If there is one position that the Edmonton Oilers have done particularly well in throughout their 41-year history, it’s goaltending. The team has churned out its fair share of star goalies, ranging from Andy Moog and Grant Fuhr during the dynasty years to Bill Ranford and Curtis Joseph during the tumultuous ’90s.
In fact, the team’s struggles in the crease over the past decade have been somewhat out of character for the franchise. It hasn’t been until very recently that the club has had trouble finding a capable starting goalie for more than a few seasons. It seemed like no matter how good or bad the team was doing, they were always strong between the pipes until now.
That paragraph will probably put visions of the names I listed at the beginning of this article in your head. Yet, they are not who I want to talk about today. Instead, I wanted to shift our attention towards a goaltender that doesn’t get talked about nearly as often as he should. He led the Oilers for five seasons during the fairly unremarkable years of 1999 to 2004.
Let’s take a closer look at the Oilers’ career of Tommy Salo.
Rocky Roads On the Island
Salo came into the league at a rather interesting time. He was drafted out of the top Swedish league in 1993 at pick #118 by the New York Islanders. At the time, there weren’t many European goaltenders getting regular minutes at the NHL level. In fact, there were only three who had played 30 or more games in the season leading up to his selection (Peter Sidorkiewicz – 64, Tommy Soderstrom – 44, Arturs Irbe – 33). It was not like the modern-day league where Scandinavian goaltenders are a dime a dozen.
Despite this, Salo was able to make his debut with the Islanders the following season, appearing in six games and posting a dismal 1-5-0 record. Not the greatest first impression for a young goaltender. He would spend the majority of the 1995-1996 season with the Utah Grizzlies before blossoming into an NHL starter during the 1996-1997 season.
He became the team’s de-facto starting goalie during a really tough period for the Islanders. The team had finished dead last in their division the past two seasons and things weren’t looking much better in Salo’s first season as a starter, as they once again finished in the basement.
Salo had managed to post back-to-back 20-win seasons despite the team’s futility, but it was in 1997 that his future on the Island was seriously put into question. He entered a brutal arbitration dispute on his next contract and if we are to believe reports, he was even brought to tears at one of the hearings as the league’s lawyers tore apart the young Swede. (From ‘Salo thrilled to escape the island,’ Edmonton Journal, 03/21/1999) The result would be a one-year deal with an average annual value of $750,000. It was clear at this point that Salo wouldn’t last too much longer with the Isles.
This was all but confirmed when then-Islanders general manager Mike Milbury traded for Felix Potvin in January 1999, effectively pushing Salo out of the picture. It wouldn’t be too much longer until he found his way to Alberta’s capital city.
Building a Career in Edmonton
The acquisition of Potvin was the last straw to break before Salo’s exit from the Islanders. Among the teams most interested in the Swedish goaltender was Glen Sather and the Edmonton Oilers. Milbury and Sather immediately got to negotiating with the initial ask from the Islanders including Ryan Smyth, a player that the Oilers had no interest in letting go.
The negotiations would last a few months as the Islanders’ ask slowly lowered until the two sides reached a deal. Salo was traded to the Oilers on March 20, 1999, in exchange for Mats Lindgren and a 1999 eighth-round pick that would eventually turn into Radek Martinek.
The deal made sense for both sides. The Oilers were in the midst of pushing for a playoff spot and lacked a proper starting goaltender to get them there, while the Islanders rid themselves of a player that they never truly believed in. Little did both sides know the eventual impact that Salo would have on the Oilers franchise in the years to follow.
Upon his arrival to the Oilers, there were more than a few critics who questioned his acquisition. His performance in New York wasn’t particularly great and there wasn’t a whole lot of confidence that he would provide much to an Oilers team who wasn’t particularly strong. Those thoughts were dashed fairly quickly as Salo posted an 8-2-2 record and helped the team secure a playoff berth. They would eventually bow out of the first round after being swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars, but Salo’s performance in the regular season impressed.
Salo immediately stepped into the starter role for the Oilers during the 1999-2000 season and, despite a losing 27-28-13 record, would once again lead the team to a short-lived playoff run. His work paid off that summer as he inked the richest deal in franchise history, signing a three-year contract worth a total of $10.4 million. He was their guy for the foreseeable future.
During this time, he helped the Oilers to two additional playoff appearances and became the team’s go-to goaltender for a generation of fans. He has two All-Star appearances under his belt and also finished sixth in Vezina voting for the 1999-2000 season. His time as an Oiler came to an end in 2004 as the team traded him to the Colorado Avalanche in a deadline deal that saw the Oilers acquire defenceman Tom Gilbert.
While the Oilers wouldn’t see a whole lot of playoff success during Salo’s tenure with the team, it became quite clear that the Swede made a considerable impact on the franchise. He spent a total of five and half seasons with the Oilers and his name is all over the team’s record books. As it stands today, he holds the franchise record for shutouts with 23, is third in games played with 334 and third in wins with 147. Definitely a guy that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough.