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.