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This season, Oilers are rooted in reality

by Todd Kimberley
What a difference a year makes.

Last September, talk around Edmonton was rampant about how the Oilers' brash, dynamic, youthful corps would propel the club into the Northwest Division title hunt and ensure the Oil's first playoff berth since the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

Talk is cheap, right?

"There just isn't the sense of entitlement there was here last year, with people patting us on the back and telling us how good we're going to be," veteran defenseman Sheldon Souray told reporters as the Oilers congregated for 2009 training camp. "And that's a good thing."

During that 2008-09 winter of discontent, the youngsters -- led by Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson and Andrew Cogliano -- struggled under the weight of heavy expectations. Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff couldn't find a playmate, Dustin Penner worked his way deeper into the doghouse, the club was awful at home, and an admittedly wee group of forwards found itself shoved around a fair bit.

"We've had five months to think about what happened last year," Souray said.

"A lot of guys,” said center Shawn Horcoff, "given the way last year ended, and the way a lot of their seasons went personally, were looking for a bit of a change."

The present-day Oilers, give or take one Dany Heatley hunt, are pretty much a carbon copy of the club that finished last season, with Nikolai Khabibulin replacing Dwayne Roloson in net and Mike Comrie subbing for Ales Kotalik.

Of course, the major change is in leadership, with coach Pat Quinn, associate coach Tom Renney and assistant coach Wayne Fleming, a formidable group, taking the reins from Craig MacTavish.

The club's new direction wipes the slate clean of malcontents and festering issues.

As for optimism?

"I'll tamp it down," said Quinn, "if we get a little too full of ourselves."

The big question up front for the Oilers: who will occupy the left-wing slot on the No. 1 line with center Shawn Horcoff and linemate Ales Hemsky?

The revolving door has continued to turn since Ryan Smyth was dealt to the New York Islanders at the 2007 trade deadline.

Next up? Expect Patrick O'Sullivan to earn another look. O'Sullivan, who joined the Oilers in March from Los Angeles, took 259 shots on goal last season, second on the club to Souray.

"Those two guys (Horcoff and Hemsky) need someone who is going to shoot," said O'Sullivan, the 24-year-old from Winston-Salem, N.C. "They both like to pass and make plays. I don't mind shooting the puck, so it's not a bad place to be.

"Hopefully I can get to know them a little bit. Last year it was such a rush. We needed to win every game we were in. It was tough to try to find that chemistry as well as try to learn a new system and all that other stuff that goes along with coming to a new team."

Among others, expect the hulking Penner -- a lightning rod last season for his indifferent play -- and hometown-boy Comrie to earn a look on the top unit.

Comrie, traded away by the Oilers in December 2003 after a 30-game holdout and feud with then-GM Kevin Lowe, signed a one-year, $1.125-million deal in early September, returning to his first NHL team. Comrie is the only player at Oilers camp who has scored 30 goals in the NHL. He did it twice, once in Edmonton and once in Phoenix.

"You're going to need to make your linemates better, and it doesn't matter what line you're playing on," Comrie said. "That's a skilled line, and the guy who fits in there is going to have to finish their opportunities."

Youngsters Gagner and Cogliano, captain Ethan Moreau, and Fernando Pisani fill out the club's top nine forwards. Pisani, dogged by ulcerative colitis and a broken leg since playing the role of playoff hero in the spring of 2006, hopes to return with some third-line offensive spice.

Cogliano, named as one of the three Oilers headed to Ottawa in the nixed Heatley trade, admits he was shaken by the leaked news.

"(Cogliano) didn't take it very well . . . (but) the most important thing is that he handled it the right way," Moreau said. "He got ticked off and trained his butt off. You can go one of two ways -- you can pout and feel sorry for yourself, or do what he did and work extremely hard in the summer."

Another of the Oilers' 2008-09 whiz kids, Nilsson, is in a battle to save his roster spot, with former top-10 draft pick Gilbert Brule, another first-rounder in Marc Pouliot, J-F Jacques and Robbie Schremp -- a prospect who could be making his last stand in copper and blue -- battling for the fourth line.

"He's in tough," said Quinn of Nilsson.

Zack Stortini and Steve MacIntyre will be auditioning to provide the muscle for the club's smallish group of forwards.

As for 19-year-old wunderkind Jordan Eberle, the darling of the gold medal-winning Canadians at the 2009 World Junior Championship, he'll be sent back to Regina of the WHL if he doesn't crack the Edmonton roster. Eberle had 9 points in nine games for AHL Springfield last spring.

"Even in the NHL exhibition game last year I felt like I was capable of playing at this level," he said.

Edmonton's veteran-laden blue-line corps is the bedrock of the roster heading into the 2009-10 season, with a mix of talent and maturity that sets the club in good stead and rivals any back-end group across the League.

In fact, some believe the Oilers simply have too many offensively gifted players on defense, and at some point they'll move one of them for a proven scorer up front. But at this point, Edmonton has Souray and Lubomir Visnovsky as its top defensive pairing, with Denis Grebeshkov and Tom Gilbert batting No. 3 and 4 in the order.

Last season, Souray tied for the team lead with 23 goals, and was second with 53 points, while Gilbert was fourth with 45 points and Grebeshkov was sixth with 39.

Ladislav Smid and Steve Staios fill the third pairing on the defensive depth chart.

Meanwhile, rough-and-tumble Theo Peckham, 21, should give veteran Jason Strudwick a run for his money at the seventh position.

Gilbert stepped up last year to provide 22 solid minutes a night, and the Oilers hope Smid and Grebeshkov can follow in his footsteps.

Much of the Oilers' playoff hopes are pinned on Nikolai Khabibulin, who signed a four-year, $15 million deal after Dwayne Roloson bolted for the New York Islanders.

Some figure Edmonton overpaid for the 36-year-old Khabibulin -- who has played 60 games once in the past five years -- in making its most notable off-season acquisition. But last season he compiled a shimmering 25-8-7 record and 2.33 goals-against average for the Chicago Blackhawks, and was rock-solid in the playoffs, helping to lead the Blackhawks to the Western Conference Finals.

While strong play by Khabibulin will keep the Oilers in the thick of the playoff hunt, the heat also is on backup Jeff Deslauriers. Oilers management suggested at the time of Khabibulin's signing that Deslauriers would play 25-30 games this season.

"I learned a lot last year," said the 6-foot-4 Deslauriers. "Now I know what to expect with the game, the travel, the other teams. The main thing is, I know that I can win in the NHL. When I go in the net now, I have that boosting my confidence."

Deslauriers may not want to look over his shoulder, because 2004 first-rounder Devan Dubnyk is waiting for his turn. Dubnyk started 62 games for AHL Springfield last season, and it's been suggested that he won't be headed back to the farm in a year's time.

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