Paul Coffey works his magic.
With the Oilers Top 25 Under 25 mostly behind us, I thought it might fun to take a look at how good that first Stanley Cup winner was when it comes to young talent. I'm not saying this group is as good as that one, but... well... but nothing. This group really isn't even close to being as good as that one. After the jump, we'll see just how good they were, and look to the bottom of the list to remind ourselves that even a dynasty will struggle to have a winner in every spot.
Before we begin, let me just say that I'll be trying to rank these players based on what I might have expected if I was looking at them on May 20, 1984, the day after the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup. That means we're not trying to judge these guys based on their whole careers, and the rankings here will reflect that.
#1 - F Wayne Gretzky - Wayne Grekzky was already pretty good. At this time, Gretkzy had won the Hart Trophy for five consecutive seasons, won the Art Ross Trophy for four consecutive seasons, and been named a first-team all-star for four consecutive seasons. He'd already established several of his most famous records (goals in a season, 50 in 39, the point streak), and in just five NHL seasons, had scored 1,023 points in the regular season and playoffs, which works out to 2.30 points per game (not-so-fun fact: the 2010-11 Oilers scored 2.33 goals per game). Gretkzy was already clearly the best player in the game, and no doubt already on most top five lists for best player of all time.
#2 - D Paul Coffey - In 1983-84, Paul Coffey had one of the best offensive seasons in history. At the time, his 126 regular season points was good enough for third-best all-time (behind Bobby Orr x 2), and his +52 rating was second only to Gretzky on the Oilers and edged out Raymond Bourque for the league lead among defenders. At the time, it seemed like the Oilers might just have two generational talents playing two different positions, though in the fullness of time, Coffey's talents revealed themselves to be more unique than generational. There's no way he'd finish second if we're looking at full careers, but in 1984, I think it would be tough to argue otherwise.
#3 - F Mark Messier - Messier had been a force in the NHL for several years, topping fifty goals in 1981-82 and one hundred points in both 1982-83 and 1983-84, but his performance in the 1984 playoffs really stands out. Despite finishing third in team scoring during that playoff run, Messier won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP largely because of his great performance in the final series against the Islanders. Dominant at either left wing or center, Messier had already established himself as one of the most important players in the Oilers' organization.
#4 F Glenn Anderson - I have him ahead of Kurri, and although Kurri went on to have the better career, I think that having Anderson above him is quite reasonable. Both players came into the league in the 1980-81 season, and over the next four seasons, both of them would be in the top fifteen in the NHL in goal-scoring. But I was surprised to see that Anderson was actually a little bit higher on that list (9th with 170 compared to 12th with 163) despite not getting close to as much time alongside The Great One.
#5 - F Jari Kurri - A notch below Anderson on this list, that's not to say that Kurri wasn't setting the world on fire. He had set new highs for both goals (52) and points (113) in 1983-84 (though they would both be eclipsed the following year), despite playing in a career-low 64 regular season games. He added another 28 points in 19 playoff games, and helped to prove to everyone that Finns were tough enough for the NHL, tough enough for the playoffs, and even tough enough to take out that New York Islanders' dynasty.
#6 - D Charlie Huddy - Huddy signed with the Oilers as a free agent in 1979, but really burst onto the scene in 1982-83, his first full season. That year, he led the entire NHL with a +/- of +62. As someone who doesn't remember much of the dynasty days (I was born in 1983), Huddy is the guy I think I'd like to have liked. His reputation focuses mostly on his defensive talents, but Huddy also chipped in a lot of offense, 57 points in 1982-83 and another 42 in 1983-84. He was a rock on defense, and wound up being one of the few Oilers to stick around for all five Stanley Cups.
#7 - G Grant Fuhr - There are those out there who think Grant Fuhr is a terribly overrated goaltender. Those folks might be right looking at his whole career, but in the 1984 playoffs, Fuhr was remarkable even if we restrict ourselves just to the stats. A .910 playoff save percentage might not look all that impressive, but in 1984, the league leader in the regular season (min. 40 GP), Billy Smith, had an .896. Granted, save percentages generally improve in the playoffs, and we are talking about a small sample, but that kind of performance from a 21 year-old netminder simply can't be ignored. His regular season save percentage of .883 again doesn't look great, but context is again very important: the league as a whole stood at .873.
#8 - G Andy Moog - Moog and Fuhr split duties in that 1983-84 season, and as it is in most things, Fuhr just edged him out on this list. Their performance in the regular season is nearly identical with Moog putting up an .882 save percentage in 1983-84, but he didn't do as well in (an even smaller) playoffs (sample), and he was also a couple of years older. Two great young goalies is a wonderful thing, which is why I have Moog this high, but I think it's safe to say that, even at that time, Fuhr was a step ahead.
