The Edmonton Oilers entered the NHL in the 1979-80 season as one of four teams to make the transition after the disbanding of the World Hockey Association. Upon their arrival, the Oilers enjoyed near instant success within their newfound league, and that continued for quite a while. Led by all-time greats like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr, the Oilers won five Stanley Cup championships in seven seasons between 1984 and 1990 and became the NHL’s newest dynasty after ending the New York Islanders’ historic run of four straight championships.
But since 2000, the one-time Canadian powerhouse has seen playoff action just four times in 17 seasons. Currently, they’re wallowing in a decade-long postseason drought, rife with helpless floundering near the bottom of the standings ever since their miraculous run to the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals in which they came within a game of claiming the franchise’s sixth league championship.
Since the turn of the century, a lot of players have donned the orange and blue. Some have been good and some have been bad, but most have been mediocre at best. Certainly, every Oilers roster in recent memory has been a far cry from the stacked lineups of their nearly 10-year reign atop the rankings in the 1980s.
It almost seems like as soon as someone emerges from the barrens of the Canadian prairies, rising to greatness as a rare beacon of hope, a player equally as disappointing tarnishes what might have been, in a cruel punch to the gut that sinks the team back into the depths of perpetual mediocrity.
As you look back on the past 16 years of what was or could have been, here is a rundown of the eight best and seven worst Edmonton Oilers players who made it all possible.
15 Best: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
It’s young stars like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins that somehow keep Edmonton Oilers fans coming back. He’s one of those guys that is perched on the precipice of greatness, threatening to enter the realm of the elite, if only he could string together a few more point streaks or make an enormous and timely play to send him over the edge. Still, the British Canadian native who wears an “A” on his jersey has had a positive-enough impact on the team to crack the Oilers’ top-8 best players since the year 2000. He entered the league as the first-overall pick in 2011 and tied Gabriel Landeskog of Colorado Avalanche fame for most points by a rookie, earning him a Calder Memorial Trophy nomination. Since then, he’s recorded career highs of 56 points twice and continues to show promise in his still-young career.
14 Worst: Cory Cross
Cory Cross, yikes. He played parts of three seasons in Edmonton in the early 2000s, and it was like a slow-motion train wreck on ice watching him man his post as a sixth or seventh defenseman off the bench. Cross was one of those guys who you felt like didn’t even understand the game, someone you hated to see hop over the boards, because you just knew something bad was going to happen. You’d hear murmuring like, “Uh oh, Cross is out there” from Oilers fans as they tried to mentally will the puck out of the defensive zone for a shift change before disaster struck. He had a career high 21 points with the Oilers in 2003-04, but that was of little consolation, and his lack of ability to adapt to the post-lockout era hastened his NHL exit.
13 Best: Connor McDavid
Is he Wayne Gretzky 2.0? It almost seems that way. Connor McDavid is a phenomenal youngster who joined the Oilers as a No. 1 overall pick last season, he has an otherworldly ability to make plays out of nowhere and he’s on a mission to remake Edmonton into a championship-caliber squad. So, yeah, there are shades of Gretzky in there. While it’s likely he’ll rise to the top of this list in the not-too-distant future, he’s only a second-year player, so to crack the top-7 already speaks volumes. He was a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2015-16, finishing third on the team in points despite only playing in 45 games, and he became the youngest captain in NHL history prior to the 2016-17 season at just 19 years and 266 days old. Basically, Connor Mcdavid is about to take the NHL by storm.
12 Worst: Luke Gazdic
Unfortunately for both Luke Gazdic and Edmonton Oilers fans of the past three seasons, Gazdic is playing in the wrong decade. By like three. The good news is that he’s gone – out of the country, in fact. Gazdic, the left-winger out of Toronto who somehow managed to appear in 136 NHL games since 2013, never really had the talent to be consistent at the NHL level. He wasn’t a good skater, he wasn’t a good playmaker, and he really never seemed to be able to keep up with the play. His measly eight career points speak for themselves. What he did have going for him was his boorish physicality and ability to beat on a guy. As a bodyguard, he would have done great protecting Gretzky or Kurri in the 1980s, but his skillset is pretty much obsolete in today’s faster, less-rugged NHL.
