WHAT AILS THE OILERS? That was the hot question-around the NHL after the Revenge of the Mouse-keteers on Oct. 31, when the defending Stanley Cup champions were dismantled by the New Jersey Devils, an outfit Wayne Gretzky had dismissed not long ago as "a Mickey Mouse operation." The 6-5 defeat was Edmonton's third in three games, an almost unheard-of losing streak for the Oilers. What had gone wrong?
Well, for the short term at least, nothing that back-to-back games against the New York Rangers on Nov. 1 and Nov. 4 couldn't cure. The injury-riddled, turn-the-other-cheek Rangers were a panacea for Oiler ills as Edmonton tarred them, away and at home, by a combined score of 14-8. Then, in the latest battle of Alberta's Uncivil War, Edmonton tied Calgary 4-4 in the Saddle-dome—the only NHL arena in which Gretzky is regularly booed. Two days later, the Oilers shut out Buffalo 5-0 to wrap up the week and keep them on top of the Smythe Division, which they have owned since 1982.
"I know you're looking for gloom and doom," said Oilers general manager Glen Sather last Friday. "But the fact is, we still have a great nucleus."
Nucleus shmucleus. Let's talk about what the Oilers lack—while we still can. Their once incomparable depth at goaltender is gone. Missing also are three defensemen from last year—including 26-year-old Paul Coffey, the two-time Norris trophy winner who, when healthy, is one of the best in the game.
When we left them last May, the Oilers were skating happy circles in the Northlands Coliseum, taking turns hoisting their third Stanley Cup in four years. But the rioters in downtown Edmonton hadn't even begun smashing shop windows when Coffey commenced grousing. He had missed 21 games with recurring back problems during the season and felt he had taken undue heat for it. "All the things I've done for this hockey team," Coffey said. "I've played hurt a lot of years. I'm sure I can play somewhere else."
That little outburst was soon overshadowed by an exodus of biblical proportions. Eight players either waved goodbye to the Oilers or threatened to depart, for such varied reasons as:
?Patriotism. Rock-steady defenseman Randy Gregg reported to the Canadian Olympic team in August. In September, Andy Moog, Grant Fuhr's backup and a premier NHL goaltender in his own right, shocked team management by joining Gregg rather than submitting to the Sather Squeeze—Slats's unhurried response to Moog's request for a trade.
?Homesickness. Defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen went to Sweden to play semipro and to be near his wife and ailing mother.
?Fear and Loathing in the NHL. Pacifist pivot Kent Nilsson, who played the log to Flyer Ron Hextall's ax in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, opted for the diminished pressure and less hazardous climes of Italian hockey.
?Lady Lucre. Wingers Jari Kurri and Esa Tikkanen went to arbitration and lost. Coffey and forwards Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Mike Krushelnyski all held out for more dough. Sather called Anderson's and Krushelnyski's bluffs: They promptly reported for duty. He renegotiated Messier's contract—reportedly doubling his $300,000 (Canadian) yearly salary—but when asked about Coffey, Sather said, " Ken Dryden missed an entire season in Montreal."