Sather, who coached the Oilers from 1979-80 through '88-89, and who as a player lasted 10 years with six NHL teams mostly because he carried a huge chip on his shoulder, indeed has one of the more superior smirks in the hockey business. He also has one of the best brains. "Nobody felt worse about the Gretzky sale than I did," he says. And few other general managers could have reversed such a loss to a top team still in its prime.
Sather built the Gretzky Oilers around speed, and he was determined to reconstruct them in the same way. He also needed bodies to flesh out Edmonton's deteriorating third and fourth lines. Center Adam Graves and right wing Joe Murphy, both of whom came in a trade with the Detroit Red Wings last November for center Jimmy Carson, have teamed with Martin Gelinas, who arrived in the Gretzky deal, to give the Oilers a young line of grit and scoring potential.
Gelinas, whom the Kings drafted seventh overall in 1988, is a speedy left wing who should develop into a 40-goal-a-season man. Murphy, miscast as a big scorer when he was chosen first overall by the Red Wings in '86, has good speed and a stronger work ethic than he showed in Detroit. Graves is strong and heady and has a developing touch around the net. In the first three games of the finals, when Mark Messier, the Oilers' MVP candidate, was nowhere near his dominating self and rumors swirled that he was hiding a rib injury, Graves emerged as Edmonton's best center.
Sather made at least one other shrewd deal to set up this latest run at the Cup. For Moog, a former Oiler whose unhappiness at playing behind the incomparable Grant Fuhr forced his trade to Boston in 1988, Sather acquired goalie Bill Ranford, who at 23 is seven years younger than Moog. Fuhr has been sidelined with recurring shoulder injuries for much of the season, but Edmonton, remarkably, has survived without him.
Ranford, who slumped down the stretch after having sprained an ankle in February, gave up seven goals in the Oilers' opening-game loss to the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the playoffs. He admits that the pressure of having to replace a future Hall of Famer got to him. However, he quickly regained his confidence by making several excellent saves with Game 2 of the Edmonton- Winnipeg series on the line, and through Sunday he had been every bit as good as—dare we say it?—Fuhr at his best.
Moog, on the other hand, is a fine veteran goalie, as he proved again in Game 3 with 28 saves, 13 of them in the third period, and he was largely responsible for the Bruins' winning their first three rounds in the playoffs. But in the first two games of the finals, Ranford was by far the better.
After the Gretzky trade, the Edmonton veterans needed a year to get over their sense of betrayal. They also, at least in coach John Muckler's view, may have needed the shock treatment of seeing Gretzky take delight in defeating them last spring. Time may have been the best healer of all. Last season Messier, who was the second-best center in the league during much of the Gretzky era, took on too much of the burden of replacing him. This season Messier has simply taken on, and conquered, the world. At every crisis point during the playoffs, he has shined.
When the Oilers, down three games to one against Winnipeg, fell behind 3-1 in Game 5 of the opening round, Messier's quiet strength, both on the bench and on the ice, kept his teammates from panicking. They rallied, Messier scored the winning goal, and the Jets never recovered. When the Chicago Blackhawks, who were leading Edmonton two games to one in the semifinals, had an opportunity to take command of that series, Messier silenced roaring Chicago Stadium with a two-goal, two-assist performance. The Hawks did not win another game.
The Oilers, who won the Cup without All-Star Paul Coffey after he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1988, have already demonstrated that you can prevail without a game-controlling defenseman. This Edmonton defense is as smart as 31-year-old Kevin Lowe and as strong as 6'4", 215-pound Steve Smith. Every season, veterans Randy Gregg and Charlie Huddy offer reason to believe that their best days are behind them. Since the playoffs began, however, their men have always been in front of them, and the puck has been safely out of the Oiler zone. Edmonton's transition game still might be the best in the league. The defensemen keep things basic, making the safe, simple chip of the puck from their end to a speedy forward breaking through center. When the Oilers force turnovers between the blue lines, a defenseman-to-defenseman pass buys time for the forwards to turn and take a pass with a full head of steam. The forwards fully understand their, defensive responsibilities, or like Klima, they sit. If they are smart, they watch Jari Kurri, who offensively and defensively is still the best right wing in the game.
Kurri, who was expected to suffer the most from Gretzky's departure, has instead grown because of it. During the Gretzky years, he was cast primarily as the Great One's triggerman and rarely had to carry the puck or create much offense. His point total actually increased during an I'll-show-them 1988-89 season, but he has not signed for '90-91 and played the second half of this season as though he were losing interest in the NHL.