There's a saying in Canada 'You don't quit the Oilers, You get quit by the Oilers'. The words have played out time and time again throughout the history of this team. But recently, that saying has been played out less and less; and more and more, we see the return of glory days.
The Oilers were founded by a former player, William “Wild Bill” Hunter. Since his dream of bringing professional hockey to the forgotten western cities of Canada was rebuffed by the NHL, Hunter allied with the rebel organization, WHA (World Hockey Association), and founded Edmonton Oilers in 1971. Although the Oilers’ early performances were nothing noteworthy, their fortunes were about to take a turn. They chanced upon an underage player from the recently shut-down Indianapolis Racers, Wayne Gretzky (aka The Great One). Gretzky showed his promise as a rookie in the 1978-79 season, helping his team to secure the top position in the WHA standings. You can read a more detailed account of it here.
On the Cusp of Glory
After the WHA wrapped up in 1979, Edmonton Oilers became one of the four teams inducted into the NHL. Even though Gretzky was setting the personal records ablaze, the team failed to make their mark. The Oilers slowly assembled a talented squad built around Gretzky. They acquired the services of Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, and Jari Kurri, among others. This marked a swing in their fortunes as they finished second in the 1981-82 season. Gretzky was the star of this team as he became the first player in NHL history to score over 200 points. Riding on Gretzky's accolades, the Oilers became the first team to score 400 goals in a season, a feat they had achieved for five straight years.
A Moment in the Sun
The Oilers found their big break In the 1983–84 season, finishing first overall in the NHL and winning a franchise record of 57 games. They also became the first team with three players with 50+ goals (Gretzky, Kurri, and Anderson). The team scored a whopping total of 446 goals, an NHL record. The Edmonton Oilers defeated the New York Islanders to become the first former WHA team to win the Stanley Cup. This was just the beginning of their era.
The following season they finished second in the NHL, once again propelled by the likes of Gretzky and Kurri. In the same season, Gretzky also became the youngest player in NHL history to score one thousand points. The Oilers secured a consecutive Stanley Cup victory after defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in the finals. This team (Oilers, 1984–85) was conferred the honor of being the most incredible NHL team of all time during the league's centennial celebrations in 2017. The high-flying trio of Gretzky, Kurri and Anderson ensured that the Oilers also won two successive Stanley Cups, taking their consecutive championship win record to four and sending the sports betting in Alberta into a frenetic meltdown.
Decline in Fortunes
Despite efforts of renewal, Gretzky chose to be a free agent after the end of the 1988-89 season. Such was the admiration for Gretzky that the fallout was immense. Several of the Oilers considered a team-wide strike to pressure the owner into selling the club. Nelson Riis, the New Democratic Party leader in Canada's House of Commons, even sought government intervention. Mark Messier was chosen to lead the team after the departure of Gretzky, and he guided the team to a third-place finish in the league. Ironically, the Oilers were knocked out of the Stanley Cup by Wayne Gretzky’s new team, the Los Angeles Kings.
The Oilers lifted the Stanley Cup once again in the 1989-90 season before plummeting nose-first into a bottomless abyss. After the 1990 season, the Oilers saw many star players trading to other teams. Middling performances and the flux of coaches proved to be further detrimental to their ambitions. These departures raised some serious questions about the Oilers' development system. They had done poorly in scouting and drafting young players during their glory years. They also faced several off-rink issues, with talks of the team switching owners. This turbulence ensured that the Oilers fluttered in mediocrity for a good part of two decades.
The Oilers moved to Rogers Place in 2016, leaving their previous home stadium since 1974, Rexall Place. The following season was a successful one for the team as they qualified for the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs after an 11-year hiatus. It was mainly due to the efforts of their captain, Connor McDavid’s 100-point season. Their netminder Cam Talbot also had a stellar campaign, setting a new franchise record with 42 games won. Unfortunately, this season was an exception rather than a new trend.
More recently, the Oilers have been making more frequent appearances in the playoffs due to the impressive performances of McDavid and their new breakout star, Leon Draisaitl.
The Oilers have had glory days, and their fans are optimistic about their rising stars. However, it's hard to tell how fast the team will improve in the following years. Oilers are kind of a puzzle to be completed. But if they can stay healthy, they should be considered a contender by many.
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