Edmonton Oilers can learn from early 90’s Nordiques

Jordan Eberle of the Edmonton Oilers. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jordan Eberle of the Edmonton Oilers. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On the heels of another decisive loss (4-0 to the Toronto Maple Leafs), the Edmonton Oilers can write-off October as a tough first month or they can explore their options. A playoff miss this season would mark the eighth straight for the franchise. No team has failed to qualify for the post season since 2007, except the Oilers.

Usually in hockey, there is a comparable or measurement that applies to every situation. For example, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 but they’ve struggled to duplicate since, losing several playoff series’ they were expected to win. A comparable in this case would be the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs won the Cup in 1996 and struggled to repeat as champs until 2001, five tries later. If the Penguins reign supreme this year, they will have followed a similar path.

I don’t know about you, but when I think Edmonton Oilers, I think three straight 1st overall draft picks. As of right now, that is the organization’s current identity. The Oilers can be defined by the luxury of having first choice of best available player for three straight seasons. In that, they share a distinction with only one other NHL franchise – the Quebec Nordiques circa 1989-1991.

In some ways, the Oilers can learn from the Nordiques of the early 90’s. No, they can’t learn about how to keep a franchise in a city, because the Nords were out of QC a mere five years after drafting the last of their 1st overalls. But they can draw inspiration on how to appropriately build a contender through asset management.

The Quebec Nordiques drafted Mats Sundin 1st overall in 1989. Owen Nolan was chosen tops in 1990 by the Nords. In their third go-round they chose Eric Lindros number one. All three players had great NHL careers, although, not with Quebec/Colorado.

At the beginning of the 1995-96 NHL season the Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche. At the end of that same season, they were Stanley Cup champions.

When the Avalanche won their first Cup all three number ones were gone – dealt away – traded for pieces conducive with winning. Now, I’m not suggesting the Edmonton Oilers should trade number one picks Taylor Hall 10′, Ryan Nugent Hopkins 11′, and Nail Yakupov 12′. Every situation is different. What worked for the Nordiques/Avalanche may not work in Edmonton. However, I will suggest that perhaps the Oilers should look back and analyze what the Nordiques/Avalanche franchise did in subsequent years following the spree of three. The truth is, they probably already have put a lot of thought into it.

The best way to explain the actions of the two-time winning Avalanche franchise is to discuss the order in which their top picks were traded, as opposed to, the order in which they were drafted.

First to go was Eric Lindros. I promise you, the return received for the Big E will not be available to the Oilers regardless of which player they choose to trade. The Lindros thing was different. He refused to play in Quebec City. And, he was the most highly touted prospect since Mario Lemieux, whom at the time was best known for scoring 199 points in a single NHL season and 2 Stanley Cup titles.

Lindros’ trade value was unbelievably high. Influenced by a decade where superstars could win multiple Cups – Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier – paying a king’s ransom at the time made a bunch of sense. Lindros was supposed to be like Gretzky, or Bossy.

The Eric Lindros trade.

When the Quebec Nordiques traded Eric Lindros to the Philadelphia Flyers they received one of the best trade packages in NHL history. Here is the trade:

To the Philadelphia Flyers: Eric Lindros

To the Nordiques/Avalanche: Peter Forsberg, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, 1st round pick in 1993 (Jocelyn Thibault), 1st round pick in 1994 (Nolan Baumgartner), and $15,000,000.

The Lindros trade is an example of what not to pay for a talented young prospect with superstar potential. Don’t get me wrong, Lindros became a superstar, however, so did Peter Forsberg. Had the trade gone down as Lindros for Forsberg straight up we’d still argue about who won the deal. When factoring in the entire package of assets shipped to the Nordiques for Lindros, there is no confusion about how massive a fleecing this was by the Nordiques.

In today’s era, depth wins Cups. Therefore, as good as Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov may appear to be, no team in its right mind is going to trade a bluechip prospect, two 1st round picks and several roster players to attain one of them.

Forsberg, Ricci, and Simon all contributed to the Avs Cup victory in 1996. Lindros won no Stanley Cups throughout his 13-year NHL career.

The Mats Sundin trade.

Maple Leafs legend Mats Sundin. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Maple Leafs legend Mats Sundin. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mats Sundin actually got to play for the Quebec Nordiques, unlike Lindros. However, he was deemed not part of the winning solution in the summer of 1994 when he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

To the Maple Leafs: Mats Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner, and a 1st round pick (Nolan Baumgartner, again).

To the Nordiques/Avalanche: Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefevbre, Landon Wilson and a 1st round pick in 1994 (Jeff Kealty).

The Sundin trade was a blessing for the Leafs, who had no young talent within their system. Acquiring Sundin assured them a franchise centre for the next 13 seasons. When all was said and done, Captain Mats had accumulated enough points in Blue & White to become the franchise’s all time leading scorer. However, Sundin retired with no Stanley Cups.

The Nordiques didn’t get exactly what they were hoping for with Wendel Clark. But, his reputation as one of the game’s most fierce competitors allowed them to flip him shortly thereafter for a player who made a world of difference in the 1996 Stanley Cup run by the Avalanche.

On October 3rd, 1995, Clark was traded to the New York Islanders for RW Claude Lemieux. Having just won the Cup and Conn Smythe with the Devils the season before, Lemieux stepped into the Avs lineup a playoff hero. In 19 playoff games he recorded 12 points and was involved in one of hockey’s biggest cheap shots.

Sylvain Lefevbre, who didn’t take top billing in the Sundin trade, actually turned out to be a very effective member of the Avalanche en route to winning the 96′ Cup. He played in all 22 post season games the Cup year.

The Owen Nolan trade.

Owen Nolan was a very talented power forward/sniper in his day. Yet, when the Avalanche needed that final piece on defence, it was he they moved out of town. On October 25, 1995, the Avs traded the last of their first overall picks to the San Jose Sharks for mobile defenceman Sandis Ozolinsh.

Ozolinsh was incredible for the Avalanche. He always found a way to step up and perform exceptionally well in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He had done so with the surprising Sharks in 93-94, recording 10 points in 15 games.

Ozolinsh was outstanding for the Avs in 96′. He played all 22-games of Cup journey, finishing the playoffs with 19 points, while providing an essential offensive element from the defence. Elite offensive defencemen grace the blueline of most Cup winning teams.

Should the Oilers sell high with some of their youth?

There is more than one way to skin a cat. The Edmonton Oilers may not necessarily need to move three of their best young players before they can become Stanley Cup contenders. In fact, had the Avalanche kept 2/3 of their top picks you never know how well they could’ve done – how many Cups they could’ve won.

Also, the Nordiques were setup nicely with Joe Sakic in their repertoire of weapons. And, they were the beneficiaries of a desperate Montreal Canadiens who were forced to trade an angry Patrick Roy, providing the Avs the opportunity to acquire the best goaltender in the NHL at the time, if not all-time.

The Oilers don’t need to trade anyone. Hall, RNH, Yakupov – they’re all kids still. It is safe to assume the Oilers three #1’s are nowhere near the height of their potential. Patience can work here. That being said, they don’t look ready right now.

Conversely, the Oilers may choose the other option. They might consider some player personnel change at the top end. In the quest for Stanley Cup success an NHL team should explore all its options, address all its needs, and do everything in its power to best create a Stanley Cup contender with a real chance at winning a couple championships.