a growing sense that he would not be the man to lead them back that far again. Though a deal was discussed that would see him join Ottawa in exchange for Alexei Yashin, among other players, no trade was made. Naslund, meanwhile, had been invoked in trade discussions with Pittsburgh and Vancouver, but once again, no deal was made. An Edmonton reporter would eventually reveal that the Canucks had offered up young enforcer Alek Stojanov in a potential deal, only for Edmonton to say no.

Edmonton would be hit hard with injuries early on, with youngster Brett Lindros suffering a pair of concussions in the first two months. But even injuries weren’t enough to make the team any less competitive, as they remained in the thick of the playoff race for quite a while. A mid-season trade would see Bill Ranford head to Boston, which allowed Curtis Joseph to become the starting goalie. Joseph (.886 SV%) would prove to be a better fit in goal than Ranford (.875 SV%), as Edmonton would soar in the second half of the campaign. Edmonton would also benefit from an extremely poor Pacific Division, as only the Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche (freshly relocated from Quebec) would post winning records. The ability to rack up wins in divisional games would come in handy for the Oilers as they would finish the season with 90 points, good enough for 4th in the West.

Because of the Pacific being so weak, Edmonton would have to face a stronger squad from the Central Division, as they were drawn against the 5th-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto was fading from their early-90s heyday, and no longer looked a threat to win the Stanley Cup as they had in 1993. Even then, their goaltending advantage was far too large to overlook, as Felix Potvin would spend the series outduelling Curtis Joseph game after game. Not even the triumvirate of Yzerman, Weight, and Arnott could best Potvin, as Toronto would take the series in six. Edmonton’s 1st-Round Pick in the 1996 Entry Draft would sit at #18, and the Oilers would use it on WHL-based forward Matt Higgins.

Having been so easily beaten in the playoffs, Curtis Joseph would work hard on his game in the off-season, hoping to get back to the form he had showed with the St. Louis Blues in previous years. The work would pay off, as his save percentage would rise to .907 in the 1996-97 regular season. But even with all of that effort put in, he may not have needed it, as the team in front of him was having a brilliant offensive year. Each of Steve Yzerman, Andrei Kovalenko, Markus Naslund, Doug Weight, and Mariusz Czerkawski would crack the 20-goal mark, with both Weight and Yzerman putting up over 80 points. The offensive outburst, combined with a strong, well-balanced blue line, would propel the Oilers to 94 points, good enough for 3rd in the West.

After a strong regular season, Curtis Joseph’s next playoff test as starting goalie would come against his former team, the St. Louis Blues. St. Louis still had Brett Hull at the top of his game, as well as a dynamic playmaker in Pierre Turgeon, a superb defensive pairing of Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger, and former Edmonton netminder Grant Fuhr. Another former Oiler, Joe Murphy, would fire the first big salvo of the series, winning Game One in overtime for the visiting Blues. The OT winner only served to wake up the Oilers, who took four of the next five to claim the series in six games. Two of Edmonton’s wins in the series would also require overtime, with Markus Naslund (Game Three) and Jason Arnott (Game Five) scoring the winners.

Any good feelings the Oilers had after their win over the St. Louis Blues would be quickly wiped out in the first two games of their series against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The Blues may have had a strong team, but the Ducks had one of the most explosive duos of the era in Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya. The two would torch the Oilers in the opening two games in Edmonton, with Kariya grabbing a hat trick in Game Two. The gap would be too much for Edmonton to overcome; despite winning Game Three in Anaheim, the Ducks would take the next two to eliminate the Oilers in five. The Oilers would end up with the 22nd Pick in the 1997 Entry Draft, selecting defenseman Nikos Tselios.

News on the ice was getting pretty good for the Oilers. They were a playoff team again, and had the pieces to be a future contender. News off the ice, however, was about to get really bad. Peter Pocklington was no longer able to pay the many loans he had taken out with the Alberta Treasury Branches, and assets were beginning to be claimed by the crown corporation. The Oilers would be put up for sale, with bidders lining up for the team. American businessman Leslie Alexander would begin to negotiate a deal for the franchise, with the intent of moving the Oilers to Houston, while local entrepreneur Cal Nichols would attempt to rally investors in the province to try and match the bid in order to keep the team where they were.

For much of the 97-98 season, there was now a cloud hanging over the future of the Oilers, but the players didn’t seem to be affected too much. The goaltending continued to be superb thanks to Joseph (and when need be, backup Bob Essensa), and the offense got a huge boost from the breakout season of Jason Allison, who would manage 83 points. So potent was he as an offensive force that the Oilers would afford to trade Jason Arnott to New Jersey in a deal to bring winger Bill Guerin to Edmonton. Finally, the defense, which was starting to look pretty deep, got a boost of their own with the acquisition of former #1 Pick Roman Hamrlik from Tampa Bay. While the team already had a few shut-down blue-liners, the addition of a great two-way man in Hamrlik made the Oilers a complete team. Edmonton was now beginning to look like a juggernaut, putting up a 112-point season to win the President’s Trophy.

