An entire generation knows Craig Simpson only as a television analyst. And there are probably quite a few older fans that don’t remember him for anything else but being in the booth. Having now spent two decades providing colour commentary, it’s Simpson’s work on National Hockey League broadcasts that have came to shape how he’s perceived.
But Simpson deserves to be known for what he did during his playing career, particularly with the Edmonton Oilers. Even while he was still lacing them up, Simpson didn’t get his due, and he’s only that much more under-appreciated now, more than a quarter century after skating his last shift.
Simpson came into the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and retired as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, but in between he played 419 games over parts of six seasons, the bulk of his career, with the Oilers.
Simpson was only 20, but already in his third NHL season and a veteran of 169 games when he was traded from Pittsburgh to the Oilers on Nov. 24, 1987, in a seven-player deal headlined by superstar defenceman Paul Coffey. Coffey had sat out the first month and a half of the season after asking for a trade when Oilers general manager Glen Sather and owner Peter Pocklington refused to renegotiate his contract. (from ‘Oilers Send Coffey to Penguins’, The New York Times, 11/25/87)
Drafted second overall in 1985, out of Michigan State University, Simpson made the jump to the NHL right away, playing 76 games as a rookie with the Penguins in 1985-86. The 6-foot-2 forward had 51 points in his second season, and was off to a fantastic start in 1986-87, recording 13 goals and 13 assists in his first 21 games with the Penguins.
But now Simpson was joining the defending Stanley Cup champions in Edmonton, where high expectations awaited. Fair or not, that was the burden of being the centrepiece acquired in exchange for Coffey, a future Hall-of-Famer that had already won the Norris Trophy twice and was still just 26. (The trade also included Dave Hannan, Chris Joseph and Moe Mantha going to Edmonton, with Dave Hunter and Wayne Van Drop heading to Pittsburgh.)
If he felt any pressure, the London, Ont., product shook it off. All Simpson did he was go out and score 43 times in 59 appearances with the Oilers in 1987-88. On a team that had four future Hall-of-Fame forwards (Glenn Anderson, Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, and Mark Messier), Simpson tied Kurri for the team lead in goals, despite playing in less than three-quarters of Edmonton’s games. With 56 goals combined between the Penguins and Oilers, Simpson ranked second in the NHL, trailing only his former Pittsburgh teammate, Mario Lemieux.
Simpson kept up his play in the postseason, where, in his playoff debut, he scored 13 goals (including three game-winners) in 19 games, one less than Kurri for the NHL lead, helping the Oilers to their fourth Stanley Cup in five years.
The Day Everything Changed
On Aug. 9, 1988, the hockey word was turned upside down when the Oilers dealt Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. The shocking move haunted Edmonton throughout the 1988-89 season, as the Oilers never seemed to discover their post-Gretzky identity and were ultimately – perhaps poetically – eliminated 4-3 by No. 99 and the Kings in the first round of the playoffs.
Simpson played well in his first full season in Edmonton, recording 35 goals and 41 goals in 66 games. But as was the case for most of his teammates, he could have done more in the playoffs (Simpson had two goals and zero assists in seven games against L.A.), and the Oilers headed into the 1989-90 season with something to prove, as individuals and a team.
Stanley Cup Resurgence
When the Oilers answered the question of if they could rise to a championship level without Gretzky, Simpson delivered as emphatic a response as any one.
In the 1989-90 regular season, Simpson recorded 29 goals and 32 assists in 80 games – and 180 penalty minutes, well over twice as many as any other season in his career – as the Oilers finished second in the Smythe Division.
The Oilers fell behind the Winnipeg Jets 3-1 in the Smythe Division Semi-Final, but from that moment facing elimination, they were pretty much unstoppable. Edmonton rallied to beat the Jets in seven games, and only lost three more times in the 1990 Playoffs, as they swept Los Angeles, knocked off the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, and defeated the Boston Bruins 4-1 in the Stanley Cup Final.
