EDMONTON - The first cuts might be the deepest, but now is when the trimming gets tough as Edmonton Oilers coach Pat Quinn and his staff pare down the roster in preparation for the start of the season.
Fresh from five games in six days, and with three pre-season games yet to play, Quinn has 34 players looking for 23 roster spots.
While Quinn's goaltending and defence appear set, difficult calls remain at forward, where players on the bubble include 2008 first-round pick Jordan Eberle, well-travelled tough guy Kip Brennan and former first-rounders Marc Pouliot, Rob Schremp and Gilbert Brule.
The clean slate Quinn promised when training camp opened is somewhat cluttered.
"We're starting to thin out now," Quinn said. "Some guys have separated themselves. We have contract issues. A lot of things come into play when it becomes decision time."
Quinn, who took over from Craig MacTavish this summer, and GM Steve Tambellini don't have any easy calls left to make as the Oilers try to get down to the 23-man limit.
"It's a daily process," Tambellini said of making 11 more cuts before the season-opener against the Calgary Flames on Oct. 3.
"The one thing we did say in our initial meeting at training camp was, 'Compete for your jobs. Compete for your time on ice. Compete for everything you want to have here with the Oilers.'
"They understand. It's hard. It's hard decisions. It's hard for the players. For me, the only way you can get better is to have that internal competition, people pushing for jobs."
It's expected Quinn will open the season with 14 forwards. Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Patrick O'Sullivan, Mike Comrie, Dustin Penner, Sam Gagner, Zack Stortini, Andrew Cogliano, Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani will fill 10 of them.
Eberle, 19, has impressed despite being held pointless in three pre-season games in his second camp. He leads a contingent of 10 others looking for the remaining spots up front.
"I'm getting an opportunity here to make an NHL team. It doesn't get much better than this," Eberle said. "Obviously, I'm excited. This is where I want to be.
"They told me all along that if they see I'm ready and I'm going to make their club better, then they're going to keep me. If they think junior is a better option, then . . . it's a win-win for me either way."
Eberle isn't old enough to be sent to the minors, so he'll either stick or be returned to Regina of the WHL. Many observers believe Eberle has been one of the best, if not the best, forwards at camp.
"That's like taking a green tomato and wanting to make a salad out of it," offered Quinn, when a reporter suggested Eberle has been the best of the 20 forwards still in camp.
"He's been good. We knew he had some skill. I've seen the young man before. He's willing to go into the spaces you have to go into. Here's a small guy who will go there."
Brennan, a six-foot-four, 220-pound enforcer at camp on an AHL contract, is pushing Steve MacIntyre for a job. Brennan, 29, who has played 61 NHL games with Los Angeles, Anaheim, Atlanta and the New York Islanders, was seen as a long shot when camp opened.
"I just wanted to come in here and prove I could play," said Brennan, who'll play his third pre-season game against Calgary on Wednesday. "It's a pretty simple game. I have to do the small things right and not be a liability on the ice when I'm out there."
Pouliot, taken 22nd by the Oilers in 2003, Brule, picked sixth by Columbus in 2005, and Schremp, selected 25th overall by Edmonton in 2004, are in tough. If they are assigned to the minors they must clear waivers and could be claimed by other teams.
"There's three more games, so you need an extra push to show them you want to stay here," Pouliot said. "You don't have a lot of time to prepare. You have to perform right away."
Brule broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old with Columbus and has played 157 games, but just 11 of those since being acquired by the Oilers last in the summer of 2008.
"They haven't told me much. I'm not sure where I stand," said Brule. "I'm just taking it day-by-day, going out every game and battling as hard as I can. That's all I can ask of myself - to try my best and see what happens."