EDMONTON - It took Shawn Horcoff four NHL seasons to earn his shot as a first-line centre with the Edmonton Oilers. Sam Gagner is getting the same chance at his first training camp with the Oilers, a span of four games.
Gagner, the Oilers' first pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, and Andrew Cogliano, a first-rounder from 2005, haven't just been turning heads at training camp, they're in the mix for roster spots to start this season.
So much so coach Craig MacTavish made ears perk up when he intimated after a 5-4 win over the Calgary Flames on Saturday that one of the promising youngsters could be a fit in the middle on the first line, the spot occupied by Horcoff the past two seasons.
"You see it every year," said Horcoff. "Young guys come in and they play well early.
"It only gets harder as exhibition season goes on. Then, once you come into the regular season, it gets even tougher. Then, you have to deal with 82 games. That's why it's so tough for a rookie to come in and be consistent right off the bat."
After waiting his turn behind Doug Weight, Todd Marchant and Mike Comrie in his first four seasons with the Oilers, Horcoff took over as MacTavish's top centre to start the 2005-06 campaign.
Horcoff silenced critics - there were plenty of them who said he couldn't do the job - with 73 points. He added 19 more as the Oilers went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final against Carolina.
Last season, the 29-year-old from Trail, B.C., dipped to 51 points as the Oilers did an 180-degree turn, struggled mightily down the stretch and missed the playoffs.
Enter Gagner, 18, and Cogliano, 20, who have impressed MacTavish enough that he suggested one of them could end up playing between Dustin Penner and Ales Hemsky when the regular season begins.
"What we're talking about is 5-on-5 ice for (Horcoff)," MacTavish said after the win over the Flames. "Maybe his role will be more important, more impactful for us if he is playing on a second or third line. The minutes will be there ... but maybe at the start of the game his name isn't with Hemsky and with Penner.
"We need a dynamic scorer, and Horc, for all his strengths, is not an 100-point guy, so we're going to entertain thoughts of looking at somebody else, at times, 5-on-5."
Horcoff heard MacTavish loud and clear.
"It's motivating," he said. "There's only a handful of 100-point guys in the league.
"Would I love to be a 100-point guy? Obviously. I feel like two seasons ago was not my best season and I can do more. Sure, it's motivating when you have to come in and prove to your head coach you're the guy who can do it. It better be motivating or you're in the wrong business."
Horcoff has two goals and two assists in his two pre-season games, but hasn't yet played with Penner and Hemsky. He skated with them at practice Monday and will likely line-up between them Wednesday when the Flames come calling at Rexall Place.
Gagner has a goal in two pre-season games and will play in Phoenix on Tuesday. Cogliano leads the Oilers in scoring with three goals, including the overtime winner in Calgary. He has five points in three games.
"You are a little bit conscious of it," admits Horcoff, asked if he's keeping tabs on Gagner and Cogliano. "It's better for me. It pushes me. It makes me come to the rink every day, be at my best and prove that I can do the job there."
When a team struggles to 71 points and finishes last in goal-scoring as the Oilers did last season, there's bound to be changes. That said, Horcoff isn't about to move down the pecking order without a fight - no matter how hard Gagner and Cogliano push.
"There are spots open and spots to be taken," said Horcoff. "At the same, with young guys, their confidence can be fragile and you don't want to ride them too hard. You want to keep them positive and upbeat.
"Once the regular season starts, Mac's going to want wins. He's going to play guys who are playing well. That's all there is to it. He can say what he wants now, but I'm sure in the back of his mind he's thinking the same thing - once the season starts, he's going to go with the guys who give him the best opportunity to win."