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Newlook Oilers begin task of putting last season behind them @NHL

EDMONTON - The Edmonton Oilers are all dressed up with only one direction to go - up.

When the Oilers begin the task of putting a woeful 2006-07 campaign behind them against San Jose Thursday, they'll look considerably different than the injury-riddled, ragged team that staggered to just two wins in its final 20 games.

The Oilers have a roster laden with new faces in prospects Andrew Cogliano, Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson and Kyle Brodziak to complement veterans like Sheldon Souray, Joni Pitkanen, Geoff Sanderson and Dustin Penner, all acquired during the off-season.

They'll be led by a new captain in Ethan Moreau and emerge from a freshly minted $3-million dressing room in the new RBK uniforms that have been mandated around the NHL to face the Sharks.

The front office will get in on the spit and polish as team president Patrick LaForge and his staff will greet fans Thursday wearing tuxedos, making the season opener a black-tie affair.

The Oilers have style. But substance?

"Every team at this time of year is excited and optimistic," said Shawn Horcoff. "We definitely feel like we're a much improved team from the end of last year and that there's lots to be excited about.

"There's a lot of new guys. A whole brand new dressing room. It's very easy to forget about last year, move on and try to start from scratch."

While the Sharks are considered favourites by many to take a run at the Western Conference title, the Oilers have undergone an even more drastic overhaul than their now top-of-the-line dressing room.

"We have a young, talented team," said Raffi Torres. "We have a lot of young players who can come in and help out.

"We really haven't put the whole team out together during the pre-season. Everybody has shown their stuff in little bits. I know guys in here are already motivating and pushing each other to be better every day."

Just 10 players who were in coach Craig MacTavish's line-up for Game 82 last season, a 3-2 win in Calgary on April 7, remain. That's understandable, given a 32-43-7 record and 12th-place finish.

"Everyone picks us pretty low every season. That really doesn't matter to us," Horcoff said of pre-season prognosticators who've predicted the Oilers will languish again.

"We know what we have in this locker-room and we're confident in our abilities. We realize it's a long road, but we've been down that road with the core group of guys in here.

"We know what it takes. We know what winning chemistry is and we feel like we're pretty close to having it here."

Cogliano, 20, Gagner, Nilsson and Brodziak provide an infusion of youth. The defence and power play should be improved with Souray and Pitkanen in the fold. Penner, pried from Anaheim with a US$21.25-million offer sheet the Ducks chose not to match, adds size and skill up front.

It's obvious GM Kevin Lowe has assembled pieces to the puzzle he didn't have last season. How they'll fit together is, for now, the question.

"You look at a lot of sceptics saying the Oilers probably won't make the playoffs again," said Cogliano.

"I think we look pretty good. A lot of guys are playing well with each other and there's a lot of chemistry."

The Oilers scored an NHL-worst 195 goals last season. Cogliano, who led the team in pre-season scoring, looks capable of picking up some of the slack left by the departure of Ryan Smyth, Petr Sykora and Joffrey Lupul.

Then again, facing Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo with two points on the line won't be the same as lighting it up against watered down line-ups in pre-season.

"It's pretty surreal playing against a guy like Thornton and those guys," admits Cogliano.

"You're so used to watching them on TV. You look up to them. You've got to make this step once in your life. This is the first one for me. It'll be a little tough, I think, but you have to keep a level head."

Horcoff, for one, can't wait to quiet the doubters.

"There's going to be questions every year," he said. "When you come off a season where you lose 18 of your last 20 games, I don't think there's any answers. There's just questions.

"A lot of individuals in here have things to prove. We have something to prove as a team."

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