The Great One has a message for the young ones.
Wayne Gretzky on Wednesday told Hockey Night in CanadaRadio listeners to remain patient and that building a winning product in Edmonton will take time, despite the presence of No. 1 overall draft picks Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
“You just don’t throw three of four first [overall draft] picks on one team and say, ‘Now we got a really good team.’ The intangibles come into play,” said Gretzky, who starred for a young Oilers outfit in the 1980s when the NHL team won four Stanley Cups. “You’ve got to become a group and you’ve got to become a team.”
In the mid-80s, Edmonton had a balanced attack, led offensively by Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson and Mark Messier. But equally important to the team was the heavy lifting by others including centre Craig MacTavish and defenceman Lee Fogolin.
For teams to have success long-term, Gretzky said, the third-line centre must accept his responsibility and the stay-at-home defencemen need to understand they’re important contributors.
“Those were the things we had on our team with guys like Craig MacTavish and Lee Fogolin and [defenceman] Kevin Lowe,” he added. “The guys who made the Hall of Fame got all the publicity but those guys were the glue that held the entire team together and made us a better team.”
Young squads are going to endure rough patches like the Oilers did Monday, a game that saw San Jose score six times in the first period over a 16-minute span and starting goalie Devan Dubnyk pulled for Yann Danis.
“San Jose’s a great team and they’ve gone through challenges over the last three or four years and coming up a bit short [in the playoffs],” Gretzky told HNIC host Elliotte Friedman and co-host Kelly Hrudey. “I thought [Patrick] Marleau and [Joe] Thornton played as good as I’ve ever seen them play. I thought they were strong on the puck and made a lot of good things happen.”
While watching Monday's game on television with his youngest son, Tristan, Gretzky was reminded of his rookie NHL season in 1979-80 with the Oilers.
“It reminded me of the first time we played the Montreal Canadiens back in 1979 and we were all fired up and excited, we were a young group,” Gretzky, now 52, said. “Guy Lafleur, [Larry] Robinson and [Serge] Savard and all those guys were in Montreal and they came in and beat us 7-3.
"I don’t think we touched the puck the whole game. When you’re a young group you’re going to have some nights like that. That’s growing pains.”
The 2013 Oilers boast defence prospect Justin Schultz along with several first-round draft picks in Ales Hemsky (2001), Ladislav Smid (2004), Sam Gagner (2007), Magnus Paajarvi (2009), Eberle (2008), Hall (2010), Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2012).
There’s no doubting these players will be the target of opposing teams, especially in a 48-game season when any point is critical, and they’ll require time to adjust.
“It’s probably similar to that of Pittsburgh when they got [Evgeni] Malkin [second overall in 2004], [Sidney] Crosby [first overall in 2005] and [Marc-Andre Fleury [first overall in 2003]. All the attention went to that hockey club,” said Gretzky.
“The Oilers are going to get a tremendous amount of attention but it will only make them a better team. They have the right team for those kids. [And] not only [has] the media gone through [the building process] with our group in the ‘80s but the fans have gone through it, too.
“They couldn’t be in a better position in a better city with people being patient with them."