Are the Edmonton Oilers for real? That’s what fans across the league are asking themselves now that the Oilers are off to a hot start, going 7-2 through the month of October, with all their wins coming in regulation time.
Whether or not Edmonton has finally turned a corner for real remains to be seen, but the fact that they’re off to the hottest start since the mid-1980s should tell you that they’re certainly a lot closer than they were a year ago. It’s been nearly 27 years since the team won its last Stanley Cup, and it has been 10 long years since its last playoff game—a tough Game 7 loss to the Hurricanes in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.
Today’s list looks at the best and worst Edmonton Oilers since that last Cup in 1990. Specifically, we will look at the 10 best players to lace them up for the Oil since then, as well as the 10 worst. These rankings factor in everything, but skill and impact are what matter most.
The collection of “best” Oilers seems to span all 27 years, but when we get to the “worst” Oilers, you will certainly see a trend that shows just how bad this team has been for the past decade, with only a few playing with the team before 2008.
20 Best – Bill Guerin
Bill Guerin spent parts of four seasons in Edmonton, racking up 161 points in 211 games. Often playing alongside elite playmaker Doug Weight, Guerin was a part of those late 1990s Oilers teams that were synonymous with hard work and determination. Despite a lack of notable success (a few 2nd round playoff exits were as far as those teams got), those teams were respected and fans were happy they were even getting playoff games considering the team’s payroll at the time.
In November of 2000, the Oilers traded Guerin to Boston for Anson Carter (several draft picks were swapped in this deal as well), as it was clear the Edmonton Investors Group (the team’s cash-strapped ownership group at the time) would be unable to extend the winger beyond his contract.
19 Worst – Justin Schultz
Stanley Cup champion Justin Schultz does indeed have a role on an NHL club today, and one could say he performs it adequately. During his time in Edmonton, however, he was consistently deployed incorrectly, and as a result, his weaknesses were on full display every game. He was so bad in the role he was cast in by the Oilers that he qualifies as one of the worst Oilers to play since 1990.
Twenty-nine other teams were after the college free agent when the Oilers landed him in 2012. This was surprising in and of itself because it had been a long while since the Oilers were able to attract a top-end free agent. Fans expected Schultz to become the Paul Coffey of the new-age Oilers, but they were disappointed when he turned out to be a crappier Boris Mironov.
18 Best – Jordan Eberle
The first current Oiler to appear on our list is winger Jordan Eberle. Ebs burst onto the scene in 2010 with perhaps the greatest first NHL goal in history, and he really hasn’t looked back since. He’s of course also been a part of some of the worst teams in NHL history, but that can’t be blamed on the Regina native, who’s been consistently productive throughout his time in Edmonton.
Eberle is still waiting to play his first career playoff game, which has got to be disappointing for a guy who has put up 337 points in 434 NHL games to date. He’s now skating on Connor McDavid’s wing in this, his seventh season in the NHL, and hopes are high again. With last summer’s departure of Taylor Hall, Eberle is the longest-serving Oiler and is getting hungry for some playoff action.
17 Worst – Will Acton
The Edmonton Oilers organization has been accused of nepotism in the recent past, highlighted by the team’s refusal to outright fire incompetent members of management because of their ties to owner Daryl Katz (see: Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe). This nepotism sometimes found its way onto the roster, as Will Acton actually played 33 games in the NHL for the Oilers from 2013-2015.
Those were the only NHL games Acton has played to date, and I’d be willing to bet they’re the only ones he ever plays. How does this qualify as nepotism, you ask? Well, the assistant coach of the Oilers at the time was Keith Acton, father of Will. Also, Acton had played for Dallas Eakins (head coach at the time) for the Toronto Marlies, so they, too, had a past relationship.
16 Best – Taylor Hall
I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no: Adam Larsson does not appear on this list.
Yes, the Oilers most certainly surrendered the better player in last summer’s blockbuster, but with the way they’ve come out of the gate it’s tough to be overly critical of this move. Still, though, it’s unlikely that history will look too kindly on this deal for Edmonton.
Taylor Hall is an absolute beast, and fans in Edmonton know that and fans in New Jersey are learning that. Sure, he has his flaws, but no one can deny his level of effort and the subsequent production. He put up 50 points in 45 games during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, and he followed that up with an 80 point campaign in 2013-14—the first from an Oiler since Doug Weight’s 90 points in 2000-01.
15 Worst – Patrick O’Sullivan
With all the BS that Patrick O’Sullivan has been spouting about Edmonton on Twitter lately, how could we leave him off this list? Heck, even without him running his mouth he would have found a way on here, as he was exceptionally bad during his time in E-Town.
O’Sullivan was acquired in a three-way deal that saw the other two clubs (Los Angeles and Carolina) receive Justin Williams and Erik Cole, respectively. Yes, those two players (especially Williams) are far superior to O’Sullivan, who put up 40 points in 92 games as an Oiler to go with his shockingly low minus-42 rating. O’Sullivan spent the remainder of his time in North America between the AHL and NHL before retiring in 2012 after a brief stint in the Finnish league.
