The Edmonton Oilers are poised to make the playoffs in 2017 for the first time in over a decade, and fans in that city are just giddy about it. Why shouldn’t they be? Of course it could all fall apart before April, but right now Sports Club Stats gives the Oilers a 99 percent chance of making the postseason.
It’s been a while, and a lot has changed in the world since that last Oilers playoff game in June 2006.
You could be 15 years old in Edmonton and have no recollection of your team in a playoff game.
An Oilers playoff game has never been broadcast in high definition.
Fans almost for sure have never tweeted about their team in the playoffs (the social media platform launched in March 2006).
Three different men have occupied the oval office in that span, and that includes two full terms of President Obama.
The first iPhone was released.
A global recession started and ended, and another is on the way.
It’s been over 3,800 days; about 13% of the average human life span.
Barring a devastating, historic collapse, fans in Edmonton will finally get to see some postseason action in the NHL’s northern-most city. Today, we look back at the decade of darkness and pick the 10 best and 10 worst players who were in Edmonton at some point during that stretch of ineptitude. You feel bad for the good players, because some of them wasted good chunks of their prime years wallowing in the cellar in an Oilers jersey. Enjoy.
Note: the list will only cover players without taking the current season into account.
20 Best: Jeff Petry
The Edmonton Oilers drafted Jeff Petry in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, 45th overall. The defenseman chose to finish college, and then the Oilers spent the better part of six seasons developing him before deciding that Justin Schultz was the better long-term option. They traded Petry to the Montreal Canadiens for a couple of draft picks at the 2015 trade deadline.
Petry, although vilified in the media sometimes (who wasn’t during these dark years?), was and is a solid NHL defenseman. He doesn’t play a flashy game, but he’s pretty consistent and plays over 20 minutes a night on the Montreal blue line. Rubbing salt in the wound is the fact that Edmonton gave up on Schultz about a year later, and they were left with a void on the right side for defense.
19 Worst: Liam Reddox
Over the 10 years that Edmonton hovered well below the playoff cutline, they employed a handful of players who had no business skating in the world’s best hockey league. Liam Reddox managed to play exactly 100 games for the Oilers between 2007-08 and 2010-11, and to this day it’s hard to say how that happened, exactly.
Reddox’s offensive numbers in the NHL left something to be desired, and judging by his plus/minus rating year in and year out, he wasn’t really a defensive dynamo in either the NHL or the AHL. Nonetheless, former head coach Craig MacTavish kept playing him, and then so did Pat Quinn after him and Tom Renney after him. This is more of an indictment on team management than anything else—what were the coaches supposed to do with these tools at their disposal?
18 Best: Ryan Smyth
Ryan Smyth wasn’t here for the majority of the decade of darkness, and that’s definitely for the best. Smyth deserved nothing of what happened to this team, so I’m glad he wasn’t forced to sit through all 10 years of futility. The Banff native was traded at the 2007 trade deadline, and made his return to Edmonton in 2011-12 for three more seasons before retiring.
Smyth was having an incredible season when he was dealt in 2007, sitting at 31-22-53 in 53 games. He’d lost some of his scoring potency when he returned five years later, but he was a welcome sight for fans and teammates alike. He actually put up decent second-line scoring level numbers in his first year back, notching 19 goals and 46 points while playing all 82 games.
17 Worst: Jason Strudwick
God bless Jason Strudwick. The guy is a pillar in the Edmonton community, and he offers fans of the Oilers valuable insights from a former player. That being said, when Struds came to Edmonton for three seasons in 2008 to finish his NHL career, he was not skating anywhere near an NHL level, and it was painfully obvious.
Struds would get walked over by average NHL skaters on a regular basis, and he brought nothing in the way of offense (not that it was ever expected, but 2 goals in 147 games is shockingly low). After realizing he probably wasn't fit for the NHL, he played one final pro season in Sweden in 2011-12 before hanging up the skates for good and joining the roster at popular Oilers blog site Oilers Nation.
16 Best: Dustin Penner
Pancakes! Dustin Penner is a beauty or a lazy bugger, depending on who you ask, but either way he was at one point the best Edmonton Oiler. Since the decade of darkness began in 2006-07, only three players scored 30 or more goals for the Oilers, and Penner was one of them. The burly winger netted a respectable 32 goals and 63 points in 2009-10, and was legitimately the best Oiler out there on many nights.
Penner is also one of the rare examples of good asset management during the decade of darkness. At the 2011 trade deadline the Oilers (sellers once again) sent Penner to L.A. for defenseman Colten Teubert and a first round draft pick. Teubert of course didn’t pan out, but that draft pick turned into Oscar Klefbom, who plays a key role on the Edmonton blue line today.
15 Worst: Justin Schultz
Credit where credit is due, Justin Schultz’s career has gone swimmingly since leaving Edmonton. The defenseman is a Stanley Cup champion, having played a depth role on the 2016 championship squad. This season he has taken another step, as he currently sits fourth in the league in scoring among defensemen, and is a whopping plus-27 on the year (even with the generous zone starts/sheltering/power play push, that’s impressive).
