MONTREAL – Thirty years ago, an Edmonton Oilers team loaded with talented players barely out of their teens like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri swept the heavily favoured Montreal Canadiens in a best-of-five preliminary playoff round before losing in six games in the quarter-finals to the New York Islanders.
The post-season is still far away, the old Montreal Forum is long abandoned and the Canadiens are not the league power they were in 1981. But there was a similar mix of curiosity and excitement about the new generation of Oilers when they made their lone regular season visit on Tuesday.
Now the names are Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, respectively the first overall picks from the last two drafts, as well as Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and others who are the talk of the league with their 8-3-2 start to the NHL season, good for first place in the Northwest Division.
There is the sense that another exciting, offensive team is building in the Alberta capital, although it is still short of a dynamic, puck-moving defenceman. At least the days of finishing last in the Western Conference look to be over.
And now they are bringing their show to four straight Original Six cities: Montreal, Thursday in Boston, Friday in Detroit and Sunday in Chicago.
“It’s a little easier process to deal with this year than a year ago,” coach Tom Renney said of the excitement young players feel when they visit the old teams. “We take these opportunities as a chance to learn, to grow, to develop and also as an opportunity to take our game to the opponent.
“That’s the biggest difference from last year. Now we’re taking our game to the opponent as opposed to sitting back and seeing how the thing gets played.”
Nugent-Hopkins, who jumped straight from junior hockey to the Oilers, had six goals and six assists in his first 13 NHL games, while his sophomore linemates Hall and Eberle had nine and 11 points respectively.
Based on production, they could already be called Edmonton’s first line, although the unit of captain Shawn Horcoff with veteran Ryan Smyth gets more ice time and may start closing the gap in points now that playmaker Ales Hemsky has returned after missing 11 games with a shoulder injury.
For Nugent Hopkins, it was a first trip to the Bell Centre.
“It’s the first time I’ve been to the city and that’s cool in itself, but seeing the rink and all the history here is cool,” the 18-year-old said.
Renney has given the kid line a certain amount of freedom to be creative and make plays and perhaps make some mistakes to encourage their development, but so far it hasn’t hurt them defensively. All three are plus players and Nugent-Hopkins has by all reports been surprisingly steady in his defensive coverage.
“I really had no idea if I’d be able to adjust to this league,” he said. “Getting into the exhibition games was really huge for me and it got better as it went along.
“I was really happy when I got told I was staying. It’s a lot of fun. I feel our line is free to be creative and stuff. The whole team is that way. It’s been a great experience so far.”
Hall likes his trips to the east partly because his home town of Kingston, Ont., is not a long drive for family and friends to make to Montreal, Toronto or Ottawa.
“I remember it was exciting playing here last year,” he said. “The energy is something you don’t get in every rink in the league.
“You just try to enjoy it. But they’re playing well. They’re a team that can really skate and so are we.”
Hall had 22 goals and 42 points in only 65 games as an 18-year-old rookie last season and is likely to see those numbers jump from year to year playing with a skilled centre like Nugent-Hopkins and a finisher like Eberle.
“It’s been awesome,” said Hall. “For me and Jordan to play with him and see his development from training camp to now has been great.
“We’ve all been having fun as a line and Tom’s shown a lot of confidence in us. The points are for other people to talk about, but our play away from the puck and our defensive zone play has been good and I think that’s why Tom trusts us a lot.”
Nugent-Hopkins’ arrival has also taken some of the media attention off Hall, so that he joked that “Jordan and me are his sidekicks now.
“I’m kidding, but it’s good to have guys around you who are going through the same things. I’m still a second-year guy. By no means am I a veteran. I have a lot to learn in this league. Me and Ryan and Jordan and Sam (Gagner) and Magnus are all going through this together and we’re all good friends off the ice and that makes it easier.”
And now, like another Oilers team three decades ago, they also want to rise from being a curiosity to a team that consistently wins and becomes a contender.
“We’re getting more media attention now,” Hall said. “Last year it was just (about) young kids and now it’s a really good team that has a good record.
“That’s something we’re all proud of. That’s the recognition we wanted. A goal this year was to maybe take some people by surprise. There were a lot of people who picked us to finish 15th in the conference and we’re a long way from that right now.”