14 Best – Ales Hemsky
There were times during Ales Hemsky’s stay in Edmonton that he became a whipping boy, but this was never really fair. Often burdened with the “soft” tag, Hemsky was anything but as he wouldn’t back down from a battle in the corners with anyone, ever (although this could play into why he was and is so injury prone).
Hemsky was, of course, a cornerstone piece of the 2006 squad that went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, and he enjoyed all the best seasons of his career in an Oilers jersey, highlighted by 2005-06’s 77-point campaign. He currently sits in 8th place in all-time scoring for the franchise, having registered 477 points in 652 games as a member of the copper n’ blue.
13 Worst – Denis Grebeshkov
Before I get into this, I want to make clear that Denis Grebeshkov is here solely for his second stint with the team (2013-14). His first stint, which ran from 2007-2010, wasn’t half as bad, and dare I say he was actually a capable defenseman for those seasons. I don’t even think there was a single Edmontonian who had taken to calling him “Gargabe-kov” yet (okay, maybe a few of the hateful ones).
Craig MacTavish was coach of the Oilers during Grebeshkov’s first stint in Edmonton, and when MacT was named GM in the spring of 2013, one of his first orders of business was to bring back the defenseman who he so obviously had a shine for. Grebeshkov’s return to North America predictably went off the rails, as he struggled to keep up in the AHL before defecting back to the KHL.
12 Best – Shawn Horcoff
The first former captain to appear on our list is center Shawn Horcoff. Much like Hemsky, Horcoff was a major cog in the 2006 machine that fell one game short of a Stanley Cup, and he was also a whipping boy in the later stages of his days as an Oiler. Nonetheless, Horcoff gave the Oilers over a decade of hard work, commitment, and in some cases some pretty darn good production.
Horcoff ranks 9th all time on the Oilers points list with 447 points, directly behind Hemsky. His best offensive season also came during the magical 2005-06 campaign, a season that saw Horcoff put up 22 goals and 77 points. He also brought a lot of other elements to the team, including elite penalty killing and faceoff skills.
11 Worst – Cory Cross
Cory Cross was an Oiler from 2002-03 to 2005-06, and he was never very good. I actually feel bad for him. A friend of mine relayed a story to me about the time she was seated near the penalty box at the old Rexall Place back when Cross was an Oiler. Cross had taken a penalty, and by then the fan base all agreed he was bad at hockey so one fan decided to tell Cross how they felt. “You suck, Cross!” the fan shouted.
Cross’s response is what breaks my heart. He didn’t get mad. He didn’t even really try to defend himself. He didn’t ignore the guy. He simply turned to the fan and said “I’m trying my best!” While this is undoubtedly true—who wouldn’t try their best at that level?—his best simply was not good enough. Cross only played 22 more NHL games after leaving Edmonton, which seems to be a common theme for players who departed Edmonton between 2006 and present.
10 Best – Curtis Joseph
The one and only goalie to appear on either side of this list is Curtis Joseph, who comes in as the fifth best Oiler since 1990. Much like Guerin and Weight, Cujo was a casualty of the Oilers’ financial woes of the late 1990s. Joseph played two full seasons with the club in 1996-97 and 1997-98, carrying the under-funded Oilers to the second round of the playoffs both seasons.
On many a night during those two seasons the Oilers would find themselves having been vastly outplayed, yet on the right side of the score when it was all said and done. The Oilers would have loved to have kept Joseph, but they simply couldn’t afford the raise he earned during his years in Edmonton and he left to play in Toronto, a team that could very much afford his services.
9 Worst – Cam Barker
Oh, Cam Barker. The Oilers have had a propensity for taking a chance on high draft picks who haven’t quite panned out for several years after their draft years, and Cam Barker is a shining example of this. The Oilers signed Barker to a one-year contract worth $2.25 million immediately after the Minnesota Wild bought out the struggling defenseman.
The former 3rd overall pick was a disaster in Edmonton, and when he wasn’t injured (which was most of the season), he was a major liability on both sides of the puck. His draft pedigree was really the only reason former GM Steve Tambellini would have signed him, because it certainly had little or nothing to do with his performance at the NHL level to that point.
8 Best – Doug Weight
Shortly after arriving in Edmonton from New York, Doug Weight became a fan favorite. He was just a fresh-faced 21-year-old at the time, but it didn’t take him long to have an immediate impact on the club, registering 74 points in his first season as an Oiler. He only built on that, and was near a point-per-game player when he left the club in 2001 (577 points in 588 games). He is still the most recent Oiler to have notched over 100 points in a season, putting up 104 in 1995-96.
Weight was another casualty of the EIG’s razor-thin pocket book, and he eventually left Edmonton for greener pastures (read: a fatter paycheck). No one can blame him for that, and Weight was a solid ambassador for Edmonton even after departing, as he reportedly spoke highly of the city to players who would ask about it.