Edmonton would be pitted against the 8th-place San Jose Sharks, in what would start out a one-sided affair. Edmonton would take each of the first three games, setting the stage for a sweep. San Jose wouldn’t have it, though, managing wins in both Game Four and Five, and sending Game Six to overtime. In that OT period, however, Bill Guerin would score for the Oilers, finally putting to rest the idea of an epic comeback by the Sharks. Next up for Edmonton was the 5th-place Detroit Red Wings, Wayne Gretzky in tow; Gretzky would put his mark on the series with the overtime winner in Game Two, followed by a hat trick in Game Six which would be the series winner for the Red Wings.

The news would get even better for Edmonton fans, as it was announced that the local bid headed by Cal Nichols to buy the team would be accepted by the ATB, effectively keeping the team in the city for the foreseeable future. It didn’t matter too much that the Oilers had failed to win the Stanley Cup despite being the best team in the regular season, as just having the team around was enough cause for celebration. Edmonton, as a result of their finish, would hold the 27th pick in the 1998 Entry Draft, using it on centreman Scott Gomez out of Tri-City in the WHL.

The next season would start with a bit of a problem for the Oilers to solve, as they are now left without a top starting goalkeeper thanks to the departure of Curtis Joseph in free agency. That vacancy is originally filled by the duo of Bob Essensa and Mikhail Shtalenkov, but late in the season, depth forward Mats Lindgren and a 1999 8th-Round Pick (used on Radek Martinek) are traded to the New York Islanders for Tommy Salo. Salo arrives to Edmonton with a stacked team in front of him, as the offense is bolstered by the breakout season of Markus Naslund, who leads the way with 36 goals. Bill Guerin also grabs 30 of his own, while Jason Allison leads the team with 76 points. Edmonton continues to be a Western powerhouse, finishing 2nd in the conference (and 1st in the new Northwestern Division) with 105 points.

Tommy Salo’s first playoff series as Edmonton starter would be against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who had a formidable starter in Guy Hebert, as well as still having the dynamic scoring threats of Kariya and Selanne. Wanting to keep the series in their favour, the Oilers deploy their checking units, including blue-liners Kyle McLaren and Jason Smith, against the Kariya-Selanne unit. The strategy works to perfection, as the two deadly Ducks are only able to have an impact on one game, that being Game Three. The other four go to Edmonton, as the Oilers win the series in five.

While winning the opening series was great, any results were soon to take a back seat after the Oilers were seeded against Detroit in the second round. Now, what happened on the ice was almost meaningless unless Wayne Gretzky was on the ice; it was his final season, and there was no better team to play a series against in his swan song year than the team that had brought him to the NHL in the first place. The Oilers and Wings certainly still gave an effort in each game, but it was all secondary to honouring #99. In the end, the Oilers would move on in six games, and in one last stroke of poetic justice, it would be Steve Yzerman – the former captain of Detroit acquired in the 1988 deal – that would score the game-winner in Game Six.

Edmonton has reached the Conference Final for the first time since 1992, and conditions look right for a return to the Cup Final itself. To get there, they would have to beat Dallas. The team was built around star American centre Mike Modano, who led the team that year with 81 points. The pieces around him included veteran sniper Brett Hull, former Stanley Cup-winning centre Joe Nieuwendyk, and former Chicago starter Ed Belfour. The team was clearly dangerous, having won the President’s Trophy with 114 points, and many predicted that Edmonton would be in for a major challenge. Amazingly, that challenge never presented itself. Though the games were all close, it was the Oilers who would come away with four straight victories, claiming a shock sweep over the team that many thought would win it all.

The Oilers had overcome a dynamic duo in Anaheim, their former superstar in Detroit, and a stacked team in Dallas. Now, they had to deal with the Buffalo Sabres and their outstanding netminder Dominik Hasek. The Sabres, as a whole, were built around their goaltending, and their suffocating defense; their highest scoring players going into the Cup Final were both blue-liners, Alexei Zhitnik and Jason Woolley. Edmonton would be in tough; not even the Toronto Maple Leafs, who led the league that year with 268 goals, could solve Hasek. The Sabres would force a split in Edmonton, then take the next two in Buffalo to grab a 3-1 series lead. Game Five would be the killing blow, as the Sabres would win 4-2 to claim the Stanley Cup.

The Oilers were competitive again. While many had expected a steady drift into failure for Edmonton in the 90s, they would cap the decade off with an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. They may not have beaten Buffalo, but then again, no team could; Dominik Hasek was just too strong. It was, for many of the team’s younger players, validation that they could at least get to the Final itself, but for the veterans, and particularly Steve Yzerman, it was yet another lost opportunity. Having been part of the team in 1991 for their defeat to the Penguins, losing in ’99 only further drove questions of his qualifications as a leader. Sure, he may have gotten to the Cup Final, but he had now shown on two occasions that he wasn’t good enough a leader to hoist the Cup itself. Looking for additional help in the 1999 Entry Draft for Yzerman, the Oilers use their 26th pick on Martin Havlat.