Things simply never took off for Schultz in Edmonton, no matter how hard the organization tried. Perhaps it’s because of the fact the organization tried so hard that it didn’t work out. Edmonton seemed so keen on making Schultz their number one guy, perhaps it was too much pressure in the hockey-crazed market for the young rearguard.
14 Best: Sam Gagner
Sam Gagner spent the first seven seasons of his NHL career with the Edmonton Oilers, and he was a good soldier throughout his time there. In 481 games in E-town, Gags put up 295 points. He always held his head high and pressed on, despite the struggles of his team, which was the only real constant during his tenure in Alberta.
Gagner will most fondly be remembered for one night of work he put in on Feb. 2, 2012. That was the night Gagner tied an Oilers record (held by Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey) by putting up eight points in a single game. Gagner was only the 12h player in NHL history to accomplish the feat, and he was the first since Mario Lemieux did it in 1989. Gagner’s accomplishment is especially impressive given the era in which he achieved it.
13 Worst: Nail Yakupov
I genuinely feel bad for Nail Yakupov. The enigmatic Russian has always looked and felt out of place in the NHL, and this season in St. Louis (his first away from Edmonton) hasn’t helped at all. He’s an extremely likeable guy, which is why it’s so hard to watch the former first-overall draft pick struggle so mightily in his pro career.
As a first overall pick, Yakupov was given a lot of opportunity out of the gate by his first pro coach, Ralph Krueger. He had a solid first NHL season, scoring 17 goals in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Dallas Eakins became head coach the next season, and that’s when things went downhill for the winger. He regressed under Eakins, and it’s fair to ask the question; did Dallas Eakins ruin Yakupov’s confidence and therefore his career?
12 Best: Ales Hemsky
Ales Hemsky had his best seasons as an Oiler before the decade of darkness began, but he was still a damn fine player for Edmonton for a handful of those dark years. He’d likely find himself in a higher position on this list if he hadn’t been so injury prone throughout the latter half of his time in Edmonton.
Hemmer only cracked the 70 game plateau twice for the Oilers between 2006-07 and 2013-14, but in those years he put up 71 and 66 points, so his production was definitely bordering on elite. His 2016-17 has been derailed, as he’s been ruled out for most of the regular season after having undergone hip surgery in October. The Czech winger probably has one more contract in him before he has to hang them up for good.
11 Worst: Cam Barker
Having spent just one season with Edmonton during the decade of darkness, Cam Barker represents the shortest-tenured Oiler to appear on the list. He was injured for much of that season to boot, finding his way into just 25 games during his one year contract with the club in 2011-12. Still, though, those games were bad enough to earn Barker the slot here.
Barker was a bit of a reclamation project when he arrived in Edmonton. He had recently been bought out by the Wild, so the Oilers signed him to a one-year deal with the hopes of him returning to his 2008-09 form when he scored 40 points in 68 games with the Blackhawks. Barker, just 30 years old today, seems content to play out the remainder of his career in Russia, where he’s played since 2013-14.
10 Best: Shawn Horcoff
Towards the end of his time in Edmonton, Shawn Horcoff was a bit of a whipping boy. We can all admit that that’s much more because of that ridiculous (seemingly endless) contract that Kevin Lowe signed the center to before handing the reins to Steve Tambellini, but he was a target for bitter fans nonetheless. Horcoff was still one of the best Oilers from the decade of darkness.
The center had been with the club for five seasons before the decade of darkness began, and he was a key contributor in the Oilers last playoff run in 2006. Horcoff spent seven of the 10 dark seasons in Edmonton, even wearing the C for his final three seasons with the Oilers. Of course he was vilified by fans thanks to his contract, but the two-way forward was always a good sport during the darkest times.
9 Worst: Nikolai Khabibulin
Steve Tambellini is one of the worst GMs in recorded sports history, and the four year contract the Oilers signed netminder Nikolai Khabibulin to in the 2009 offseason was one of his most questionable moves. The Bulin Wall was already 36 years old at the time, and had just finished a season in Chicago in which he split the starter’s role, but for some reason the Oilers felt like giving Khabibulin all the responsibility in Edmonton.
It didn’t go well, as you probably could have guessed. Despite putting up weaker numbers than his various crease-mates over the course of the deal, Khabibulin still got about half the starts in any given season. Khabibulin played the backup role in Chicago for one more season after his deal in Edmonton expired, escaping Edmonton before coach Eakins came to town.
8 Best: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the first current Oiler to show up on our list, so it look like he’s one of the lucky ones who will get to experience the end of the lull. Nuge was the first overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and although he hasn’t quite reached the level some expected him to be at by now, he’s still a darn good hockey player.
Nuge played for three different coaches in his first three seasons, so perhaps that may have stunted his growth just a little bit. Either way, his rookie season remains his most potent from a points-per-game perspective by far, and his two way game has developed well. With Connor McDavid in Edmonton, it takes the pressure off Nuge to be more than he is capable of being.
