WINNIPEG -- When the hockey world watched in awe as Team North America skated circles around its veteran opposition at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 last month, many saw it as a sign of hope.
The hope was that perhaps the 23-and-under Canadian and American players on that team, the next generation of NHL stars, could help produce a shift in the game resembling what the Edmonton Oilers did in the wide-open 1980s.
Led by Connor McDavid of the present-day Oilers, Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames and rookie Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Team North America appeared able to stretch the boundaries of today's game, rendering systems somewhat obsolete through sheer talent and speed.
Couple that group of talent with young European stars like Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers and Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators, and the future of the NHL looks bright, fast and skilled.
Video: EDM@CGY: McDavid shows speed on great breakaway goal
Many of the players on those Oilers teams from the '80s are in Winnipeg to play in the 2016 Rogers NHL Heritage Classic Alumni Game on Saturday (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN. NHL.com). When they look at the young talent in the NHL, several of them hope that infusion of skill might make hockey a bit more offensive-minded in the coming years.
"I certainly hope so, because they're incredible," former Oilers defenseman Paul Coffey said after an open practice at MTS Centre on Friday. "The kid you've got here in Winnipeg (Laine) and of course McDavid in Edmonton, the guy Toronto's got (Matthews) … the players are extraordinarily good. Me, as a fan, every time I go to a game, I want to be entertained. I want that action. I want to leave the rink saying, 'That was a good play.' I really don't care who wins, I just want to see good action.
"There's a great group of players in place now, the coaching is good, everybody's well scouted. I think if the players are allowed to play the way they can, the game would continue to be even better."
Of course, the idea that hockey will ever be anything like it was in the heyday of those Oilers teams seems more than a little far-fetched, simply because of how ridiculously dominant they were. From 1981-86, the Oilers scored more than 400 goals in five straight seasons, winning the Stanley Cup in two of them. No other team has scored 400 goals in a season.
Video: CGY@EDM: McDavid dekes for goal on penalty shot
In 1983-84 the Oilers scored an NHL record 446 goals, or 5.6 per game, and won the Stanley Cup for the first time. The Quebec Nordiques had the second most goals that season with 360, 86 fewer than the Oilers.
Last season the Dallas Stars led the NHL with 265 goals, 17 more than the next team, the Washington Capitals.
They truly are two different worlds, which is why Wayne Gretzky believes talk of any return to the fire-wagon hockey of his '80s Oilers teams is not realistic.
"It's a different game now," Gretzky said. "Kids at the age of 9 and 10 are taught positional play, it's more structured, it's harder to score. When you came in the League at 18 or 19 when we were playing, the first thing they would tell everybody was, 'We're going to teach that kid how to play defense.'
"If you look at Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, they're as responsible defensively as anybody in the National Hockey League and they're 18 and 19 years old."
Video: CGY@EDM: McDavid backhands home rebound
Still, as unrealistic as it might be, some of the old Oilers do long for the days when goals were plentiful and offense was at the forefront. And they believe the new wave of talent in the NHL might be able to do that, even if it's not to such a historic extent.
"If you look at the game now, the game's a lot faster," former Oilers goaltender Grant Fuhr said. "So I think the more and more talent that comes up, the game's getting faster. They've adjusted some things to allow for more freedom, there's no hooking, holding anymore. So it's starting to get more exciting again."
Former Oilers coach Glen Sather gave his players freedom, often leaving Fuhr to handle the defensive responsibilities. He, too, is excited by the next wave of talent, but feels that NHL coaches need to take some inspiration from how he handled Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri when they were young.
"That depends on the attitude of the coaches running those teams," Sather said. "I think you have to be careful. With kids with talent, you have to let them play. You can't just stifle their creativity. They have to be able to play.
"I hope they let them play."