Oilers: Uphill struggles continue

Known as The Little Team That Could. Will the Oilers still be able to next season?

Updated: August 15, 2003, 5:46 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Kevin Lowe is an amiable enough fellow. Undeniably sharp. Inarguably industrious. Usually candid.

2002-03 BY THE NUMBERS
Record: 36-26-11-9, 92 pts. (T13th overall, 8th West, 4th Northwest); Home: 20-12-5-4; Road: 16-14-6-5
Goals for/Avg:
231/2.82 (9th overall)
Goals against/Avg.:
230/2.80 (19th overall)
Differential:
Plus-1 (15th overall)
Power play:
14.5 percent (56-386, 19th overall)
Penalty kill:
82.6 percent (290-351, T19th overall)
20-goal scorers: Ryan Smyth (27), Anson Carter (25), Mike York (22), Todd Marchant (20), Mike Comrie (20)
50-point scorers: Smyth (61), Marchant (60), Carter (55), York (51), Comrie (51)
He's also someone running perilously short of patience.

After his Edmonton Oilers were bounced (heavy sigh, shoulder sag ... not again!) by the Dallas Stars in the first round of the playoffs last spring, Lowe, completely fed up, went undercover, refusing for a week to speak publicly about another early exit lest emotion get the better of him and he say something he might regret later.

A bit melodramatic, you figure? Well, here's a surprising statistic: Only nine teams in the NHL have more aggregate points over the past three years than Edmonton's 277, putting the big Oil drop in the top third of the league. Yet there are no postseason series wins to reinforce what have been, considering the financial restrictions of being a "small-market" Canadian franchise, commendable regular seasons.

And that makes Kevin Lowe a decidedly unhappy man.

Edmonton managed to grind out 92 points to finish in the eighth and final playoff spot in a tough Western Conference. But it certainly could not be considered a smooth sail for much of the voyage.

Chief among the underachieving Oilers were Swedish goaltender Tommy Salo and center Mike Comrie. Salo in a not-so-distant-time was considered among the elite of NHL goaltenders, vastly underrated. Ah yes, it only SEEMS like a lifetime ago. His 2.71 goals-against-average and save percentage under .900 don't begin to warrant the $3.9 million salary Salo will be pulling in this season. Factoring in all major statistical data, he ranked 29th among goalies. Sorry, not approaching good enough (although, ironically, he was nonetheless named, along with Todd Marchant, as co-winner of the team's Most Valuable Player award).

Comrie, meanwhile, is counted upon to the fulcrum of the Oiler attack. Shifty, clever, a natural playmaker, no one in Edmonton was satisfied with only 51 points and a team-worst minus-18 rating from him in 2002-2003. In fact, Comrie's play was so ragged late in the season that he found himself relegated to the second power-play unit (a power play, which, by the way, ranked dead last -- a killer stat -- at home), despite the innate gifts he brings to such critical situations.

Looking ahead at next season
With Anson Carter now playing on Broadway, the goals over an 82-game season are expected be harder to come by this year. Which means Comrie must do a far more consistent job in helping to spread out the wealth.

While other teams in the West have been busy strengthening their lineups, the Oilers virtually stood still over the summer. The most notable addition, actually, came off the ice in the person of former sniper Craig Simpson. A longtime friend of coach Craig MacTavish and for the past few years a TV pundit, Simpson joins Billy Moores and Charlie Huddy as an assistant coach. And likely the best move Lowe made in the offseason was in convincing MacT to stay rather than, say, hook back up with his old mentor Glen Sather in Manhattan.

Former high draft pick Raffi Torres, who came over with Brad Isbister in the Carter deal at the trade deadline, is expected to be a new face in the lineup, onetime Calgary Flame Jarrett Stoll another.

The lone significant deletion so far is the pesky Marchant, who signed for an unseemly amount of money in Columbus. After his poor playoff performance, Lowe and Co. weren't shedding many tears as he passed through the city limits. Also gone is backup goaltender Jussi Markanen, who, if nothing else, owns arguably the best nickname in the league (Jussi Rebound).

Of interest is Ryan Smyth. He and the Oilers averted salary arbitration -- and a possible divorce -- moments before the hearing, settling on a two-year deal that will pay him a base of $3.45 million next season and $3.55 million the year after.

Lowe, after all, made his major moves in the latter stages of last season, shipping out Carter and defenseman Janne Niinimmaa. At the time, everyone screamed "Salary dump!'' at the top of their lungs, predicting a free fall down the standings. Yet the Oil still managed to top the 90-point plateau, go on a 7-2-3-1 run following the trade deadline, and cruise into the postseason, however briefly, after a one-year absence.

This is a huge season for Salo, the final one guaranteed on his current contract. The Oilers have two years more AT THEIR OPTION option and should he not rediscover his old, pre-Olympic form, Salo's tenure in the Alberta capital is quite likely up.

Sizing up this Oilers entry at the moment, a month before training camp opens, most analysts view them as they usually do -- a good team stuck in a difficult division and a murderous conference; one that should consider it enough getting to the playoff dance for a seventh time in eight seasons.

Just don't waste your breath trying to convince Kevin Lowe.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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