EDMONTON - The Edmonton Oilers know that if they're to return to the playoffs in 2007-08, the young guns pushing for jobs up front are going to need a lot of help from the new hired guns watching their backs.
But with blue-line newcomers like Joni Pitkanen moving the puck and Sheldon Souray unloading his cannon point shot, not to mention the strong pre-season play of Denis Grebeshkov and Dick Tarnstrom, the mood in the Alberta capital is upbeat.
"I notice now when I'm hitting the holes that the puck is there, like right away," forward Shawn Horcoff said after practice Wednesday at Rexall Place. "That's a huge aspect, and that's going to lead to way more offence. Any time you as a forward player can get the puck in the neutral zone with some space around you and open ice with speed, it's instant offence."
Instant offence is what the Oilers lacked from the back end (and the front end for that matter) last season when, first, Chris Pronger bolted town and then injuries hit veterans like Steve Staios. There was no one to fire the outlet pass and the Oilers too often got bogged down in their own end en route to a disheartening 25th-place finish overall.
"That was the big knock on our game last year, that our D couldn't move the puck up the ice to get the transition game going," said defenceman Matt Greene, who logged the lion's share of ice time down the stretch when injuries took their toll on the roster.
Enter Pitkanen, acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, and free agent Souray from the Montreal Canadiens.
Pitkanen is looking to rebound from an off-year in Philadelphia. He logged a minus-25 rating, but nevertheless was the team's third-leading scorer at four goals and 43 points.
The 24-year-old Finn is expected to take over Pronger's puck-moving chores and he or Jarret Stoll will man the back end on the power play with Souray.
"He joins the rush so the defence have to honour him and soften on our puck carriers," said Oilers coach Craig MacTavish.
"He can move the puck at the right times and buy space for our forwards. He's tremendously skilled."
Souray, who signed a five-year US$27-million deal, missed the first few days of camp with a sore back only to make his presence felt last week by scoring on a blue-line blast on his first shift against the Vancouver Canucks.
"Shelly's just a really simple player with a real heavy, heavy shot," said Greene. "He's strong defensively, he's got a good stick, moves the puck well and makes those simple plays that I think a good, strong defenceman does."
Souray is coming off a career year in Montreal with 26 goals (19 of them on the power play) and 38 assists. He was also minus-28 and is working on his defensive game and has been paired with stay-at-home rearguard Greene.
But assistant coach Charlie Huddy, who handles the defence, said some numbers can lie.
"I know everybody looks at the knock with Souray and Pitkanen and their high plus-minuses, but that all stems from a number of different things as an organization or team play maybe, but it's a fresh start for those guys."
Staios is back this year. Ladislav Smid, Mathieu Roy and Tom Gilbert are also fighting for roster spots.
The Oilers need to get the puck in the net. They logged just 195 goals last season, worst in the NHL, and the power play ranked 27th.
To that end, competition in training camp has been wide open across the board, allowing young forwards like Sam Gagner, Kyle Brodziak, Robert Nilsson and Andrew Cogliano to impress. The Oilers were 4-1 in pre-season games heading into action Wednesday night at home against the Calgary Flames.
MacTavish said they'll start the season with eight defenceman and said who sticks will ultimately depend on how much they, as a team, want to roll the dice.
"We love the offence, we love the puck-moving ability, but we want to know more about the price we're going to pay for it from a defensive standpoint."