On paper, making the NHL playoffs is pretty easy. Eight teams from each fifteen-team conference get in, so theoretically "a shade below average" is all it takes for a Montreal-esque shot at glory.
The hockey gods, however, are vain and capricious. They have no respect for the theories of mortal men. And so once in a while the truly undeserving will sneak in, while the gallant and worthy will be left on the golf courses, and in hockey Valhalla the fates chortle their amusement and toast their wickedness.
But history does not forget the valour of a good team felled before its time. The Edmonton Oilers have missed the playoffs twelve times combined in the World Hockey Association and National Hockey League, and while most of those teams deserved exactly what they got a few stand out for the right reasons. Because, in spite of their ultimate failure, there were some redeeming features in that lineup which made them worthy of memory and rendered a wasted season at least somewhat worthwhile. Sometimes it was a little success, others it was a terrific team coming up just short. It might have been individual players with promise for the future or a whole team that had earned better than they got.
So, while the hockey world is engrossed by the upcoming Stanley Cup finals and thrill at the success of the Flyers and Blackhawks, let's take a ride in the Wayback Machine and remember the five best Edmonton Oiler teams to miss the playoffs.
|Ryan Smyth, 31
|Ryan Smyth and
Petr Sykora, 53
|Dwayne Roloson, .909 S%
Best known for their late collapse, the 2006-07 Oilers were actually a decent lot most of the time. Dwayne Roloson was borderline unbelievable, of course, but he got some help from a relatively useful cadre of forwards, more adept at defense than offense but still capable of out-scoring once in a while. Marc Pouliot was (almost) healthy, the returning Marty Reasoner was (almost) effective as well as oddly attractive, and Ryan Smyth was pretty good for a while there. On the blueline, Jan Hejda authoritatively answered the question "who in the hell is Jan Hejda?", Daniel Tjarnqvist was effective when healthy, and Jason Smith played with such hardness and such an off-hand malice you'd think the other 29 teams had each kidnapped a family member.
But this team was 32-43-7, so of course it was no holy terror. There was far too much of Bryan Young, Danny Syvret, and Sebastien Bisaillion for anyone's liking thanks to an injury crisis torn from the pages of a turgid war novel. Ravaged by concussions, Jarret Stoll managed fifty-one games despite technically being unconscious. Jean-Francois Jacques played thirty-seven games and somehow managed to get no points at all - he was terrible, of course, one of the worst players the Oilers had ever seen, but all the same I have no idea how he managed that one. The infamous Traktor Boy Alexei Mikhnov was a dreadful disappointment in his first North American season, while Joffrey Lupul was even worse than a dreadful disappointment. And Steve Staios was terrible. But this was probably still our fifth-best failed season, which should give you an idea how bad the seven were that missed the cut.
|Dustin Penner, 23
|Ales Hemsky, 71
Mathieu Garon, .913 S%
Dwayne Roloson, .901 S%
This season was a bit like 2006-07's younger, hipper brother. Sure, he's still a bit of a slacker and you can't rely on him to achieve anything meaningful with his life, but he's fun to hang out with and every so often he'll surprise you with something really cool. After the Ryan Smyth Death March, a lot of us expected Edmonton to somehow finish thirty-first out of thirty teams, so imagine the delight when the team made a late run, finished .500, and nearly squeaked into the playoffs. Oh, it was mostly smoke and mirrors with that -16 goal differential, but there were still some good performances in there.
Some guys came out of nowhere, like Mathieu Garon picking up for a faltering Dwayne Roloson and making his NHL reputation. Tom Gilbert blew everybody away with his poise and puck control, while Robert Nilsson had his best season to date with pure skill, some hustle, and surprising effectiveness. Joni Pitkanen was pure pleasure to watch during his stay in the west, if not always our most effective defenseman, and of course the debut of the legendary Horpensky line, which Craig MacTavish and Pat Quinn would spend three years stubbornly trying not to play together before always realizing how stupid that would be. The two rookie forwards, Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano, were the big stories, and they managed to do a little with their ice time and convince us that they'd both be NHL All-Stars within a couple of years for sure. Even more importantly, the Oilers drafted Jordan Eberle, the evolutionary Mike Bossy and captain of clutch.