#9 - F Raimo Summanen - The Oilers drafted Summanen out of Finland in the sixth round of the 1982 draft after the Finnish forward had passed through the draft unpicked in both 1980 and 1981. The young forward rewarded them immediately with two wonderful seasons in the SM-Liiga, including a top ten finish in the scoring race in 1983-84. That was followed by a brief trip to Edmonton during the 1983-84 season that saw him score five points in just two regular season games, and another five points in five playoff games. At that point, the twenty-two year-old forward certainly seemed like he was going to be a big part of the future.
#10 - D Jeff Beukeboom - Beukeboom was the Oilers first-round pick in 1983. I'm not sure how many first-round selections from the CHL scored zero goals in their draft year (especially in the 80s!), but Beukeboom makes one. In other words, the club didn't take him for offense; no, they probably took him becuase a 6'5'' stay-at-home defender that likes to punish opponents is a valuable commodity, and even if he didn't score any goals, his 25 assists suggest that his hands were at least passable. He followed that up with more points and more penalty minutes in 1983-84, so it sure looks like Beukeboom was on track.
#11 - D Jim Playfair - The tough stay-at-home defender was Edmonton's first pick in the 1982 entry draft, 20th overall. In the 1982-83 season, Playfair scored 35 points and registered 218 penalty minutes in 63 WHL games as he helped the Portland Winterhawks win the Memorial Cup. 1983-84 was a more difficult year as Playfair was traded by Portland to a poor Calgary Wranglers club that was quickly bounced from the WHL playoffs. Still, Playfair made his debut with the Oilers that season, and it looks like he was pretty well on track as a prospect.
#12 - F Marc Habscheid - Although The Hockey News had Habscheid ranked as the 14th best player from the WHL in the 1981 draft, he was around for the Oilers in the sixth round, 113th overall. But the man certainly had some offense. His draft year was solid with 97 points in 72 games, but the next season was absolutely ridiculous: Habscheid scored 151 points in just 55 regular season games with the Saskatoon Blades... which wasn't even good enough to lead his team in scoring! Well, that's not really fair. In actual fact, Habscheid led both his team and the WHL in points per game, and had enough size that you'd feel comfortable projecting him into a role in the NHL, especially after he made his NHL debut that season and scored four points in his first seven games. He spent much of 1982-83 with the Oilers, but scored quite a bit less, and in 1983-84 was playing mostly with Edmonton's AHL affiliate, the Moncton Alpines. In 71 games there he scored just 56 points, so some of the shine was definitely coming off, but at just twenty years old, there was plenty of time for Habscheid to mold himself into a useful NHL player.
#13 - F Kevin McClelland - The Oilers acquired McClelland from the Pittsburgh Penguins in December of 1983 in exchange for Tom Roulston. Roulston floundered with Pittsburgh - he was -33 in 58 games with the Penguins after being +29 in his last 91 games with the Oilers - but McClelland immediately stepped into a depth role with the Oilers and had success. In the 1984 playoff run, McClelland scored 10 points in 18 games and had a +13 rating, both of which were good enough to place among the team's top nine forwards. Considering the amount of talent already in front of him on this list, McClelland came in ready to fill exactly the role the Oilers needed.
#14 - F Todd Strueby - Strueby was actually a teammate of Habscheid's in Saskatoon, and the Oilers picked him up with their second-round pick in the 1981 draft, 84 slots ahead of Habscheid. Strueby didn't develop offensively quite as much as his teammate, but at 6'2'', he had good size, and good enough hands to pot 218 points in 126 WHL games in the two seasons after being drafted. In 1983-1984, he hit a bit of a wall in the AHL posting 42 points in 72 games in his professional debut, but that was still good enough for sixth on the team in scoring, and considering the men ahead of him on the depth chart in Edmonton, it's pretty clear he was going to be making the team in third or fourth line role if he was going to make it at all.
#15 - F Esa Tikkanen - The Oilers took Tikkanen in the fourth round of the 1983 entry draft, and the man with his own language spent the 1983-84 season in Finland where he scored 19 goals and 11 assists in 30 SM-Liiga games. I almost feel like I'm cheating by having him this high, but with the Oilers' seeming success with Kurri and Summanen, I think it's fair to say that the young players getting plucked from Finland were looking pretty good!
#16 - F Ray Cote - Cote was brought in as an undrafted free agent, and had put up some good offense with the Alpines for two straight seasons. In 1982-83 he was the team's leading scorer with 91 points in 80 games, 14 points clear of Paul Messier in second place. In 1983-84 he led the team in scoring again, this time with just 62 points in 66 games. That same year, he got into thirteen games with the Oilers, but he didn't score any points and ended the season with a team-worst -5 rating. At just 22 years old, it seemed at the time like this player might still have a future with the Oilers, but it just wasn't to be.
