Wednesday, August 11, 2004
Oilers need better warmup act
By Tom Wheatley
Special to ESPN.com
The Edmonton Oilers had become accustomed to being the dominant team in Alberta, both in the five-Cup glory years in the high-flying '80s, and more recently as a perennial playoff team while poor Calgary was on the outside looking in.
That changed last season. The Flames went to the Stanley Cup finals. The Oilers missed the postseason for the second time in three years -- or second time in eight years, if you prefer to stress the longer-range positive.
In fact, Edmonton was not that much farther off the regular-season play of its provincial neighbor.
The Oilers went 36-29-12-5 for 89 points. They wound up just five points behind the Flames and two behind the Blues and Predators, who got the last three playoff berths in the Western Conference.
Along the way, the Oilers hosted the event of the regular season: An outdoor game with the Montreal Canadiens. The visitors won and the home team fell into a funk, recovering just in time to miss the playoffs by a hair.
The spirited stretch run was fuel-injected by Rangers general manager Glen Sather, who
sent rent-a-center Petr Nedved and young backup goalie Jussi Markkanen to his beloved old team.
The Oilers finished the season without longtime No.1 goalie Tommy Salo, who was dealt to Colorado.
As the summer slogged on, GM Kevin Lowe re-signed emerging goalie Ty Conklin and was still looking for ways to fit free agent Nedved into the team's small-market budget.
Lowe spoke about his fellow Men of Oil with ESPN.com's Tom Wheatley.
ESPN.com: Could you briefly assess last season?
"We brought in (defenseman Marc-Andre) Bergeron from the minors. We knew that he'd be a power-play guy eventually, and he really helped out. And Conklin really played well down the stretch. We've been that kind of team the last several years. We're either picking 17th or we're picking 14th four straight years.
"Two years we're in the playoffs, and two years we're the last team not to make the playoffs. So we're right around there. We've just got to improve internally."
"The season was broken into three for us. We had a real good start in the first third. Then for whatever reason we couldn't win for the middle part. We kind of attributed it to a bad power play, and goaltending was subpar. And then we corrected that and played well down the stretch. You know the old saying: We didn't lose -- we just ran out of time.
ESPN.com: Which players had the biggest impact or took the biggest strides?
"Raffi Torres. He was a good first-year player for us. I think Ethan Moreau really stepped up his game. We always thought he had a bit of offense but he was pretty dominant offensively in the second half. He's a great defensive player and a great character guy, but he brought some offense to his game.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to take the next big step?
"We need Ales Hemsky to get over that sophomore season. He's a guy we projected to be a big contributor offensively. He showed a lot of promise in his first year. I mean, he was fine last year, but he's a better player than he showed last year.
ESPN.com: Who in the system is ready for the NHL?
"We've got a couple defensemen, Jeff Woywitka (who came from Philly in the Mike Comrie trade) and Doug Lynch."
ESPN.com: Your top priority to improve the organization?
"Center ice. Getting a top-two line centerman is a big need for us, probably like a lot of teams."
ESPN.com: Your favorite moment last season?
"The outdoor game."
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
"Losing in the 82nd game to not get into the playoffs."
ESPN.com: What activity or destination will take you furthest away from hockey this summer?
"Chasing my four kids around."
Tom Wheatley is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He is the co-author of Bob Plager's "Tales from the Blues Bench" and "The Memoirs of Bing Devine," both available from Sports Publishing LLC.