It wasn't all roses, of course. The overturning of the Sheldon Souray bandwagon in the first year of his big-money contract killed thousands of Oilers fans in the resulting conflagration of pessimism. The depth was worse than bad, with Marty Reasoner no longer particularly effective and everyone else lacking that outscoring touch. Jarret Stoll actually dipped from his previous season and Shawn Horcoff, when not with Hemsky or Penner, began to look a little run-down from being torn apart by top opposition every shift while playing with scrubs. Steve Staios was still terrible.
|Zdeno Ciger, 31
|Doug Weight, 104
|Bill Ranford, .875 S%
Curtis Joseph, .886 S%
1995-96 was, of course, the Year of the Cujo. After a manner of speaking. Curtis Joseph was rescued from exile in St. Louis by Glen Sather and the Oilers (oh, how different those days were) and promptly played... pretty badly. But the stage was set for Joseph's heroics in 1997 and 1998 and his starring role in saving this franchise from the mediocre attendance and possible relocation that had plagued the mid-1990s.
The real on-ice story was Doug Weight, who had probably the finest season of his very fine career at age 24. He broke the 100-point barrier for the only time in his career and was such a ridiculously good playmaker that he squeezed thirty-one goals out of Zdeno Ciger (career NHL goals after that season: twelve). Todd Marchant began to come into his own, inspiring a young Andrew Cogliano to never take a shooting drill again. And yes, Steve Staios was terrible. But that was okay, because he was also a Boston Bruin.
On a team with that sort of record, of course, the negatives will be pretty significant. The defense was awful in every sense of the word: Sebastien Bisaillon would have been an upgrade and he was only seven years old. It was also awful in the sense that Bryan Marchment played almost the entire season on it a couple years before one of his most celebrated beat-downs at the hands of an aggrieved Doug Weight. Jason Arnott was third in team scoring but began a multi-season sulk that would result in his being traded to the New Jersey Devils and winning a Stanley Cup because the hockey gods suck cock. And the lineup was packed to the gills with legendary wastes of skin: David Oliver, Jeff Norton, Jiri Slegr, Luke Richardson, Kent Manderville... the list goes on. If you were an awful player in 1995-96 who got by with guts and hustle rather than actual hockey-playing ability and the Oilers didn't at least call, you should probably have taken it personally. The back half of the Oilers lineup all season looked like the missing persons board at the post office.
|Mike Comrie, 33
|Mike Comrie and
Anson Carter, 60
|Tommy Salo, .913 S%
The 2001-02 Edmonton Oilers finished with a goal differential of +23, which sounds like I'm making it up but is absolutely true. That pretty much sums up this team, which finished out of the playoffs but was far, far better than any of us give it credit for in hindsight.
Mike Comrie and Anson Carter went together like peanut butter and jam; each had the best year of either of their careers and with Comrie only twenty years old and Carter only twenty-seven the sky is clearly the limit. Janne Niinimaa is in that three-season chunk where he was really, surprisingly excellent in spite of the usual Niinimaa-esque brain cramps. Georges Laraque was in his "actually fightin' guys" prime, and fans of correlation v. causation will be pleased to note that the Oilers suffered fewer serious injuries than at any other time in the last decade, with only famed glass jaws Ryan Smyth and Josh Green missing significant time in the core lineup. Tommy Salo had his last good season, Salt Lake City and all, before his soul was shattered starting in 2002-03. Jason Smith was a positive tyrant on the blue line and, best of all, Steve Staios was really good!
But this team wasn't perfect. The oddest failure was in trading whipping boy and half-assed defenseman Tom Poti and complete non-entity prospect Dwight Helminen for top-twenty NHL scorer Mike York, a trade that the Oilers somehow lost the hell out of. There were fifty games of Scott Ferguson and fourteen of Sven Butenschon, a total of sixty-four games more than the general recommended allowance in a season. Eric Brewer is probably the worst non-German defenseman in the lineup but bizarrely gets tapped for the Olympic team and gets ground into the ice playing massive minutes despite being something of a liability at even strength and absolutely no good on the power play. Secondary scoring, led by 40 points from Jochen Hecht, is effectively a non-entity. Indeed, scoring as a whole is a struggle as the Oilers score only 2.5 goals per game, a team record. Fans die of boredom, which is good because in 2002-03 the defensive magic wears off and the team goes into the tank (while making the playoffs anyway).
