Oilers’ Trade of Damphousse for Corson Began Period of Upheaval

Last year’s 25th Anniversary of Curtis Joseph’s debut with the Edmonton Oilers was a chance to reflect on a transformative moment for the club. That game, a 5-4 home overtime victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 13, 1996, marked a turning point for the organization, who shifted from their post-dynasty depths to chart a path back to the playoffs.

Edmonton’s subsequent ascent and their stunning upset of the Dallas Stars in the first round of the 1997 Playoffs will forever be remembered in Oil Country, where a brighter future inspired hope and excitement from the fanbase. But here’s the thing about those positive vibes: they came after emerging from darkness, and in order to emerge from that darkness, they had to be plunged into it.

This brings us to another anniversary: it’s been 30 years since Vincent Damphousse was traded to the Montreal Canadiens on Aug. 27, 1992. That, too, was a transformative moment for the Oilers but one that was much more difficult to endure. Until that point, they had remained among hockey’s elite, even while stripping away pieces from a team that won five Stanley Cups in seven years. But the bottom was about to fall out, and it wasn’t pretty.

Deconstruction of the Oilers Dynasty  

The buildup to this moment traces back nearly five years earlier, to Nov. 24, 1987, when the first future Hall-of-Famer was traded away by the Oilers. Paul Coffey, a multi-time Norris Trophy-winner, who had been an awesome force on Edmonton’s first three championship teams (1984, 1985, 1987), was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins mainly for forward Craig Simpson.

Related: Edmonton Oilers’ Forgotten Greats: Craig Simpson 

From there, the trades kept coming, ultimately for diminishing returns. Wayne Gretzky was infamously traded to the Los Angeles Kings for a lot of money and players, including Martin Gelinas and, most prominently, Jimmy Carson, who lasted barely over a season in Edmonton before being moved to the Detroit Red Wings for Joe Murphy and Petr Klima. Jari Kurri landed in L.A., reuniting with Gretzky, following a three-way trade that included Scott Mellanby from the Philadelphia Flyers. Mark Messier ended up with the New York Rangers for Bernie Nicholls, and then there was Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr, who were traded together to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a package of players headlined by Damphousse.  

Damphousse Joins Oilers  

Just 23 years old at the time and already a veteran of five full NHL seasons, Damphousse was coming off his first All-Star Game appearance when he was acquired by the Oilers on Sept. 19, 1991. He totalled 73 points in 79 games in 1990-91, which was his third straight season with at least 26 goals and 42 assists.

Vincent Damphousse, San Jose Sharks, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL Draft
Vincent Damphousse (Dave Nelson/Flickr)

Damphousse had a tremendous season with the Oilers in 1991-92 when he was Edmonton’s lone All-Star Game selection. He ranked first on the team in goals (38), assists (51), and points (89), and his team-leading eight game-winning goals are tied for the most in franchise history by anyone not named Anderson, Gretzky, Kurri, or Connor McDavid

In the postseason, Damphousse had six goals and eight assists while registering a team-best plus-5 rating. The left-shot forward also helped Edmonton advance to the Conference Final series for a remarkable eighth time in 10 years.

This, however, wasn’t the Oilers of old; the five-time Stanley Cup champs were running out of steam, which was painfully apparent when they were swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in the Campbell Conference Final, being outscored 21-8 over the four games.

As sensational as Damphousse was, Edmonton lacked secondary scoring: only three Oilers (Murphy and Simpson being the others) topped 60 points in 1991-92, which was a franchise low at the time. The team was precariously perched and, as it turned out, one move away from toppling over.

Corson Acquired From Montreal  

While it never showed in his play, Damphousse apparently wasn’t happy in Edmonton and reportedly asked for a trade (from “Damphousse dealt for three Habs”, The Edmonton Journal, 08/28/92).

He was believed to have been negotiating with the Canadiens as a free agent, but rather than have him sign with Montreal and get unknown compensation, Oilers general manager Glen Sather sent the Montreal native to his hometown in exchange for Shayne Corson, Brent Gilchrist, and Vladimir Vujtek.