#17 - F Steve Graves - The Oilers' second-round pick in 1982 played two games with the Oilers in the 1983-84 season, but spend most of the season with Terry Crisp's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He finished fourth in team scoring with 89 points in 67 games, but was named to the OHL's third all-star team, and helped the Greyhounds advance to the OHL semifinals. Seems like a pretty good prospect, but as we've seen and will see, big junior totals don't always mean much. Unfortunately for the Oilers, the big junior totals didn't mean much here.
#18 - F Gord Sherven - The Oilers drafted Sherven in the tenth round of the 1981 draft, but he spent the next few season at the University of North Dakota where he was a consistent scorer. After signing with the Oilers in 1984, he appeared in two regular season games, but didn't get into any playoff games. With that backdrop, it's hard to get much of a read on where Sherven was on the organizational depth chart, but the fact that the club signed him and brought him in was at least somewhat promising.
#19 - D Steve Smith - I just can't see how I'd rank this guy any higher. Smith was taken in the sixth round of the 1981 draft, and developed very well through 1981-82 and 1982-83 adding substantial offense to an already very surly game. at 6'3'' it was clear that Smith had the physical tools for the NHL game, but it wasn't yet clear that he had the requisite skill. He spent all of 1983-84 with the Alpines and scored just nine points in sixty-four games, and when it was time for the Oilers to give a few games to some younger players, it was Jim Playfair and John Blum - who was traded later that season - who got the call. Smith would spend almost all of 1984-85 in the minors too before going on to establish himself in 1985-86, at which point he'd make a rookie mistake for the ages.
#20 - D Dwayne Boettger - Boettger was selected 104th overall in 1982, and made what looks to be a pretty successful professional debut with Moncton in 1984. He didn't have much offense, but he did play in 75 games, so you know he was a regular, which is a nice accomplishment for a twenty year-old. He didn't have quite as many points or penalty minutes as Smith did in junior, and he didn't have Smith's size either, which is why I have him a notch below, but at this stage, the obvious separation that would emerge is still just a small cleft.
#21 - D John Miner - The Oilers drafted Miner late in the 1983 entry draft, and the diminutive defenseman had a very strong season in 1983-84, scoring 69 points in 70 games with the Regina Pats. When the team's top offensive defenseman, Jason Meyer, was injured in the playoffs, Miner stepped up his game scoring 34 points in 23 playoff games. The Pats lost four games to three in the WHL finals that season, but Miner was impressive. At just 5'10'', he wasn't particularly big for a defenseman, even by 1984 standards, so that was working against him, but he certainly seemed to have a chance at eventual NHL employment.
#22 - F Dale Derkatch - Derkatch was Milner's teammate on the Pats and was also selected by the Oilers with a depth selection in the 1983 entry draft. At just 5'5'', Derkatch definitely didn't have NHL size, but his offense was too impressive to plain old overlook. In his draft year, Derkatch scored 179 points in 67 games to lead both Regina and the entire WHL in scoring, 85 points clear of his closest teammate, Taylor Hall (no kidding). In that light, his 1983-84 season might be considered a disappointment since he "only" scored 159 points, and "only" outscored Hall by 17. Still, his playoff run saw him score 53 points in 23 games. How can he not be a prospect of interest?
#23 - F Paul Houck - Houck was drafted 71st overall in 1981 and went from the BCJHL to the NCAA to play for Wisconsin. In his second year with the Golden Gophers (bazinga), Houck led the team in scoring with 71 points in 47 games, but he followed that with just 40 points in 37 games in 1983-84, which was only good enough for fourth on the team.
#24 - D Mike Flanagan - The Oilers took Flanagan in the third round of the 1983 entry draft and he spent the 1983-84 season with Providence in the NCAA where he scored one point in 19 games. He was also 6'5'', so this is a pick sort of similar to Beukeboom, except without the little bit of offense and draft pedigree. Basically, he was just really, really big.
#25 - F Mike Golden - "Not So" Golden was taken in the second round of the 1983 entry draft, and since these drafts are so long ago, I've generally been using draft pedigree as a guide, but there's just too much here. He was a dominant high school player in his draft year who went to play at the University of New Hampshire in 1983-84, but left the program after seven games to go play Junior "B" in Ontario. He then transferred to the University of Maine at the end of the year, but that meant he'd need to sit out all of 1984-85 because of NCAA rules. So yeah. If a guy is heading into a whole year on the shelf by his own choice, he's going to get bumped down a couple notches.