Say this for the 1998-99 Oilers: They have strength in numbers.
Where once there was merely miserly Peter Pocklington letting
his crop's cream slip away, now there are nearly three dozen
owners overseeing the player exodus from Edmonton. Where once
there was Curtis Joseph, a prized goaltender lost to free
agency, now there are journeymen Bob Essensa and Mikhail
Shtalenkov, a tandem that couldn't stop what Joseph can if they
played in net at the same time. Where once there was gifted,
upbeat center Doug Weight to talk up the team's chances during
training camp, now there are as many as five first-line wannabes
vying for the team's No. 1 center position. At week's end Weight
was an unsigned restricted free agent.
Weight is the only NHL player to lead the same team in scoring
for each of the last five seasons. These days Edmonton waits for
Weight, mainly because the team has multiple slumping forwards.
Ryan Smyth fell from 39 goals in '96-97 to 20 last season,
Andrei Kovalenko from 32 to six, Mike Grier from 15 to nine. At
least Kovalenko, who may have led the league in shots on glass,
said he had brought "a new brain" with him to camp.
The bright spot is a surplus of slick defensemen. Edmonton was
the only team with three backliners (Roman Hamrlik, Boris
Mironov and Janne Niinimaa) among its top five scorers, and
rookie Tom Poti is also a capable rusher. Despite the team's
abandon and the league's late-season crackdown on obstruction,
the NHL's speediest club scored just five goals in five games
during its second-round playoff loss to the Stars. That allowed
the Oilers to master another group activity in the off-season:
self-flagellation. "This club isn't at a rookie stage anymore,"
said coach Ron Low. "We have a bunch of veteran players. We're
supposed to be grown up." Added forward Mats Lindgren, who had
only two points in 12 playoff games, "I've played two full
years. It's about time I do something here."
Many Oilers could say the same thing.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Hamrlik shows he's more than just a shooter. [Roman Hamrlik leveling opposing player]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN TAMANIO [Drawing of golden hockey puck]
The Oilers led the NHL with an astounding 2,527 hits last season
(653 more than the No. 2 Red Wings), yet they were only 10th in
the league in penalty minutes.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
--Either journeyman Bob Essensa or perennial backup Mikhail
Shtalenkov must emerge as a No. 1 netminder to offset the loss
of free-agent Curtis Joseph.
--The Oilers' penalty-killing unit, which finished 22nd in the
league last season, needs to improve dramatically.