Oilers greats fuel debate: Which team from the ’80s dynasty was best?

Former Edmonton Oilers, from left, Charlie Huddy (22), Wayne Gretzky (99) and Mark Messier (11) joke around during a practice for the NHL's Heritage Classic Alumni game in Winnipeg on Friday, October 21, 2016. (John Woods/CP)

Sportsnet is turning back the clock to relive Canada’s most unforgettable best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoffs series with NHL Classics: Best of Seven Series. Game 2 of 1987’s Stanley Cup Final between the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers airs Saturday, April 25, starting at 10:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. MT. The full broadcast schedule can be found here.

EDMONTON — There were seasons when the Edmonton Oilers won more games. Like the 56-win campaign in 1985-86 that ended in disappointment at the hands of the Calgary Flames. Or the 57 wins in 1983-84 that led to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

But as the 1987 Stanley Cup Final enters Game 2 on Saturday night on Sportsnet, the question that is still hotly debated in Edmonton is simple: Were the 1986-87 Oilers the best of the dynasty?

“You’d look at them and say, ‘Where is the weak link?’” then-Flyers goalie Ron Hextall said. “Well, I’m not sure they had one. They just kept coming.”

Forget the best Oilers edition. Hextall takes it one step further.

“You look back now and you say, if that Edmonton team wasn’t the greatest of all time, it was certainly right there.”

The debate remains unsettled among the guys who played on all four of the Oilers’ Cup winners in the ’80s.

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“Talent-wise, I think it was. Record-wise, it wasn’t,” Mark Messier said. “But it would be hard to say that wasn’t one of the better teams, with balance and talent on every line. (Rexi) Ruotsalainen was great. Kent Nilsson was a very good addition. We were an excellent skating team, but we had size, and grit, and toughness and skill…It was a pretty good team.”

It seems fair to say that the core group of Hall of Fame Players — Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr — were better players in 1987 and 1988 than they were in 1984 and ’85, when Edmonton won its first two Cups. And by the 1990 Cup, Coffey and Gretzky were both gone. That team isn’t even in the discussion, despite being a Stanley Cup winner.

In the ’87 series, Edmonton’s top line of Gretzky, Kurri and Esa Tikkanen was followed over the boards by a unit of Messier, Anderson, and Nilsson, “The Magic Man” who had come over from the Minnesota North Stars late in the season. That’s four Hall of Fame players, plus a Finn and a Swede who were absolutely elite in their day.

“How do you decide, right?” begins Gretzky, when asked the question. “Craig Simpson replaced Kent Nilsson in ’88. Steve Smith became one of the best defencemen in hockey in ’88. In ’87 he was good, but he was that good in ’88. I don’t think there’s any question that ’85 is better than ’84. But to say the ’87 team is better than ’88? That’s pretty tough.

“Craig Simpson was pretty special for our hockey team in ’88, and I tell this to people all the time: Kent Nilsson was the best European hockey player I ever saw, maybe the most talented I ever saw. In ’88, Grant Fuhr was a better goalie. Steve Smith was so good. Craig Muni stepped in and got to another level…”

By the 1986-87 season, an Oilers team that had surpassed the 400-goal plateau for five consecutive seasons would score only 372 times. It was still 54 more goals more than the next best team (Calgary with 318), and they won the Presidents’ Trophy with 106 points.

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But those Oilers also posted their lowest goals against total in a 10-year span, with 284 goals allowed. That ranked 10th in the NHL.

“We had all the different pieces, so it didn’t matter how you played the game. We could play that way too,” Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr said. “If you wanted to play rough and tough, we could play that way. You want to play a finesse game? We could play that way. You want to play a special teams game? We could play that way. If you wanted to turn it into a checking battle, we could play that way.

“Yeah, we loved to play it wide open. That was our forte. But we could also play it any other way you wanted to play,” he continued. “We were always a tough team.”

So, Grant, was this the best Oilers team?

“I think it was the deepest team,” he concurred. “When we added Kent Nilsson, he was so talented. And playing with Mess brought a lot of his talent out. You play with Mess and (Anderson), he had to be good every night to keep up to those two.

“You had Andy, Mess and Kent on a line. You had Gretz, Jari and Tikk — and our checking lines were just as good. We actually had five lines, eight good defencemen and two good goalies (he and Andy Moog).

“You can’t get a lot deeper than that.”


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