With one early-season flourish, the doubts that arose after Edmonton's shocking ouster in the Smythe Division finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs last season would have stopped. Order would have been restored and the two-time Cup winners could have proceeded along their merry way toward recapturing the title.
"A good start would have taken a lot of heat off us," said Oiler All-Star defenseman Paul Coffey, shaking his head after a dispiriting 5-5 tie with Smythe Division rival Los Angeles early last week. "Obviously we're not playing well." But surely that was destined to change later in the week, when the Oilers were scheduled to play a home-and-home series with Calgary—the team that had bounced them from the playoffs—followed by a game at Northlands Coliseum with the new Stanley Cup champs, the Montreal Canadiens. What better time to prove that what happened last spring was an aberration, a uniquely unfortunate alignment of the stars?
But by week's end the auguries for the Oilers looked, if anything, murkier than ever. They lost both games to Calgary, 3-1 Wednesday in Edmonton and 6-4 Friday in Calgary, before managing their only win of the week, a 4-3 victory over the Canadiens on Saturday night.
Forget that the season is only 16 games old. The Oilers, Stanley Cup champions in both 1984 and 1985, needed to come busting out of the gate with anger and passion following last spring's early playoff elimination—and stories in this (SI, May 12, 1986) and other publications providing details of legal and financial problems and charges of alcohol and drug use involving some Oiler players. They haven't. The Oilers began the season 4-4 and are now 9-6-1, four points off last year's pace. What is more galling is the fact that they have lost to Calgary in all three games played between the Smythe Division rivals this season. The question persists: Was last season an anomaly, or are the Oilers in fact as vulnerable as they have appeared to be?
"When the Islanders won four Stanley Cups, how many times did they finish first overall?" says Oiler co-coach John Muckler. "Twice. How many times did they go through difficult stretches throughout the regular season? I realize the Hollywood script has us losing the Stanley Cup, then coming back the next year and absolutely blowing everybody away. I don't think that's realistic."
Probably not, particularly with the improvement of Smythe Division foes Calgary, Winnipeg and Los Angeles. But for all that, Edmonton's early-season sluggishness has reaffirmed that this often-brilliant team simply can't turn it on and off at will anymore. Pure talent no longer is enough. Throw a well-conceived, tight-checking game plan and a lot of heart their way and the Oilers can be beaten.
Their reaction to the slow start seems to be typical of a team whose cockiness has been both its best and worst quality. "We can go 75-5," says Coffey, "but if we lose in the playoffs, the season is a disappointment." President/general manager/coach Glen Sather looks at it philosophically. "In the long run," he says, "it'll do us good when we have to scratch for every point we can get from teams like Calgary and Winnipeg."
Adds defenseman Kevin Lowe, "Actually, getting off to this kind of start is the best thing that could have happened to this team. Now the papers get on us, the people jump on us, there are question marks. It makes us do a little more soul-searching. That's not something we've had to do in the past."
Searching for silver linings is not what the Oilers expected to be doing in what was supposed to be a year of redemption. High up on the list of things they hoped to put behind them were the allegations of drug use that surfaced last spring. SI's story on the subject rankled in particular. Sather and his players reacted to that story by angrily denying that the team had a drug problem, but other publications, including The Toronto Star and The Hockey News, subsequently ran stories further detailing alleged alcohol and drug use by Oiler players and concern about the matter on the part of the NHL.
Recently Sather told hockey writers that he had given his last interview on the subject, and the Oilers have apparently left it up to the league to deal with the matter. But the NHL has publicly expressed no interest in looking into the reports of drug use by Edmonton players. NHL president John Ziegler and NHL Players Association executive director Alan Eagleson did make a big show of calling for mandatory drug testing of all players, but the idea of implementing a testing plan was scuttled during negotiations for a new contract between the league and the union.