7 Worst – Jason Bonsignore
Definitely one of the biggest draft busts in Oilers history, Jason Bonsignore is also one of the worst Oilers to lace them up since 1990. Drafted 4th overall in 1994, Bonsignore was the first of two Oilers top-10 picks that year, with the other being Ryan Smyth (6th overall). Bonsignore only played 21 games with the Oilers (20 of which came in 1995-96).
It’s not like Bonsignore simply didn’t fit in with the Oilers; he moved onto Tampa Bay after that, where he had a longer audition on a worse team. Needless to say, it didn’t work out, and Bonsignore played out the rest of his pro career in a variety of lesser leagues to similar results. Picks like this are what caused such a downfall in Edmonton.
6 Best – Ryan Smyth
Cracking the top three on our list of best Oilers since 1990 is Ryan Smyth. Sure, Doug Weight was probably a better hockey player than Smyth ever was, but Smyth was a better Oiler. Drafted 6th overall in 1994, Smytty is still one of the most beloved all-time Oilers. He played the blue-collar style of hockey that Edmontonians value so highly.
Despite being traded by GM Kevin Lowe amid a contract dispute at the 2007 trade deadline, Smyth returned to Edmonton four years later to finish his career where it started. Smyth leads all Oilers who never played in the 1980s in points with 631 in 971 games played. The 971 games played, by the way, rank him second all-time in franchise history (1st is Kevin Lowe).
5 Worst – Eric Belanger
When GM Steve Tambellini signed Eric Belanger to a three-year contract in the 2011 offseason, fans expected 35-40 points per season from the center. Those expectations were certainly reasonable; after all, his previous four seasons saw him register 37, 36, 35, and 40 points, respectively. There was no way to see the drastic drop off coming.
Belanger’s number were nothing short of abysmal during his time in Edmonton, and the club eventually bought out the final year of his contract after his first two seasons saw him record just 19 points in 104 games. His lack of production seemed contagious, too. No matter who was sent out with Belanger, their offense too would dry up. It was coined “The Belanger Triangle” by local media, and it’s easy to see why.
4 Best – Chris Pronger
It was really difficult to decide where to place Chris Pronger on this list, as there are a lot of crappy things to say about the hall of fame defenseman. Pronger had signed a five-year contract with the Oilers only to request a trade out of town after (or, more accurately, during) his first season in Northern Alberta.
However, what Pronger accomplished in that one season is enough for me to call him the second best Oiler since 1990. Without Pronger, it’s very unlikely the Oilers don’t even make the playoffs that season, let alone come one win short of the Stanley Cup. Pronger’s departure marked the beginning of a decade-long playoff drought, so the scars are still there for some Oilers fans for sure; but Pronger was an absolute beast during his one year in Edmonton, so credit where credit is due.
3 Worst – J.F. Jacques
When you look at the starting roster of the Oilers 2009-10 season, it really is quite incredible. So many players from that team could have made this list. For many of them, they never played another NHL game after departing Edmonton after that season. What is incredible to me is that one of those players—J.F. Jacques—managed to play 160 games with Edmonton.
This is so surprising because Jacques was never a productive player in any sense of the word. He scored one goal and zero assists in his first 60 games with the club, and had only 17 points in his NHL career. After leaving Edmonton, the Anaheim Ducks gave Jacques a chance, but it didn’t take long for them to realize he doesn’t have what it takes, and he was relegated to the AHL for good.
2 Best – Connor McDavid
Was there really any doubt here? He’s only played in 50+ games as an Oiler, which is literally the only stat that may have held him back from owning the top spot on this list. He still holds it, however, as he’s just too darn good to deny. Even if we ignore his insanely good production for a 19-year-old in this era, there are still many reasons McDavid is king of this castle.
He’s injected excitement and vibrancy into a market that was in desperate need of it. The new arena was coming anyway, but the arrival of McDavid is what helped much of the city see the expensive (and partly tax-payer funded) building as worthwhile. Free agents now view Edmonton as a possible destination, as illustrated by Milan Lucic’s arrival this past summer. Shortly after the Oilers won the “McDavid sweepstakes” lottery, there was an overhaul of management. Basically, things are changing for the better in Edmonton, and it’s fair to give the lion’s share of that credit to the arrival of McDavid.
1 Worst – Nikita Nikitin
The trading/signing of Nikita Nikitin is one of the worst mistakes in the history of NHL general managers, regardless of era or financial constraints (the latter of which GM Craig MacTavish was under none). The Oilers sent a fifth-round pick to Columbus just for the negotiating rights to Nikitin, who was a pending UFA. Then, the Oilers turned around and signed him to a two-year, $4.5 millionAAV contract. Don't you think they could have had him at that price without surrendering a draft pick?
Nikitin had shown signs of being a capable NHLer in the past, but he was often a healthy scratch during his most recent season prior to signing with Edmonton. Keep in mind the guy played for the Columbus Blue Jackets—not exactly the most competitive place to battle for a job in this league. The Oilers ended up putting Nikitin on waivers multiple times throughout the duration of the contract, and he went back home to play in Russia upon its completion.