Edmonton Oilers’ legend Paul Coffey joined Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman for a live edition of Ask 31 on sportsnet.ca on April 28 to discuss several Oilers topics.
Coffey played seven seasons with the Oilers from 1980-81 to 1986-87, winning three Stanley Cups in 1984, 1985 and 1987. One of the greatest skaters in the history of the game, Coffey could effortlessly carry the puck from coast-to-coast and create scoring chances at will. He also had a deadly point shot and is arguably the best breakout passer ever.
The Weston, Ontario native holds NHL records for most goals in a single season by a defenceman (48), most goals in a single playoff season by a defenceman (12), most assists in a single playoff season by a defenceman (25), most points in a single playoff season by a defenceman (37) and most career playoff goals by a defenceman (59).
Additionally, his 1,727 combined regular season and playoff points are the most by a defenceman in NHL history.
On the NHL’s all-time lists, Coffey ranks sixth in assists (1,135), 13th in points (1,531), fourth in playoff assists (137) and sixth in playoff points (196). During his illustrious 21-year NHL career, he played in 1,409 regular-season games and 194 playoff games. Coffey finished top-five in league scoring three times, top-10 six times, and top-20 seven times.
Coffey won the James Norris Memorial Trophy as best defenceman three times. He was named to the NHL First All-Star Team four times, the NHL Second All-Star Team four times and played in the 14 NHL All-Star Games.
The 58-year-old was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004 and became just the fourth player to have his number retired by the Oilers in 2005. Here are some of the main topics of discussion from Coffey’s interview with Marek and Friedman.
Coffey Wants the Next Generation to Succeed
It’s been nearly 33 years since he played his last game in an Oilers uniform, but Coffey still bleeds orange and blue. The organization’s longstanding slogan ‘Once an Oiler, always an Oiler’ consistently proves to be true whenever any of the Oilers’ all-time greats speak about their time in Edmonton.
“The beautiful thing about the group of players from my era is that when we do go back to Edmonton, we’re welcomed with open arms,” Coffey told Marek and Friedman. “The city is fantastic. And we’re all dying for the Connor McDavid-led Edmonton Oilers to win another Stanley Cup. That would just be the icing on top of the cake for us.”
After watching his former Pittsburgh Penguins win three Stanley Cups since 2008-09, Coffey is eager to see the team he started with have similar success. While the Oilers are still just trying to become a consistent playoff team, they have the right foundation to win a championship with superstars like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl up front.
McDavid and Draisaitl are undoubtedly the most talented forwards to play for the Oilers since Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, and it’s easy to see the similarities between the two duos. If one of their young defensive prospects can develop into anything close to a modern-day Coffey, then the Oilers could contend sooner rather than later.
Gretzky’s Dedication to the Game
For decades, Gretzky has been known as the greatest offensive talent and smartest player in NHL history. But, despite his natural ability, Gretzky also worked at his craft more than anyone else. Coffey thinks many hockey fans might not realize how committed Gretzky was to achieving excellence.
“What the fans probably didn’t get to see with Wayne was his work ethic,” said Coffey. “His commitment to the game. His respect for the game. His leadership, more so on the ice than in the dressing room, was second to none. When your best player is your hardest worker, it’s easy to follow suit.”
Playing with the greatest player of all-time, and against him in practice, surely made every player on those 1980s Oilers teams better, and helped them become a dynasty. Notwithstanding Jari Kurri, Coffey might have benefited the most from playing with Gretzky.
Coffey would either get the puck to Gretzky in stride with a beautiful stretch pass, or Gretzky would drop the puck to Coffey as he entered the zone. They also spent a ton of time together on a lethal power-play unit in Edmonton. In fact, Coffey finished second in league scoring in 1983-84 with 126 points, behind only Gretzky (208).
When you combine his level of skill and hockey sense with an unmatched work ethic and passion for the game, it should come as no surprise that Gretzky reached incredible heights during his career.
How Many Cups Could the Oilers Have Won?
With the release of the new ESPN documentary The Last Dance which chronicles the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season, many basketball fans are left wondering how many championships the Bulls could have won if they had kept the team together.
A decade earlier, the Oilers dominated the NHL in a similar manner, capturing five Stanley Cups in seven seasons and set almost every major scoring record. Due to rising players’ salaries across the league, however, the Oilers were unable to keep their talented core group together.
But if they could have all stayed together until retirement, Coffey believes the Oilers would have continued to win championships.
“The Oilers won two more Stanley Cups after I left and one more after Wayne left, which is pretty impressive. And that shows the great leadership of Mark Messier,” said Coffey. “I think if we were all able to stay together, and added a few parts here and there, I don’t know if we would have hit double-digits, but I think we would have been able to win seven or eight for sure.”
In 1987, Coffey was the first core player to get traded, followed by Gretzky less than nine months later. Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr and Messier were all traded in 1991, and after one last trip to the Campbell Conference Final in 1992, the Oilers dropped to near the bottom of the standings.
The Oilers assembled the most talented hockey the game had ever seen during the 1980s; a team that could have been the greatest dynasty ever. Breaking up that team was like breaking up The Beatles. They deserved the chance to finish their careers in Edmonton.
Coffey went on to play with Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, where he won a fourth Stanley Cup ring in 1991. Gretzky and Kurri were reunited in Los Angeles and reached the 1993 Final. Messier and Anderson helped the New York Rangers win their first Stanley Cup title in 54 seasons in 1994. Fuhr played on some strong teams during the 1990s, but never competed for the Cup again.
Still, this group of Hockey Hall of Fame players never came close to being surrounded with the same level of talent as they were in Edmonton. The six of them were traded between the ages of 26 and 30, so there was still plenty of quality left in the tank.
We will never know how many Cups the Oilers could have won, but I don’t imagine the 1990 title would have been their last.
Eric Friesen is a freelance sports broadcaster and journalist in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Eric has diplomas in Broadcasting from Mount Royal University in Calgary and Sports Journalism from Centennial College in Toronto. A lifelong hockey fan, Eric has followed the Edmonton Oilers for more than 20 years. He cheers for the Oilers because of his hockey hero Wayne Gretzky, who played his more productive seasons in Oil Country.