The Oilers Rig

New and Old Gospel: Gzowski, Coffey, Schultz


This Summer I’ve been reading Peter Gzowski’s exceptional 1981 book, “The Game of Our Lives.” The book is an account of the Edmonton Oilers 1980-81 season.

The 80-81 season was the Oilers’ second year in the NHL, the year they won their first playoff round (swept the Canadiens 3-0), cemented Glen Sather as head coach and discovered a number one goaltender in Andy Moog through a series of injuries to other players. It was the sophomore season of Wayne Gretzky (who would win his first Art Ross and second Hart memorial trophy and establish a variety of records he would go on to break), Mark Messier and Kevin Lowe, the rookie season of Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey.

There’s been a lot of chatter of the past number of years about the “boys on the bus.”

The idea being that the current Oilers off-ice talent is over populated with the old boys (Craig MacTavish, Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier, Dave Semenko, Kelly Buchberger all work for the team in some capacity) and too focused on the past, including repeating its blueprint. One ripple to this idea is that current Oilers’ brass sees in Justin Schultz a young Paul Coffey.

Coffey? Schultz Please!

paul_coffeySan Jose Sharks v Edmonton Oilers

In terms of rough player types, Schultz and Coffey fall under the same category: mid-sized puck-moving, offensively-minded defensemen. This scouting report on Schultz, courtesy of The Hockey News, could easily have been written about Coffey c. the 1980-81 season.

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In terms of rough human character types, Schultz and Coffey fall under the same category: mild-mannered, soft spoken, shy, unassuming.

Here’s Gzowski’s description of Coffey at the start of the 80-81 season (page 27):

Number 7: the shy, young Coffey. The rookie. Coffey was Edmonton’s first draft pick in the spring, and they expect wonders from him. So far, however, he seems bottled up, as tense on the ice as he is reticent off it… At training camp he looked unsure of himself, although he is such a fluid skater that he is obviously capable at any moment of living up to his promise. He is nineteen, but seems much younger than Gretzky. A handsome young man with deep brown eyes, he still keeps much to himself. Badali [Coffey's agent] say he could be the next Bobby Orr, but, of course, all agents say that of all their defensive stock.

Anyone who’s seen Schultz interviewed off-ice probably gets a similar impression. Have a look at this video from the 2012-13 season of Oil Change (skip to c. 2:50 mark). In a sea of goofy kids cracking jokes and horsing around, Schultz is unassuming to a fault.

What’s the point… well, have you ever felt like all the people you knew in primary school are all the people you will ever meet? Sure, you’ll meet new individuals, but they will all fit the mold of one or another kid you knew in grade two. Their mannerisms, speech, general outlook on life, etc. will conform to some notion you have of different character types.

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that (perhaps even subconsciously) the Oilers’ brass found that Schultz’ way of being in the world reminded them a lot of a young Coffey.

Worrying on the Tender Ones

A major theme in Gzowski’s treatment of Coffey reflects the high level of concern the Oilers’ brass had over the young blue liner’s mentorship by other players. From pages 60-1:

Lee Fogolin has a bad back, Messier has a puffy knee (which he has been trying to conceal from the trainers), and Stan Weir’s groin is tender. But the coaches have decided to dress all of them tonight and instead rest healthy players with whose play they are unhappy: Matti Hagman and Pat Price… Price seems to be trying to begin his coaching career while he is still a player. He speaks of “the rookies I’ve brought into the league.” He talks on the ice too, peppering the play with advice to his younger teammates. Sometimes the youngsters are grateful; Kevin Lowe says he has learned much from watching Price and listening to him. At other times, however, the coaches are convinced Price in getting on his pupils’ nerves, and they wonder if he is not contributing to Coffey’s tension.

This is from early in the season (November 16th, 1980). At the deadline, March 10th, 1981, the issue gets resolved, from page 187:

To acquire [Pat] Hughes [right wing], Sather gave up Pat Price… his talke had become more than Sather thought the team could bear. On the ice, Price continually chattered at Coffey. Coffey was still lapsing into periods of tension, and Sather was convinced Price’s habit of over-coaching was an important reason, even though both Coffey and Kevin Lowe, last year’s rookie, felt they had learned from him. [Garry] Lariviere [acquired from Quebec via Vancouver] had a reputation as a stay-at-home defensemen who would provide a solid anchor for Coffey, and allow the rookie to take off on the offensive forays that had been his hallmark as a junior. Also, Sather had noticed in the Oilers’ games against Quebec, Lariviere kept his mouth shut on the ice.

