Trade at 25: A look at the Oilers' post-Gretzky years

Shane McNeil, Staff

8/9/2013 3:16:07 PM

After a week of lead-up, the 25th anniversary of Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton exit is finally here.

But while it was the end of an era in Edmonton, it was not the end of a dynasty (a point that countless users have vehemently made over the past week).

The Oilers would get stunned by Gretzky's Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 1989 Stanley Cup playoffs and watch, stunned, as their provincial rivals the Calgary Flames lifted their one and only Stanley Cup to date.

One year later, however, the dynasty would get its extension.

After a regular season buoyed by a Hart Trophy performance from captain Mark Messier, the Oilers attended to unfinished business. After sweeping Gretzky and the Kings in the Smythe Division Final, the Oilers topped Chicago to take their sixth Clarence Campbell Bowl in eight years before dispatching the Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in the Final.

The next two seasons would see the Oilers in the Conference Final, but 1992-93 would see the official end of the Oilers dynasty, kicking off a four-year run of early tee-times.

So, what happened?

The Gretzky trade is seen as many as the first straw in the unraveling of the Oiler dynasty, but in truth the beginnings can be traced to Gretzky's final season in Edmonton when Hall-of-Fame blue liner Paul Coffey withstood a contract dispute with owner Peter Pocklington, eventually forcing the team to deal him to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Edmonton got a solid return on Coffey with Craig Simpson. The Oilers also got blue line depth in Moe Mantha and Chris Joseph as well as forward Dave Hannan, but it was Simpson that paid immediate dividends, scoring 43 goals in 59 games for the 1987-88 Oilers.

The next big move was Gretzky, of course.

While the idea of "fair value" in trading possibly the greatest player of all-time cannot really be assessed, the Oilers did get a lot for Gretzky.

Jimmy Carson - who still holds the NHL record for career goals before a player's 20th birthday - was coming off a 55-goal season and would score 49 in his lone full season as an Oiler. Even the return on Carson's request to be dealt bounced the Oilers' way with three crucial pieces to the 1990 Champions in Joe Murphy, Adam Graves and Petr Klima.

Martin Gelinas would play 20 NHL seasons and over 1,200 career games.

Adversity would hit the Oilers again in 1990-91 as Messier spent a large part of the season battling injuries and the dynasty was forced out. Jari Kurri found himself in a contract dispute with Pocklington and spent the entire season playing in Italy. The team performed well and made the Conference Final, but the writing for the glory days was on the wall.

The levees broke in the following offseason as Kurri, Messier, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr and Steve Smith were all dealt away between May and October and Graves would sign with the Rangers.

Once again, the Oilers - despite trading their core - received value.

Dealing Fuhr (who had lost his starter's job to Bill Ranford) and Anderson netted them Vincent Damphousse, a 23-year-old with five years of NHL experience and three 25-plus-goal seasons under his belt.

Kurri would net them Scott Mellanby, who would go on to a 22-year NHL career that would see him captain two different teams.

Smith netted them enforcer Dave Manson and a pick that the Oilers would use to select Kirk Maltby, while the return on Messier would include Bernie Nicholls. The 30-year-old was a way's off from his 150-point days, but had still put up over 25 goals and over 70 points the previous year.

Replacing a championship core that had been together for over a decade was a difficult ask for the Oilers, but the pieces they got in return - especially Carson, Simpson and Damphousse - seemed to be a good start on paper to keeping the team competitive.

The undoing of the Oilers, apart from trading away the championship core was a combination of a decline of bad luck and impatience.

Carson's early exit was not something the Oilers banked on and their handling of the three firsts was somewhat imprudent. They dealt the 1989 first prior to draft day, selected long-time NHLer Martin Rucinsky in 1991 but dealt him after just two games in an Oiler uniform and got just two games out of 1993 first-rounder Nick Stajduhar. Klima and Graves helped greatly in 1990, but they were both out of Edmonton within three years of their acquisition.

Simpson's output stayed productive after his record 1987-88 output, racking up between 29 and 35 goals in each of the next three years, but he would be slowed by injury shortly thereafter and would have his career cut short after a back injury as a member of the Buffalo Sabres.

Damphousse - like Carson - was a star in his debut Oilers season, scoring 38 goals in 1991-92. But like Carson, he would last just one year, getting dealt to the Montreal Canadiens for Shayne Corson the following summer and becoming a key piece in the Habs' 1993 Cup run.

Compounding this was the team's dry spell on the draft floor.

The Oilers did not draft, develop and - most importantly - keep a high-calibre player between 1983 (when they drafted Esa Tikkanen) and 1993 (when they drafted Jason Arnott). As for the core of the dynasty, they would get their last hurrah – just not in Edmonton.

The 1994 Cup Champion New York Rangers would boast seven players that had won Cups in Edmonton: Messier, Graves, Tikkanen, Anderson, Craig MacTavish, Kevin Lowe and Jeff Beukeboom.

The Oilers would rebuild and revive in the mid-to-late 1990s with the likes of Doug Weight and Bill Guerin and later with Ales Hemsky and Anson Carter, but it was clear that the dynasty days were a thing of the past.