By Sean McCafferty aka 30ranfordfan

I can remember back to 20 years ago. I was a 10 year old kid, just starting to collect hockey cards, and most of what I wanted was from my favourite team: the Edmonton Oilers. They were coming off their Stanley Cup Victory the season before, despite having no Wayne Gretzky they won their 5th Cup in 7 years. I seriously doubt that a 10 year old me could have predicted how many cards of Conn Smythe winner Bill Ranford I’d own 20 years later. I’ve also got a feeling that 10 year old me wouldn’t have predicted the lack of success the Oilers would have, over the next two decades.

Those Oilers were still able to take teams featuring the aforementioned Ranford, future hall of famers like Mark Messier, Glen Anderson, & Grant Fuhr, plus proven winners like Esa Tikkanen, Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, Steve Smith, and Jeff Beukeboom into Conference Final match-ups against the Blackhawks in 1991, and sans-Messier & Fuhr against the Minnesota North Stars in 1992.

No. There was no way that I would have been able to guess that it would be 14 years before the Oilers would be able to get past the 2nd round of the playoffs. 14 years of being in perpetual rebuild. 14 years where the closest thing to success they ever had was an exciting playoff match-up against the Dallas Stars. 14 years of rarely being bad enough to get a high pick, but never being good enough to go far in the post season.

The lost season of 2004-05 was supposed to change that. It was supposed to make sure that teams with smart people running them could compete in the NHL. Small Market clubs like the Edmonton Oilers wouldn’t have a problem keeping up with the Maple Leafs, Flyers, Avalanche, and Rangers anymore – those big money clubs couldn’t outspend them.

The 2005-06 season certainly didn’t disappoint for Oilerfans. At least not until the 7th game of the final. As a 26 year old, I think I was able to enjoy this playoff run much more than I could as a 10 or 12 year old. I watched every Oilers game of that post season run. Many times out at a bar with friends, but some of the later ones just at home on the couch. I can remember doing a coffee run at something silly like 2:30 AM – in between the 2nd and 3rd overtime periods of a game versus San Jose. Might have been a little tired the next day. That season is still my fondest memory of the NHL.

Like most Oilerfans, I think it was pretty easy to fall in love with the group of Stoll, Horcoff, Pisani, Pronger, and Roloson. The lockout had provided the right conditions for the Oilers to finally compete again – and being a powerhouse for the rest of the decade (and beyond) was something I was looking forward to.

Then it all came crashing down.

There were some free agents that everyone knew weren’t going be back. Samsonov, Peca, Spacek. All good players – but not exactly the core of the team. Then it came out Chris Pronger wanted to leave, and it didn’t take very long to realize that the contender we thought the Oilers were had been reduced to a team that would be scratching just to make the playoffs, if they were lucky.

Since the improbable Stanley Cup run in the spring of 2006, the Oilers haven’t played in a single Playoff game. 9th place in the West, in 2007-08, was the closet they’ve come since. Last year they finally hit rock bottom, and finished 30th overall. It wasn’t even close. They were 12 points behind the 29th place Toronto Maple Leafs.

The one thing that last overall does get you though – is a better chance at a #1 overall pick, and the opportunity to get a real superstar to build your team around. A “homegrown” superstar that the Oilers haven’t had since the 1991 trade of Mark Messier to the New York Rangers.

So in 2010 – The Taylor Hall era has begun in Edmonton.

The #1 overall pick in last year’s draft, Hall is now leading a younger more exciting group of Oilers this year. Combined with Jordan Eberle (2008 first round pick) and Magnus Paajarvi (2009 first round pick) the Oilers have a trio of prospects that are fun to watch now, and are only going to get better.

They were slow out the gate. Eberle scored what could still be the “goal of the year” in his NHL debut, back on October 12th. It was another 6 games before he found the back of the net again, and sits with only 5 total in 26 games on the year.

Paajarvi, after a hat trick in a pre-season game against Tampa Bay, still only has 2 goals. He went 0-for-November. His speed and hockey smarts generates a fair number of chances, but he’s showing how hard it is to make an impact in the NHL in your first season.

Hall took 8 games before scoring his first. In true rookie fashion, he went on a bit of steak, scoring in 3 out of 4 games. Then it took him another 8 to get goal number 4. That’s how rookies usually perform. Streaky. Now on a stretch with goals in 5 of the last 8, Hall is starting to show what he’s really capable of, and why the Oilers took him over Tyler Seguin in last year’s draft.

I had the pleasure of watching these guys play last week in Toronto. First Oilers game I’d been to since Dec 31st of 2007 (in Columbus, when a Rick Nash hat-trick put a damper on what was otherwise a great New Year’s Eve). All I can say is “Wow!”. Hall’s two goal performance may one day be considered his “breakout game”. Watching him and Eberle, who also scored that night, skate on a line with Shawn Horcoff (who, along with Ales Hemsky, represents all that remains from that 2006 Stanley Cup Finals appearance) was a thing of beauty.

Coming into the game, Edmonton was sitting 29th place overall and was playing the 2nd of back-to-back nights, and 3 games in 4 nights overall – on their Eastern Canadian road trip. Having just beat the Montreal Canadiens in overtime the night before, and celebrating a win over the Ottawa Senators earlier in the week – I was simply hoping for a good game. Instead I was treated to a 5-0 beating of the Maple Leafs. Not only did the Oilers win 3 in a row for the first time this year, but the win also snapped a personal 0-7 lifetime streak, when I was in the building (a streak that started with a couple of games in Maple Leaf Gardens, and spans across 4 different NHL cities, to put that into perspective). Youth an vigour prevailed over what is normally supposed to be a tough game in the schedule.

These guys are the real deal. Eberle’s penchant for scoring clutch goals (re: World Junior Championships, 2010, 2009) is well documented across Canada. Taylor Hall’s dominance when the playoffs roll around (back to back Memorial Cup championships with the Windsor Spitfires) is also well known. Paajarvi has spent the last two years playing with men in the Swedish Elite league. He doesn’t come with as much fanfare as the Canadian prospects, but he’s got all the tools to be just as good.

The Oilers are still a long way from being contenders. They currently boast a team with 10 former first round picks in the line up, and another high pick in this year’s draft (maybe getting an Adam Larsson or Sean Couturier?) adds to the building blocks of long term success. They’ve also got some exciting prospects coming through the system, like goaltender Olivier Roy, and forwards such as Linus Omark.

They’re exciting to watch, and it’s exciting to think that they’ve got the pieces in place now to be considered similar to the 2007-08 Chicago Blackhawks; a team built around two emerging Superstars (Patrick Kane & Jonathan Toews) that was only two years away from winning a Stanley Cup.

The Oilers are going to be a powerhouse in this new decade. They’ll never duplicate the team’s success of the 1980s (no team is going to do that) but within a couple of seasons, they should finally be perennial contender for the Stanley Cup, something Oilers fans haven’t been able to brag about in 30 years. They finally have players capable of winning Hart Trophies (last one was Mark Messier in 1990) or Scoring Titles (not since Wayne Gretzky in 1987).

They’re still a few players and a lot of experience away from becoming that contender that Oilers fans so desperately want to see, but with these fast, young, exciting players – they’re a pleasure to watch now, and should be for a long time to come.