In his first two years as an Oiler, Justin Schultz has played c. 2085 minutes of 5×5 TOI. A plurality of the time (c. 808 minutes) was spent with the recently traded veteran defenseman Nick Schultz (it did not go well for either party: CorsiFor% together: 43.2; Justin without Nick: 43.2; Nick without Justin: 44.0). A substantial minority of the time (c. 464 minutes) was spent with team captain Andrew Ference (it, likewise, did not go well: CorsiFor% together: 42.1; Schultz without Ference: 43.5; Ference without Schultz: 48.1). An odd bright spot in the Justin pairings, which clearly should have been explored more, was his time with Belov (c. 215 minutes). They did well together: CorsiFor% together: 49.0; Schultz without Belov: 42.6; Belov without Schultz: 45.6.

At any rate, both the roster construction and coaching decisions over Schultz’ first two seasons suggest the Oilers have been looking for someone to play the Lariviere role, someone to “allow the rookie to take off on the offensive forays that had been his hallmark as a junior.” The evidence surely suggests neither Nick Schultz, nor Ference have filled that role with any confidence (certainly a large part of the problem is that Justin Schultz, and whomever he’s been playing with, have been so far up the batting order due to the Oilers’ lack of defensive depth that both TOI and quality of competition concerns are valid and certainly have negatively effected the numbers).

The recent acquisition of Nikita Nikitin certainly makes one wonder if we’ll see him take a spin in the Lariviere role. And, it has widely been reported that Nikitin struggles mightily with English. If MacTavish and Eakins share any of Sather’s concern (re: Pat Price’s on-ice coaching of Coffey) in the case of Schultz, Nikitin’s lack of English would certainly prove an asset.

The parallel here is fairly clear, regardless of the specifics in each case: the young Coffey and now Schultz are objects of near constant worry.

That’s All They Want: The Kids

One of the striking similarities to the current Oilers’ and the early days of the boys on the bus era, is the sense of promise, one might even say of destiny. Nearly every times MacTavish talks about making roster adjustments he brings up the “dear price” paid for the kids, the “core” of the team, and how he has no intension of forfeiting future promise for short term gains. It can’t have escaped anyone in the current Oilers’ organization that Sather faced many of the same obstacles and harbored much the same philosophy regarding his situation in 1980-81.

On the cusp of 1981, New Year’s Eve, Gzowski chats with Sather, from page 99:

Was he thinking of making trades?

“I’m always thinking of it,” he said. “And talking. I’m on the phone every day. It’s part of the business. You call someone just to rap for a while, and then you say, ‘By the way, would you be interested in so-and-so?’ and he says, ‘No, but I’d sure like so-and-so-else,’ and then you dicker for a while. But I can’t get anywhere. Everybody wants the kids. Toronto wants a young defensemen, and they’d give me practically anyone I would name, or so they say. But when I name someone it just seems to break down. I could have Turnbull, I guess, but I’m not sure I want him. Buffalo right now, why I could pick up the phone to Scotty and have Jim Schoenfeld and Rick Martin. Schoenfeld’s just the kind of defenceman we need, and Martin has scored fifty goals twice; he’s been an all-star. But they’re––what?––twenty-eight and twenty-nine, and what Scotty wants in return are Hunter and Coffey. I could do that trade and, sure, we’d move up about four places this year, just with that trade, but in three or four years, why, they’d kill me. Coffey’s going to be one of the best defencemen in this league. That’s all they want: the kids. I’m going to stick with these kids even if it means finishing last. Well, maybe not last.”

Anyone who’s followed the Oilers over the past number of years has heard this tune before. Its repetition is a sign of neither a prudent, nor an imprudent course being set. The idea of trading off your long term future potential for short term gain has value in any setting.

The problem here, if there is one, is the potential to overburden the present and future with the past. The history buffs among the Oilers’ fanbase no doubt pick up on the eery similarities between the two eras. They are wizened enough, however, to harbor serious doubts about history repeating itself and whether the old gospel can so easily become new again.