11 Best: Taylor Hall
Ever since Taylor Hall arrived in Edmonton in 2010, he was the young, talented, go-to guy who was supposed to help the Oilers claw their way out of the division’s basement and back into playoff contention. He was good – really good. That’s why he and most good Oilers fans are still bitter about general manager Peter Chiarelli’s surprising move to trade him away. He was the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 and was fiercely dedicated to making Edmonton relevant again. He had 328 points in 381 career games with the Oilers and was posed to combine his talents with promising, young newcomer Connor McDavid in the 2016-17 season. But the trade for Adam Larsson during the offseason sent him to New Jersey, and Edmonton bid a heartbreaking farewell to one of the best talents to wear an Oilers jersey on this side of the 21st Century.
10 Worst: Nikolai Khabibulin
And then there was Nikolai Khabibulin. By the end of Khabibulin’s four seasons in Edmonton, he was the full-time driver of the struggle bus, and a one-time passenger of the paddy wagon. Against better judgement, management passed on re-signing Dwayne Roloson in 2009 and instead signed the then-36-year-old goaltender to a four-year deal. The one-time Stanley Cup Champion proceeded to turn in a dismal 33-67-14 record during his time in Edmonton with a 3.00 GAA and a save percentage a shade over .900. Not a good way to backstop a team back into the playoffs. The thing was, he had had a fluke 25-8-7 season with the Chicago Blackhawks the season prior to signing the deal with Edmonton. Adding insult to injury, Khabibulin was arrested for DUI during his first offseason with the Oilers. His performance in goal after that was equally criminal.
9 Best: Dwayne Roloson
On the flip-side of the Khabibulin coin, you’ll find Dwayne Roloson. Roloson was everything Khabibulin failed to live up to, and the Oilers paid dearly for it. When Roloson arrived in 2006, it took him a few weeks to settle in, but once he did, he led the team into the playoffs and posted a 12-5 record on their way to an appearance in the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals against the Carolina Hurricanes. After an injury in Game 1 of the Finals, he was forced out until the following season, but he was one of the few bright spots on some awful Edmonton squads in the mid-2000s. In four seasons with the Oilers, Roloson stood on his head night in and night out, posting a 78-82-24 record, a cumulative save percentage of .907 and a 2.75 GAA.
8 Worst: Jean-Francois Jacques
Generally speaking, second-round draft picks are supposed to be pretty darn good at playing hockey at the highest level of competition. Jean-Francois Jacques wasn’t one of those second-round draft picks. Not for the lack of chances, Jacques just couldn’t cut it as an NHL player, and it wasn’t even close. Despite the rare combination of size and speed, Jacques had a bit of an identity crisis. He put up decent numbers in the AHL, which led to several call-ups to the Oilers during his time within the organization between 2004 and 2011. But despite his modest success on the minor league circuit, his role was more of a checking forward in The Show. That never sank in for him, and it took 54 appearances over four seasons before he finally made an appearance on an NHL score sheet with one solitary goal in the 2008-09 season. He topped out with all of 11 points a season later, but it was all downhill from there. Now, he plays in Europe. Imagine that.
7 Best: Ales Hemsky
Ales Hemsky made a habit of performing what looked like a choreographed on-ice routine en route to creating unbelievable scoring plays for the Edmonton Oilers. A highlight-reel star who made tough plays look effortless, Hemsky led the team in scoring three times in over 10 seasons between 2002 and 2014. He was a key part of the offense that led the team to the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, scoring 17 points in 24 games, and he eventually rose to become one of the team’s alternate captains. During his time in Edmonton, Hemsky posted impressive 142-335-477 point totals in 652 games while playing on some less-than-great teams. He would have appeared higher in this list if weren’t for the constant bite of the injury bug.
6 Worst: Theo Peckham
You know the guy who will all of a sudden show up somewhere out of the blue and pretend like he’s been there yuckin’ it up the whole time? That’s Theo Peckham. He was an Oilers third-round pick in 2006, and he spent a lot of time in the minor leagues. He’d get a call-up here and there, where he saw more time in the penalty box and on the bench than anywhere else, and then head back down to the minors to await his next opportunity. He solidified his spot on the big-league roster for two lackluster seasons from 2010-11 through 2011-12, and then the lockout happened. Hedging his bet that the entire 2012-13 season would be cancelled, Peckham let himself go physically during the winter and then showed up to training camp a good 15 pounds overweight when the season finally got the green light. Bad move. He saw action in just four NHL games that year and hasn’t stepped foot in the league since.
