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Oilers counting on young guns up front and hired guns on defence this season

NHL.com @NHL

EDMONTON - The day after Craig Simpson scored on May 24, 1990, to put the exclamation point on the fifth and final Edmonton Oilers' Stanley Cup, Kyle Brodziak blew out six candles on his birthday cake.

Andrew Cogliano was a toddler. Robert Nilsson was five and Sam Gagner had reached the ripe old age of nine months.

Seventeen years later, these four forwards have become the face of team ready to roll the dice on youth in order to return to the playoffs in 2007-08, regain some dignity and quash reports Alberta's capital is hockey's new Siberia.

Boys on the Bus, meet the Boys on the School Bus.

"This is kind of a new term for the organization," said Cogliano. "Even though they have a lot of veterans like Horcoff, Stoll, Torres who have done an awesome job here in the past, I think now they're looking for guys to come in and start playing well and helping those guys out.

"I might be one of those guys."

All four have turned heads at camp this pre-season with their stellar play, pushing veterans and being given every opportunity to prove they should be in the lineup when the Oilers drop the puck for real at home Thursday against the San Jose Sharks.

"We're at the cycle as an organization where young guys are getting to the point where they're challenging for jobs and we need that to happen," said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish.

"They have to be given the opportunity. The balancing act is what you're going to have to pay for the offence in terms of what you're going to give up defensively."

The Oilers seek redemption after a year that saw them fall down the mountain from Western Conference champs to 25th overall and last in overall scoring. GM Kevin Lowe struggled in the off-season to bring in free agents and the city was stung by a survey that suggested Buffalo and Edmonton were about as enticing to NHLers as a witness protection program.

"There's new faces, new attitude, a new work ethic in here," said forward Jarret Stoll, who was among a number of Oilers who worked out together in California in the off-season, mixing intense cross-training with martial arts workouts.

"Last year was last year. Two years ago was two years ago. We've got to move on and prepare for this season, and this season the goal is to make the playoffs and go deep."

That plan starts with defence pairs that can move the puck to the forwards, who must in turn must find their way to the net and gain breathing room for 37-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson, who set personal records for games played last year (68) and eventually struggled under the strain.

MacTavish believes they've done that.

Up front, core veterans Shawn Horcoff, Raffi Torres, Stoll, Marty Reasoner, Ales Hemsky and Ethan Moreau are back and in the best shape of their careers. Horcoff, coming off a disappointing 51-point campaign, has been tearing up the ice in pre-season and may start the year centring the first line between Hemsky and free agent acquisition Dustin Penner.

Gagner, fresh off his MVP showing at the Canada-Russia Super Series, had a fast start to camp playing with Hemsky and Penner. Nilsson has all but been told a second-line wing spot is his to lose, while Brodziak has dominated the Florida Panthers in a pre-season tilt MacTavish described as "the closest you'll get to a perfect game."

Other new faces include speedy journeyman Geoff Sanderson, acquired from Philadelphia in the summer along with defenceman Joni Pitkanen for Oiler captain Jason Smith and wash-out winger Joffrey Lupul.

The X-factor is Penner, who signed a five-year US$21.25-million contract after being lured away from the Anaheim Ducks as a restricted free agent. He is coming off a full 82-game season plus a gruelling two-month playoff run and admits he is pacing himself so that there will be gas in the tank come February.

"There are definitely different expectations on me than last year. You try to focus on the things you can control," said Penner, who is being counted on to fill the void left by the trade last season of fan favourite Ryan Smyth.

The Oilers are also counting on a 100-point-type breakout season for Hemsky, a wizard with the stick criticized in the past for passing too much and not going for the scoring jugular.

The defence has been stripped down and rebuilt, starting with marquee free agent Sheldon Souray. The 31-year-old winger - with 19 goals on the power play alone last season for Montreal - has inked a five-year, $27million pact and made his presence felt in pre-season with his heavy howitzer shot from the point. He is expected to revitalize a power play that was a moribund 27th in 06-07.

Pitkanen, looking to rebound from a minus-25 season, has been moving the puck and hitting the holes in camp. Joining them are fleet-footed newcomers Denis Grebeshkov and Dick Tarnstrom along with veteran holdovers Steve Staios and Matt Greene. Tom Gilbert, Ladislav Smid and Mathieu Roy are also in the mix.

Twenty-nine-year-old free agent signee Mathieu Garon has looked sharp in net in camp and is expected to get about 30 or so starts to keep Roloson fresh.

"I don't want to focus on being a No. 1 (goalie)," said Garon. "I just want to give the team a chance to win every night."

But a reasonable chance at success is not something pundits are willing to grant the Oilers, who also start the year with a new $3-million granite-and-wood dressing room to go with strikingly Spartan new uniforms.

Most pick them to miss the playoff cut at best and, at worst, battle it out with other bottom-feeders like Phoenix, Los Angeles and Columbus.

Boys on the Bus, meet the Boys on the Back of the Bus.

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A look at the Edmonton Oilers

A closer look at the Edmonton Oilers heading into the 2007-08 NHL season:

Last Year: 32-43-7, 12th in the Western Conference.

Who's In: Sheldon Souray, Joni Pitkanen, Dustin Penner, Dick Tarnstrom, Mathieu Garon.

Who's Out: Joffrey Lupul, Petr Sykora, Jason Smith, Jussi Markkanen, Brad Winchester.

The Storylines: Will Sheldon Souray, Dustin Penner and Joni Pitkanen revive Oilers' comatose offence? Can Ales Hemsky realize his potential and hit 100-point plateau? Will goaltender Mathieu Garon step up and give starter Dwayne Roloson the rest he needs to be effective?

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