Simpson was simply magnificent throughout the postseason, recording four goals in each of Edmonton’s four series, and at least seven points in every round. His 16 goals were the most among all players, and he tied Messier for the league lead with 31 points. To top it off, he scored the winning goal in Edmonton’s Stanley Cup-clinching victory against the Bruins. While Simpson could have easily won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, that honour went to his teammate between the pipes, a deserving Bill Ranford.
Wearing a Letter
With Kurri leaving Edmonton in 1990, and the departure of Anderson and Messier in 1991, Simpson took on more of a leadership role and was named an alternate captain for the 1992-93 season, when Craig MacTavish was serving as captain.
Simpson remained one of Edmonton’s top offensive contributors, scoring 30 goals in 1990-91, followed by back-to-back 24-goal campaigns in 1991-92 and 1992-93. He also continued to be a force in the postseason, tallying 16 points as the Oilers advanced to the Campbell Conference Final before being eliminated by the Minnesota North Stars in 1991. However, it was the first game of the 1992 Playoffs that marked the beginning of Simpson’s body betraying him.
From the Rink to the Studio
Many of Simpson’s goals came on the opposition’s doorstep. His gifted hands and willingness to go to the front of the net made him a nightmare for goalies. But he took a tremendous pounding standing in the slot, and that began to take its toll.
All things considered, Simpson had been remarkably durable over his first seven NHL seasons, missing on average only a few games per season. But after separating his shoulder in Game 1 of the 1992 Smythe Division Semi-Final against Los Angeles, Simpson was sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs, missing Edmonton’s run back to Campbell Conference Final. Then he missed 24 games in the 1992-93 season because of a nagging lower-back injury.
With the Oilers embarking on a rebuild, Simpson was traded to Buffalo on Sept. 1, 1993, for forward prospect Jozef Cierny and future considerations. Chronic back issues continued to plague Simpson, who played just 46 games over two seasons (1993-94 and 1994-95) with the Sabres. By 1995, his condition had got so bad that he was forced to retire, far too young at just 28.
“The last three years in the National Hockey League for me were probably as painful a hell as I’ve lived.”Craig Simpson (From ‘Nathan Horton’s back woes all too familiar to Craig Simpson’, The Edmonton Journal, 10/30/14)
Simpson began his broadcasting career in 1996 with TSN as an NHL analyst. He then worked with FoxSportsNet for two years before signing on with Sportsnet as an Oilers analyst in 1999.
After a stint as an Oilers assistant coach that included Edmonton’s trip to the 2006 Stanley Cup Final (the only time the Oilers have advanced to the championship series since Simpson was a player), he joined CBC as an analyst on Hockey Night in Canada. He signed on with Rogers in 2014 as a game analyst for the NHL on Sportsnet.
Simpson finished his NHL career with 247 goals and 250 assists in 634 regular season games. He had 36 goals and 32 assists in 67 postseason contests, all with Edmonton.
With 185 goals as a member of the Oilers, Simpson ranked seventh in Edmonton franchise history before being passed in 2021 by Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. As of the conclusion of the 2020-21 season, he is tied for ninth with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Simpson also ranks sixth on the Oilers’ career list with 75 power-play goals.
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Simpson is the NHL’s all-time leader for shooting percentage (23.7%) among players with 300 or more shots, and is the Oilers’ all-time leader for shooting percentage (25.3%) among players with 100 or more shots. He led Edmonton in shooting percentage in five of his six seasons with the Oilers, and had the top shooting percentage in the NHL twice (1987-88 and 1992-93).
Away from the rink, Simpson was frequently involved with charitable causes, serving as honorary chairman of the Edmonton Muscular Dystrophy Association and Edmonton Spinal Cord Injury Treatment Centre. He received the Oilers Community Service Award three times (1990, 1991, and 1993), second most in franchise history, behind Georges Laraque’s four.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.