THE OILERS FROM 1988-1999: The Gretzky trade was a shock to not just Edmonton fans, but to Canadians, and to hockey fans across the continent. It firmly stated, once and for all, that no player, no matter how great they may have been, was immune from being traded. The circumstances that surrounded the deal were enough to break the innocence of hockey in many young minds; it was no longer just a game, it was just as much of a business as any other North American sport. It may not have been the first blow struck to the mighty Edmonton Oilers (that honour goes to the dealing of Paul Coffey), but it was the one that came closest to the heart. As players like Kurri, Messier, and Fuhr followed Gretzky out of Edmonton in the next few years, the belief was that the Oilers would one day be the laughingstock of the league.

In truth, getting what they did for the Great One turned out to be a pretty good deal for the Oilers, and actually set the team up for future contention. The three players brought over immediately were Steve Yzerman, Bob Probert, and Joe Murphy, all of whom were immediate contributors – Yzerman more so than the other two. Probert had several off-ice issues, but he was arguably the best enforcer of his time during his Edmonton days. Joe Murphy eventually did develop into a very good NHL scorer, managing 82 points at his peak with the Oilers. And Yzerman himself would immediately crack the 150-point plateau in his debut Oiler season, eventually going on to be one of the stars of the 90s, as well as a long-time captain for the club.

Having those three kept Edmonton competitive in the short term, but the draft picks they got from the Wings would keep them competitive in the long term. The 1989 pick was traded to New Jersey for Corey Foster, which didn’t really work out well, but the ’91 and ’93 picks turned into Markus Naslund and Jason Allison, respectively. Edmonton would not make the Stojanov-Naslund trade with the Canucks, never wanting to directly benefit a divisional rival – this would turn out to work in the Oilers’ favour in the end, as Stojanov would never play another NHL game after the 96-97 season. Naslund, however, has developed into at least a serviceable 1st-line forward, someone who can be counted on for 30 goals and 60 points a year.

But most important to Edmonton’s late-decade turnaround is the massive change in draft fortunes. In looking at Oilers drafts of the 90s, they made a ton of mistakes in scouting that led to some terrible years. First of the big changes is drafting Shawn Antoski in 1990, which doesn’t make too much of a change from Scott Allison, but it does mean that the Oilers no longer get absolutely zero NHL games from their ’90 draft class. Instead of the likes of Tyler Wright (1991), Joe Hulbig (1992), and Steve Kelly (1995), the Oilers get Philippe Boucher, Martin Straka, and Kyle McLaren. Though Straka is traded in what would be a poor deal, the other two are still contributors for the team at this time.

Speaking of which, the team’s line-up going into the 1999-2000 season looks as follows:

Steve Yzerman – Doug Weight – Markus Naslund
Josef Beranek – Jason Allison – Alex Selivanov

J.P. DumontScott Gomez – Rem Murray
Ethan Moreau – Todd Marchant – Jim Dowd

Kyle McLaren – Roman Hamrlik
Tom Poti – Janne Niinimaa
Jason Smith – Philippe Boucher

Tommy Salo
Bill Ranford

Down the middle of the ice, Edmonton is utterly stacked. The duo of Jason Allison and Doug Weight are powerful enough, but in the original timeline, Scott Gomez would have a spectacular rookie season with 70 points. He will probably never reach those totals with the other two in front of him on the depth chart, but eventually, he will get his chance to shine. Steve Yzerman has developed into a primary winger; while he never developed into the two-way player that he would in Detroit, he would still be a top-quality NHL player at this point. J.P. Dumont comes in from the trade with Chicago that sees players like Boris Mironov and Dean McAdmmond join the Blackhawks, replacing Dan Cleary in the real-life trade. Finally, Markus Naslund has cemented his place as a first-liner at this point, but there is still room for him to develop into a true elite NHL player.

Defensively, Edmonton has a very solid blue-line group, led by former #1 Pick Roman Hamrlik. Next to him, Kyle McLaren is hard-nosed, and provides a feared presence in the defensive zone. The next duo of Tom Poti and Janne Niinimaa is young, but can already be effective on power plays. And the third unit of Jason Smith and Philippe Boucher can snuff out many an attack, leaving the players they play against with few scoring chances. In goal, Tommy Salo has come in for his first season as starter, having looked pretty good in his short time at the end of the 98-99 campaign. Behind him is former Edmonton starter Bill Ranford, who is coming in to be a mentor, as well as taking a few games of his own.


 

As posted at the top, Part II is coming next week, covering the new-look Red Wings, and the state of the NHL in this new timeline

As always, if you have any suggestions for future articles I could work on, please post and let me know.

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