From our recent special issue, we look at No. 2 on our list of the best teams in NHL history.
With the names Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr and Paul Coffey headlining the roster, you have to wonder how the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers lost a game at all.
But at that time in history, the Oilers were still the new kids on the block. Four years into its NHL sojourn, Edmonton had won two Smythe Division titles and reached the Stanley Cup final once. The Oilers were built on offense and speed, setting the record for goals in 1982 with 417 and again in 1983 with 424, becoming the first NHL franchise to eclipse the 400-goal plateau.
Not only was the Oilers franchise young, but the players on the ’83-84 roster were still in their early-to-mid-20s.
“Early on – ’80, ’81, ’82, ’83 – there was a little bit of naivety,” said goalie Andy Moog, who played 45 regular season and playoff games that campaign. “We were all very young and inexperienced. That burned off as we moved through to our first Cup final and lost to the Islanders the first time.
“Collectively we had our eyes opened about what commitment was and the Islanders demonstrated that to us in beating us the year before.”
The young Oilers had been manhandled in the 1983 Cup final by the dynastic and more experienced New York Islanders. The question was already being asked: If 22-year-old phenom Gretzky – already a four-time Hart Trophy winner – never won a Stanley Cup, would his phenomenal individual career still rank among the all-time best?
In addition to the headliners, many of the supporting cast had outstanding years. Defensemen Charlie Huddy and Kevin Lowe eclipsed the 40-point mark and provided Coffey with backup. Up front, relative veteran Pat Hughes had the last – and best – productive season of his career with 27 goals and 55 points, while Dave Hunter scored more than 20 goals for the only time. Ken Linseman, acquired from Hartford a year before, regressed in production, but proved his worth by finishing third on the team in the playoffs with 10 goals.
The young Oilers, now ravenous for a Stanley Cup, got off to a terrific start, winning their first seven games and 19 of their first 23. The first blip occurred in late November and early December, when they lost four of seven. Hardly a skid, but it was something to improve on.
During their next 20 games, the Oilers lost only one, pulling well away from anyone in their division and showing nothing was going to slow a juggernaut that considered anything less than a championship a failure.
Edmonton did have its fair share of challenges, however. The team faced injury concerns when Kurri and Messier went down. And even though the unheralded Hughes stepped up in response with five goals in a 10-5 win over the division rival Calgary Flames in early February, that didn’t stop the Oilers from having to deal with their first losing streak of the season, a five-gamer, culminating in an 11-0 loss to Hartford, Edmonton’s first shutout defeat since March of 1981.
After that dreadful streak, the Oilers began piling up wins again, dropping only four of their final 22 games. Edmonton set franchise records for wins (59), points (119) and an NHL goals record for the third straight season at 446, averaging more than five per game, establishing a mark that still stands. The high-water marks meant little to Edmonton, however.
“We were just obsessed with one thing, there was one goal, one destination,” Moog said. “We lived in the moment as far as the season was concerned, but nobody doubted for a moment what our objective was.”
The Oilers began their Cup run by plowing through the Jets in three games, outscoring their opening-round opponents 18-7.
In the division final, Edmonton faced another strong team from the Smythe, the Calgary Flames. The year prior, Edmonton knocked out the Flames in five games in what was the first time the two Alberta teams had faced off in playoff action.
“Calgary – that was a defining moment for us,” Moog said. “Very physical. It really initiated and began the Battle of Alberta.”
After splitting at home, Edmonton headed south to Calgary. In taking both games, by scores of 3-2 and 5-3, Edmonton didn’t blow away the competition as they were accustomed to, but by taking a 3-1 series advantage and heading home, it was hard to imagine Calgary getting back into it.
However, after back-to-back one-goal wins, the Flames forced Game 7 in Edmonton for the right to move on to the Campbell Conference final against the North Stars. Playing to their strengths and showcasing their maturity, Edmonton showed up in a big way, dumping the Flames 7-4.
With their provincial rivals behind them, Edmonton rolled over Minnesota in four games. The North Stars never stood a chance as Edmonton opened the series with a seven-goal game and outscored Minnesota 22-10 in the four-game sweep.
And with that, the Oilers entered a Stanley Cup final rematch against the one team on which they wanted to exact revenge and steal the coveted chalice from: the juggernaut New York Islanders.
One year after being swept by them, the Oilers were a different, more mature team.
“They really learned a lot from the Islanders when they lost in ’82-83,” said Rod Phillips, the original play-by-play man for the Oilers. “They realized when that series was over that they probably hadn’t worked as hard as they needed to work. They had to learn how to play better defensively. They had to sacrifice more.
“The Islanders were very much responsible in making the Oilers a better team because they kind of showed them the way. I know, talking to a lot of players as time went on, they said they looked over at the Islanders after the last game when they got swept and the Oilers players said to themselves, ‘We looked at those guys and they’re all battered and bleeding and they’re dead tired.’ That was the one lesson they learned prior to winning the Stanley Cup.”
The Oilers opened with a defensively sound effort in a 1-0 win in New York before dropping Game 2 by a 6-1 count. They headed home for the next three games with an outside chance to win their first Cup on home ice. With surprising back-to-back blowout wins in Games 3 and 4 – both by 7-2 counts – it was clear this Edmonton team was better prepared mentally to face the veteran Isles, who had won four Cups in a row.
“We learned a lot about ourselves the year before and a little bit about strategy and tactics the year before,” Moog said. “I think it was (assistant coach) John Muckler who gave us a little insight in how to beat the Islanders up the ice and this was the early stages of trapping and backchecking and defensive-zone coverages. They had one subtle little change to our breakouts. Generally it was just the defense up the ice with speed and make a pass, but they made a subtle change to make an outlet pass early and played a give-and-go game and sort of broke the defensive scheme of the Islanders.
“We felt like we had an edge. We had all the experience, we had the youth and then we had an edge tactically: we knew how to beat them up the ice. There were a lot of rush goals scored by the Oilers in that series.”
With one win to go before reaching their goal, Gretzky, the young Oilers captain, spoke to his teammates and explained how much this last win would mean and inspired his team to push through the finish line.
“Wayne stood up in the dressing room before the (final) game and said all the individual awards he’s won could never compare to winning the Stanley Cup,” Messier said at the time. “That got everyone going and made us all realize how much it means to win the Stanley Cup.”
In their last possible home game of the season, Edmonton was crowned as champions and slayers of the Islanders dynasty by winning the decisive game 5-2. Their offense-first mentality was a new way of attacking the game and many thought this was just the start of something big – perhaps a new dynasty was emerging and a new style along with it.
“I hope we influence the game further within the next five years,” Gretzky said in 1984. “First of all, we put people in buildings. People enjoy the way we play. We are a skating team. People come to watch us play and then go away from the rink feeling excited. I feel we can’t do anything but help hockey and I’m very excited about that.”
With eight goals and 26 points in 19 playoff games, Messier received his first and only Conn Smythe Trophy. Gretzky scored 87 goals and reached the 200-point plateau for the second time in his career (205), winning his fifth straight Hart Trophy, fourth straight Art Ross Trophy and third straight Ted Lindsay Award.
The 1983-84 Oilers have stood the test of time as one of hockey’s best. Their championship started a run of five Cups in seven years and legitimately launched Gretzky into the debate surrounding the all-time best player. But at the time, it was hard for the Oilers to comprehend and put into context just how good they were and where their place in history was.
“That run of two or three years in that program was exceptional,” Moog said. “Looking back now, we probably took ourselves a little bit for granted. It was just an exceptional group.”
This is an excerpt from THN’s special issue, Greatest Teams of All-Time.