Shayne Corson Montreal Canadiens
Shayne Corson (Robert Laberge /Allsport)

“Vince had some difficulty in Edmonton. I believe he and his wife either separated or got divorced,” Sather was quoted as saying in the Aug. 28, 1992 edition of the Edmonton Journal. “He didn’t want to come back, and she didn’t want to live here. I wasn’t prepared to get into another situation where we’d have to coddle someone to play on the hockey club. We never really got to the point of me saying, ‘I won’t pay you what you want.’”

The key piece for Edmonton was Corson, a 26-year-old veteran of 420 NHL games with three seasons of at least 50 points on his resume. Sather believed that they were getting a potential star – a leader on an Oilers squad that could stay competitive in the Campbell Conference, but that wasn’t the case. 

Oilers Rebuild Begins

The Oilers struggled out of the gate in 1992-93 and never got back on track. As a result, Sather went scorched earth, making a flurry of deals that saw experienced talented players on rich contracts replaced by promising but unproven youth. Between Dec. 1992 and Sept. 1993, Gelinas, Klima, Kevin Lowe (five Stanley Cups), Mellanby, Craig Muni (three Cups), Murphy, Nicholls, Simpson, and Esa Tikkanen (four Cups) all left Edmonton.

For the first time since joining the NHL 14 years earlier, the Oilers missed the playoffs in 1992-93, finishing second from the bottom in the Smythe Division and a 4-20 record over their final 24 games – to add insult to injury, Damphousse won the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens that season. It got even worse the following season when the Oilers opened the 1993-94 campaign with a 3-18-3 record over their first 24 games. They improved, going 22-27-11 the rest of the way, but still finished last in the division for the first time, again missing the postseason. 

Tumultuous Times in Edmonton

Corson recorded 47 points in 80 games in his first season with the Oilers, then in 1993-94, posted 54 points in 64 games while ranking second on the team with 25 goals. He was also Edmonton’s lone All-Star Game representative in 1994.

Heading into the 1994-95 season, the Oilers were without a captain, as predecessor Craig MacTavish had been traded to the New York Rangers the spring before. After a lockout delayed the start of the season until Jan. 1995 and reduced the schedule to 48 games, first-year Oilers coach George Burnett bestowed the captaincy on Corson. It proved to be a disastrous decision. The left-winger’s tenure lasted all of 35 games – the shortest in franchise history – before a series of incidents led Burnett to strip Corson of the ‘C’ on April 4, 1995, while Edmonton was in the midst of a nine-game losing streak.

Corson had publicly criticized Burnett, suggesting the coach had tried to embarrass him with a third-period benching during a blowout loss to the Kings (from “Oilers Fire Burnett”, The Kingman Daily Miner, 04/07/95). That came on the heels of an altercation between Corson and 20-year-old Oilers star center Jason Arnott when the former felt he deserved an assist that had been awarded to the latter. 

Glen Sather
Glen Sather (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Two days after Corson had the ‘C’ taken off his jersey, Sather fired Burnett and installed Ron Low behind the bench, but the season was beyond saving at that point; the Oilers were well on their way to missing the playoffs for a third straight year. It was all Low could do to extinguish what had become a dumpster fire with this once-proud franchise.

Edmonton regrouped enough to go .500 (5-5-1) over its last 11 contests, and Corson played all 48 games of the shortened season, finishing third on the team with 36 points. But, as a pending restricted free agent, his days in orange and blue were numbered.

Closing a Chapter of Oilers’ History 

On July 28, 1995, Corson signed an offer sheet (a five-year contract worth $6.95 million plus a $1.25 million signing bonus) with the St. Louis Blues, which Sather elected not to match. As compensation, the Oilers were awarded the Blues’ first-round draft pick in both 1996 and 1997. He then traded those picks back to St. Louis in exchange for the rights to 20-year-old prospect Mike Grier, a forward from Boston University, and a 28-year-old veteran goalie by the name of Joseph.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. From the departure of Damphousse to Joseph’s arrival, the Oilers went through a volatile period of change, upheaval and, above all, transformation.

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