I don’t think we can really find close matches for teams, but if we could I’d like to choose the 1972 Summer Philadelphia Flyers for this year’s edition of the Edmonton Oilers.
In 71-72, the Flyers missed the playoffs despite being tied (with Pittsburgh) for 4th place in the west. They lost the tiebreaker (which writer Bill Libby refered to as a “technicality” which is so perverse it’s funny) to the Penguins and spent the summer trying to figure out what went wrong.
The facts at that time (as I see them) were that most of the 1967 expansion teams were about equal. St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and California finished within just a few points of each other and Minnesota had just then managed to gain some clearance by airlifting a bunch of really old guys onto the roster. Los Angeles trailed the pack in 71-72, but did add goalie Rogie Vachon and were due for an upswing.
A look at the Flyer roster that summer was not encouraging. In fact, in the expansion draft the two new clubs (Atlanta and the New York Islanders) passed over established players because they had been ineffective (some were rumored heading to the new WHA which contributed).
The summer 1972 Flyer roster did boast some nice things:
- An emerging Bobby Clarke, who had just won a major award and was certainly the leader of the club (he had 81 points in 71-72 and he won the Masterton).
- A couple of NHL average RWs in Simon Nolet and Gary Dornhoefer. Dornhoefer was better than that but he kept getting injured every season.
- A trade with Los Angeles (one of the biggest in NHL history) brought them two more good NHL wingers in Ross Lonsberry and Bill Flett.
- Crazy Doug Favell, an acrobatic goalie in the Mike Palmateer family who played his best hockey for the Flyers.
- A strong group of stay-at-home defenders which included Joe Watson, Ed Van Impe and Barry Ashbee.
- A nice bunch of up and coming forwards who had heart and played a physical game, including Bob Kelly, Dave Schultz and Bill Clement. Plus the amazing Rick MacLeish. Some, like MacLeish, had come in trade at an extremely high price and had not delivered but the talent was there.
- Fred Shero was still a pretty new coach and was brimming with ideas. If you look at the Flyers from the season previous to his arrival and look at the first Stanley winner it is extremely easy to see his template.
- The procurement department was strong both at the pro and amateur levels.
The team’s weaknesses? Little or no depth beyond the first one or two lines, they didn’t have a puck moving defender they could rely on and the could not score goals (the 71-72 Flyers scored the fewest goals in the league). Their backup goalie, Bruce Gamble, had a heart attack. Their top scoring defender, the huge Rick Foley, was not then (or ever) in good shape.
So, what did management do that summer? Well, they did well and then they got lucky.
- They had an amazing draft. They took LW Billy Barber 7th overall, and he spent 11 games in the minors before coming to the show and popping 30 as a rookie. They drafted Tom Bladon 23rd overall and he became their puck moving defender. He had a long forgotten dream season as a rookie, scoring 42 points. They drafted Jim Watson 39th overall, and he would become a quality defender beginning in 73-74, and they drafted Al MacAdam 55th overall. He would stay long enough to get his name on the first cup and then head west as the key component in the Reggie Leach deal. That’s a helluva draft, folks.
- They made a trade for Andre Dupont which solidified the blueline. The Flyers gave up a promising young winger in Pierre Plante and defender Brent Hughes but Dupont was a key player for the Shero Flyers.
How did they get lucky? Lots of ways.
- Bill Flett was made available in the expansion draft but no one took him. Flett joined Ross Lonsberry as wingers for the previously unproductive Rick MacLeish and under Shero’s watchful eye the line formed a deadly trio with MacLeish (50 goals) and Flett (43) scoring career highs.
- Clarke blossomed into a complete, impact player at the very highest levels. I think we can make the claim that Bobby Clarke would have found a way to win a Stanley with another team but it’s never been obvious to me we could say the opposite would have held true. Bernie Parent was the best goalie I’d ever seen (pre-Hasek) for two or three years in the mid-70s, but Bobby Clarke was a truly stunning hockey player who played many of those mid-70s SCF shifts like it was life and death. You can watch those games now and still see the impact Clarke had on his team and the game.
- Dornhoefer stayed healthy and they found a LW to go with that line in Billy Barber (this is the Clarke line). Barber actually started on the extra (4) line at center when he came up but was quickly moved to LW because of his shot. Barber was a helluva hockey player.
- The Flyers suffered less than any other team in their division from WHA raids and the expansion draft.
- Shero found useful parts among the young players. Clement became a solid PK man and third line center, Kelly was the animal who came out and crashed everyone in sight to get the crowd going (this is meant as a joke, the Flyer crowds in that era were complete bedlam), Schultz was the enforcer and Saleski was an actual hockey player (this seems to have been forgotten along the way btw).
They didn’t solve all of their problems in 72-73. There was no goaltending to speak of after Doug Favell (which would be solved by the return of Bernie Parent) and by the time they won their first Stanley they would add quality role players like Orest Kindrachuk and Terry Crisp for very little cost to the major league roster. However, this was the summer they added to the foundation and gave the team the depth required to win it all.
That’s what has to happen in Edmonton in order for this team to contend again under Lowe/MacT.
- They need their young players (like Rick MacLeish) who are kind of running in place and not getting traction at the NHL level to have a huge impact on the team. Players in this group might include Marc Pouliot, Jean Francois Jacques and Robert Nilsson. NOTE: None of these guys are close to being Rick MacLeish. MacLeish was completely opposite to everything Shero preached, the man could not check his hat. But Shero realized that if you’re going to win then someone has to score and MacLeish was among the top handful of skill forwards in the game when healthy.
- They need to find someone for Ales Hemsky to play with at EV, a Bill Barber who can elevate an entire team by giving them enough depth to add a scoring line with the pieces currently available. Players in this group might include Dustin Penner, Raffi Torres or maybe even someone like Andrew Cogliano or Sam Gagner.
- They need to trade for added depth on the blueline. No more puck movers, just a quality defender who is tough and can play the NHL game straight up and win the battles. An Andre Dupont. They have Steve Staios and emerging talents (Greene and Roy, let’s say) in this area but badly need to cash in one of the emerging talents for for immediate dividends if Greene or Roy can’t handle what will likely be a tremendous load.
- They need to add NHL players. Shero basically got rid of all the small forwards (Jim Johnson, Andre Lacroix, Jean Guy Gendron) and replaced them with guys who could play and had size (Bill Flett, Ross Lonsberry) while not losing much in terms of NHL experience. When he arrived, all of the players beyond about 8F and 4D were inexperienced youngsters or minor league veterans. Shero upgraded everywhere with NHL talent (save the really good kids like Barber, Watson and Bladon).
Lowe needs to improve this team’s depth with NHL calibre players and do it before the first game of the NHL season. Recent news that Mike Johnson’s camp expressed interest in the Oilers only to be met with lukewarm interest is exactly the kind of thing that will hurt the 07-08 season.
The Oilers appear destined to start the season out of balance again, counting on MacT to find the answers in house and force him to play unproven talent without a veteran option and no real safety net. Knowing MacT’s style, I’d suggest you can bet on Kyle Brodziak playing as many minutes at 2line RW as Robert Nilsson. I’m absolutely certain Fred Shero would agree with him. Shero’s “offense first” forwards were some of the truly elite young men of their generation: Rick MacLeish and Reggie Leach.
MacT elevated Ales Hemsky. It’s Kevin Lowe’s job to find him another jack or king, and stop peddling these 6′s and 7′s and 9′s to MacT and the fanbase.