Only a few in-season transactions in the NHL history of the Edmonton Oilers coincide with a complete reversal in the team’s fortunes. Just last season after signing Evander Kane at the end of January, they climbed from sixth to second place in the Pacific Division and advanced to the Western Conference Final. In 1998-99, the trade for goaltender Tommy Salo with 14 games left in the season sparked a floundering Oilers team to overtake the Calgary Flames for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
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And, of course, leading up to the trade deadline in 2006, Oilers general manager (GM) Kevin Lowe made a series of moves to acquire players that would prove key in Edmonton’s Cinderella run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Then there’s what went down over the holidays 25 years ago when the Oilers ended 1997 and began 1998 with a bang to rival any New Year’s fireworks display.
On Dec. 30, 1997, the Oilers acquired top-pairing defenseman Roman Hamrlik, a former No. 1 overall pick, from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Five days later, on Jan. 4, 1998, they made a deal with the New Jersey Devils for Bill Guerin, a Stanley Cup champion-winning forward with a career average of more than 23 goals per 82 games. What followed was the most dramatic turnaround in team history.
Oilers Struggle Out of the Gate in 1997-98
The 1997-98 NHL season began with more enthusiasm and optimism than had been seen in Edmonton for some time. Coming off a stirring upset of the Dallas Stars in what had been Edmonton’s first playoff appearance in five years, the young and talented Oilers were a team on the rise with a bright future.
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But the first three months of 1997-98 brought anything but that. On the same date they traded for Guerin, the Oilers lost to the Los Angeles Kings to drop to 11-22-9 and fall into a tie for 10th in the Western Conference. With less than half their schedule remaining, the team that had been thought to hold so much promise was in serious danger of missing the playoffs.
Sather Strikes Deal with Lightning
The deal with Tampa Bay saw Oilers GM Glen Sather give up just one veteran currently on Edmonton’s roster, Bryan Marchment, a hard-nosed blueliner who was logging almost 20 minutes a game but had developed a reputation for controversial hits.
Sather also parted ways with forward prospects Jason Bonsignore (the fourth overall pick in 1994) and Steve Kelly (the sixth overall pick in 1995) who were both languishing in the minors, unable to deliver on the expectations that came with being such high draft selections.
In Hamrilk, Edmonton was getting a blueliner with tremendous offensive ability and speed to burn who could sometimes be a defensive tire fire. An NHL All-Star in 1996, he had played 377 regular season games with the Lightning since being drafted first in 1992, totaling 52 goals and 124 assists, but also had a minus-124 rating for his career.
“You might go five, 10 years running a team in this league and not get a shot at a guy like this,” Sather said. “He’s a world-class hockey player.” (From ‘Hamrlik to Oilers in a 5-player deal’, Tampa Bay Times, 12/31/97).
As part of the deal, the Oilers also got unsigned NCAA forward Paul Comrie, the 224th overall pick in 1997. Comrie would not make his NHL debut until 1999-00.
Oilers Get Guerin From Devils
The New Jersey trade saw Edmonton subtracting a big part of its current lineup, Jason Arnott. The 23-year-old center had 95 goals and 221 points in 251 games over his first four seasons with the Oilers, but had just five goals and 18 points through the first 35 games of 1997-98 and had become a target of fans’ vitriol.
Guerin, who led the Devils with 29 goals in 1996-97, had five goals in 19 games when the trade happened. He, too, had fallen out of favour with his team’s fans after missing the first several weeks of the 1997-98 season because of a contract holdout.
Essentially, it was a swap of two high-end forwards in need of a fresh start: Arnott was a couple of years younger, and Guerin possessed winning experience. As part of the deal, New Jersey received Bryan Muir, 23, a defenceman that had spent most of the season in the minors, while Edmonton also got 29-year-old left winger Valeri Zelepukin, a former 20-plus goal scorer with a Stanley Cup ring.
”I made this deal to try to get this team into the playoffs,” said Sather. ”We’re not so far off that we can’t still get there but this team needs some confidence –we’ve just blown two games for no other reason than a lack of confidence –and I think (Guerin and Zelepukin) will help in that area” (From ‘Jig is up for Jason’ The Edmonton Journal, 1/5/98).
Second-Half Surge Leads Oilers to Playoffs
Edmonton’s first game with all three newcomers in the lineup came on Jan. 7, at home against the Florida Panthers. The Oilers woke up that morning only one point from last place in the Western Conference and five points out of the final playoff spot. Trailing 2-1 late in the third period, they rallied to beat the Panthers 3-2. That was the first of six consecutive wins for the Oilers, who were suddenly playing at the level that had been envisioned of them, if not exceeding it.
Edmonton went 24-15-1 to finish the season, posting the most wins of any team in the entire NHL over its final 40 games in 1997-98. The Oilers also moved a whopping six spots up the standings, finishing seventh in the Western Conference to secure a postseason berth.
From the first half to the second half of their schedule, the Oilers increased their scoring by 0.61 goals per game (2.32 to 2.93) while reducing their goals against by 0.58 (3.02 to 2.44), resulting in an astonishing improvement in goal differential of 1.19 per game.
Following his acquisition from the Bolts, Hamrlik scored six goals and added 20 assists, both tops among Oilers defencemen over that span, and led the team with an average of 25:12 ice time. Meanwhile, in 40 games with the Oilers, Guerin had 13 goals (tied for second over that span), including eight on the power-play (tied for most over that span), and recorded 130 shots (leading the team over that span).
Oilers Upset Avalanche in First Round
The Oilers drew the Colorado Avalanche in the 1998 Western Conference quarterfinal round. The first-place team in the Pacific Division, they were a powerhouse only two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup and had beaten Edmonton 4-1 in the second round of the 1997 Playoffs.
Related: Revisiting the Edmonton Oilers’ Stunning 1998 Playoff Upset of the Avalanche
After the Oilers came from behind to steal the series-opener in Denver, the Avalanche won the next three games to take a 3-1 lead. With a 1-0 lead in the third period of Game 5 at McNichols Sports Arena, Colorado was less than 20 minutes away from eliminating the Oilers. Guerin scored at 3:35 on the power-play to level the score at 1-1, and a pair of late goals by Oilers winger Mike Grier sent the series back to Edmonton for Game 6.
Before an electric crowd at Edmonton Coliseum, the Oilers won 2-0 to even the series at three games apiece. Then they went back to Denver and shut out the Avs 4-0 in Game 7.
Edmonton’s comeback was nothing short of staggering. For the first 308:36 of the series, the Oilers led for only 5:26 (1.7 percent of total game time). Over the final 163:40, they never trailed. Guerin scored six goals in the seven games and led both teams with 30 shots, while Hamrlik recorded five assists and averaged a series-high 26:48 ice time.
The Oilers were eliminated by the Stars, 4-1 in the second round, but the additions of Guerin and Hamrlik were felt throughout their 1998 postseason run, as they finished second and tied for third, respectively, on the Oilers in playoff points.
A quarter of a century later, those trades hold up as two of the most positively impactful in franchise history. And as the Oilers near this season’s Christmas break teetering on the edge of a playoff spot, fans in Oil Country might be hoping for a big move or two that can address the current team’s deficiencies and get them playing at the level of a Stanley Cup contender that was widely expected entering the 2022-23 season.