But it's okay, because that undeserved finish gave us a nice first-round draft pick, which we used to grab Jesse Niinimaki.
|Jim Harrison, 39
|Jim Harrison, 86
|Jack Norris, .903 S%
The [Alberta] Oilers' first season was also their best. Well, their best season to miss the playoffs, anyway. It'll be a hard record for the NHL teams to break, too.
Taking part in the World Hockey Association's uneven inaugural campaign, the Oilers finished a game above .500 while scoring thirteen more than they conceded, a strong but slightly unlucky mark. Al Hamilton, fresh out of NHL obscurity, established himself as one of the best defensemen in the young Association and would continue to star until the merger. 22-year-old Rusty Patenaude, another long-time WHA standout, scored 29 goals. Val Fonteyne, one of the best penalty killers of his era and maybe the least-penalized forward of all time, also comes out of the NHL and chips in with sterling defensive play. Written-off veterans like Bill Hicke and Jack Norris make sterling contributions when given their major league chance.
The greatest story, and the team's greatest player, was leading scorer Jim Harrison. Harrison is the Oilers' best player by a wide margin in 1972-73, with a twenty-five-point gulf separating him and the Oilers' next-best scorer, Hamilton. Brought out of the Toronto Maple Leafs after debuting with the Boston Bruins, the 25-year-old Harrison had been predominantly used as a pest and defensive bit player in the NHL despite having all the skill in the world. When turned loose on the World Hockey Association he ran riot, posting one of its best points-per-game numbers and becoming the first major league hockey player to record a ten-point game on January 30, 1973 against the New York Raiders. The record would not be tied until Darryl Sittler got ten points against Boston in 1976 and has never been broken.
But World Hockey Association rosters were, by and by large, a large collection of decent players, which meant they had excellent scoring depth. Edmonton's scoring depth was actually quite poor, and too much of the offense went through Hamilton as a playmaker and Harrison as an everything-man setting up a few good players like Patenaude and a collection of mediocre-at-best would-be snipers such as Ross Perkins, Ron Walters, and the long-past-his-best-before-date Eddie Joyal. Team owner Bill Hunter was still labouring under the illusion that he could coach major league hockey, probably costing the Oilers a few games. And of the team's few stars too many are on the wrong end of Father Time, with only Patenaude under 25 years old at the beginning of the season. On the other end, Bill Hicke was 34 and Val Fonteyne was 38, a bad thing in an era before modern training camps and nutrition when older players in particular were prone to breaking down at the end of a year.
The team came as close to making the playoffs as you can without actually doing it, finishing tied with the Minnesota Fighting Saints on identical 38-37-3 records. The Fighting Saints had a -19 goal differential and the Oilers were +13, theoretically putting the ball into Alberta's court. But in a "neutral site" single-game qualifier (really, it was in Calgary), the Fighting Saints beat the Oilers 4-2 to qualify for the playoffs where they were promptly demolished by the Winnipeg Jets four games to one.
Perhaps Jim Harrison wound up being the team's greatest tragedy. Harrison was twenty-six years old at the end of the season but missed sixteen games with a series of joint and back problems. The back injury persisted throughout his career, exacerbated when he returned to the NHL and suffered an injury so serious with the Chicago Blackhawks that doctors told him not to play again. But Bob Pulford dissented, telling him to play through the pain or risk suspension.
So he played, because that's what you did back then. Playing through the pain and giving his team games now simply meant there'd be fewer games in his future. Teams demoralized by his injuries let him go and teams enchanted by his skill took him on and the process repeated itself until there was nothing left of Jim Harrison's hockey-playing powers but the immortal memory.
Sorry to end on a down note, but, then, this was an article about the Oilers missing the playoffs. It was always going to be at least a little depressing.