7 Worst: Marc-Antoine Pouliot
Marc-Antoine Pouliot is what the Oilers came away with from the first round of that legendary 2003 entry draft that yielded oh so many all-stars. While teams after them selected the Corey Perrys and Ryan Keslers of the world, the Oilers got Pouliot, who played 192 games in the NHL (probably more than he earned, to be honest) before moving on to the Swiss league.
Pouliot was given every chance with Edmonton, likely thanks to his draft pedigree alone. Projected to be a scoring winger, Pouliot never developed his game in the NHL and was, frankly, a defensive liability most of the time. He has had more success in the Swiss league, as that style of play seems to cater to Pouliot’s affinity for the perimeter.
6 Best: Jordan Eberle
There’s no doubt that Jordan Eberle is the goat-du-jour this season in Edmonton. The expectation was that the 26-year-old right winger would flank generational talent Connor McDavid all season and ride that position to career highs in goals and points. That is not what happened, and now Eberle is off of McDavid’s line and producing at a clip slower than any season to date (aside from his rookie year).
Despite his weak first-half, Eberle is no doubt one of the best Oilers of the past decade. Starting with his first NHL goal in his first NHL game against the Flames in 2010, Eberle has been a skating highlight reel for fans ever since. He currently sits 14th on the Oilers all-time points list, and needs only 73 more points to catch Esa Tikkanen for the top-10; if he manages 21 points in the last 30 games of the season, he’ll sit alone in 11th.
5 Worst: Eric Belanger
Another classic Steve Tambellini signing shows up on the “worst” portion of this list. Tambo signed Eric Belanger to a three-year contract in the 2011 offseason, and at the time it didn’t seem so bad. However, it didn’t take long for the Oilers and their fans to realize the folly of the signing. In his first season, Belanger put up four goals and 16 points in 78 games.
That was odd, as the winger had averaged 38.5 points per season over his last four. The range of point totals was small (36 to 41), so this was a reasonable expectation for Belanger. Alas, the veteran center reached the end of his rope in Edmonton, and the Oilers ended up using one of their post-lockout compliance buyouts on the French-Canadian.
4 Best: Devan Dubnyk
I imagine this is going to be one of the more divisive picks on the list, as many Oilers fans seem convinced that Devan Dubnyk was a terrible goalie while he was in Edmonton. Look, I’m not saying he didn’t take another step after leaving the Oilers, but I’m of the belief that Devan Dubnyk was always a good goalie and that he was just the victim of circumstance in Edmonton.
Just looking at his numbers in Edmonton, you can tell he was leaps and bounds better than any other goalie who played there during the dark decade. Ignoring his rookie year (grace period) and his final two months with the team (no one could stop a puck with that Eakins "swarm" defense system in place), Dubnyk averaged about a .915 save percentage. That’s hovering around league average, and if you were watching the team during those times, that’s a hell of a save percentage given the club’s propensity to surrender 10-bell chances nearly every shift.
3 Worst: Patrick O’Sullivan
While I hold sympathy for Patrick O’Sullivan and his abusive upbringing, there is no denying that he was one of the worst Oilers to play for the team during the decade of darkness. Acquired from the L.A. Kings in a three-way deal, O’Sullivan was a liability during his time in Edmonton, scoring just 40 points in 92 games and racking up a minus-42 rating in the process.
The relationship between the club and player since their parting of ways has been a little salty. He’s called out the franchise on a number of occasions, most recently in October when he questioned the team’s decision to give the captaincy to a 19-year-old. Of course O’Sullivan claims he asked the Oilers for help for his mental health at the time and the team did nothing, so if that’s true I guess I can see where the saltiness comes from.
2 Best: Taylor Hall
Taylor Hall was the best Edmonton Oiler who played for the team between 2006-07 and 2015-16, and it’s not particularly close. Hall produced points at an elite rate during his time in Edmonton, and in 2013-14 he became the first Oiler to crack the 80 point barrier since Doug Weight did it in 2000-01. Hall was traded last offseason to the Devils for defenseman Adam Larsson, a move that’s still criticized by a sect of fans, despite the team’s success so far this year.
There’s no doubt Larsson brings a nasty element that was missing from the Edmonton back end, but Hall is a high price to pay for that type of player. It will be interesting to see how history looks on this deal 10 years down the road, but for now it’s all smiles in Edmonton as they sit comfortably in a playoff spot while the Devils struggle to breathe in the East.
1 Worst: Nikita Nikitin
What a blunder this whole situation turned out to be for GM Craig MacTavish. During his rather short tenure at the helm, Mac-T made some questionable moves, but none were more perplexing than trading for the negotiating rights to Nikita Nikitin prior to the 2014 free agent frenzy (as if teams were going to be clamoring over a guy who was a healthy scratch in Columbus on multiple occasions during the previous season), and then inked him to a generous two-year contract for $9 million.
That deal expired at the end of 2015-16, and needless to say Nikitin immediately returned to Russia and hasn’t looked back. He spent nearly as much time in Bakersfield as he did in Edmonton during the duration of his last NHL deal, which should give you a pretty good idea of just how bad he was—Edmonton’s depth chart was shallow as all hell, and he couldn’t even make the team.