5 Best: Jordan Eberle
Drafted in the first round by the Oilers in 2008, Eberle honed his skills in the WHL and AHL for two more seasons before making his NHL debut in the 2010-11 season. The development paid off. Eberle led the team in scoring his rookie season and followed it up with an encore sophomore season in which he did the same thing. That immediately turned the offensively gifted winger into one of the prized possessions of the struggling Edmonton squad, and he was rewarded handsomely with a six-year, $36 million contract extension in 2012 and a trip to the 2012 All-Star Game. He led the team in goals in 2013-14 and in overall points once again in 2014-15. Now an assistant captain of the team, Eberle continues to be one of Edmonton’s core top-6 forwards.
4 Worst: Ben Eager
Ben Eager was the bad joke that grew legs and a hockey stick and dragged on for far too long. After making his NHL debut with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2005-06, Eager snaked his way around the league, making stops in Chicago, Atlanta and San Jose before the scoring-averse forward landed in Edmonton in 2011. For reasons that remain a mystery to this day, Eager made the gameday lineup 63 times during the 2011-12 season but only managed an average of just over eight minutes of ice time per night – just enough time to pick a fight if he needed to. Other than that, he just took up space on the bench. In parts of three seasons with Edmonton, Eager ended up with 16 points and 134 penalty minutes in 84 games and what was probably a pretty sore rear end.
3 Best: Doug Weight
Although Doug Weight only played parts of a couple of seasons for the Oilers after the turn of the century, his legendary status as a leader and prolific goal scorer earned him the No. 2 spot on this list. Weight’s 19-season career was one that transcended generations and experienced several different eras of the game. Through it all, his career blossomed in Edmonton, where he was a longtime fan-favorite. Weight came to the Oilers from the New York Rangers in 1993 and eventually helped the team make five straight playoff appearances from 1997-2001 after missing the postseason four straight times. He led the team in scoring seven times in eight full seasons in Oil Country, including his final two seasons in 1999-00 and 2000-01 when he served as the franchise’s 10th team captain.
2 Worst: Justin Schultz
I’ll admit, Justin Schultz is more Public Enemy Number One than the worst Oilers player since 2000. He was a highly touted defenseman out of college, pursued by almost every NHL team, and described by former Edmonton GM Craig MacTavish as “Norris-worthy” – as in the league’s trophy for the top defenseman. He put up astronomical offensive numbers for a D-man during both his college days and his first foray into pro hockey with the Oklahoma City Barons of the AHL in which he scored 48 points in 34 games. And then the bottom fell out the second he stepped foot on NHL ice. While it’s true he wasn’t used where he should have been, Schultz still laid a giant, putrid egg as an Edmonton blueliner. He was susceptible to mistakes, had a bad habit of coughing up the puck in his own end, and his defensive capabilities seemed to vanish into thin air. In parts of four seasons with the Oilers, he managed a decent 101 points, but he had an abysmal minus-78 plus-minus rating. He was finally traded away to Pittsburgh late in the 2016 season, and that’s where he promptly rediscovered his game and helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup Championship. Go figure.
1 Best: Ryan Smyth
Atop the list for best Edmonton Oilers players since 2000 is none other than hometown hero Ryan Smyth. He was never the ultra-skilled 100-point scorer, but then again, not that many guys were during his time in the league from 1994-2014. More than anything, though, he was the manifestation of dedication, emotion, toughness and everything good you look for in a leader. He was a power forward who wasn’t afraid to mix it up, and he turned in consistent numbers year after year for 12 seasons in an Oilers uniform. He led the team in goals seven times and in overall points thrice, and he is one of the longest-serving Oiler in the team’s history. He earned a trip to the 2007 NHL All-Star Game a year after scoring 16 points in 24 games in the Oilers’ unlikely run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. He returned to his first NHL home for three more emotional seasons at the end of his career before hanging up his skates. He’s still remembered today as one of the best, most influential Oilers players in the last 20 years.
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