EDMONTON – The spot in the lineup Dany Heatley didn’t want is probably the one that will be most hotly contested by the time the Edmonton Oilers break training camp.
That would be left wing on Edmonton’s first unit alongside centre Shawn Horcoff and right-winger Ales Hemsky. That position was earmarked for Heatley when GM Steve Tambellini dealt Dustin Penner, Andrew Cogliano and Ladislav Smid to the Ottawa Senators, only to have Heatley nix the trade by refusing to lift his no-movement clause.
With Heatley in San Jose after Saturday’s deal with the Senators, head coach Pat Quinn and associate Tom Renney began auditions for the spot when camp opened at Rexall Place Sunday, giving Patrick O’Sullivan the first crack at it.
He won’t be the last.
“That’s why you have training camp, to find the best fit for each line,” said Hemsky, who led the team with 66 points last season. “It’s tough to say now. We’ll see. We’ve got a lot of games.
“The last couple years, we’ve switched around a lot of guys. For sure, it would be nice to find some fits for the lines so we can start the season like that.
The Oilers never found that fit for Horcoff and Hemsky last season, one in which they missed playoffs for a third straight year. They tried Erik Cole, Penner and O’Sullivan, among others, without prolonged success.
That’s pretty much been the story since Ryan Smyth, the last regular left-winger on the line, was dealt to the new York Islanders at the 2007 trade deadline.
O’Sullivan, who joined the Oilers from Los Angeles at the deadline last season, Penner and Mike Comrie, back in Edmonton after signing as an unrestricted free agent last Thursday, will get a look.
“Obviously, theyre two good players and it would be fun to play with them,” said O’Sullivan, who scored 22 goals with the Kings in 2007-08.
“Those two guys need someone who is going to shoot. They both like to pass and make plays. I don’t mind shooting the puck, so its not a bad place to be.”
O’Sullivan’s 259 shots in 2008-09 was second on the team to Sheldon Souray. O’Sullivan got some games with Horcoff and Hemsky, but didn’t do much, managing just two goals with four assists and a minus-7 rating in 19 games after the trade.
“Hopefully, I can get to know them a little bit,” O’Sullivan said. “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.”
Penner, who could be found anywhere from first line to fourth line to the press box last season depending on the mood of coach Craig MacTavish, will also compete for the job in pre-season.
Penner, in the third year of a five-year contract that pays him US$4.25 million this season, scored 29 goals with Anaheim in 2006-07, slipped to 23 with the Oilers in 2007-08 and to 17 last season.
“It’s always good to have familiarity there,” Horcoff said. “It makes your game easier when you know exactly the type of player youre playing with.
“Having said that, we’ve got to find someone there who can play 82 games and be consistent. I believe we have the guys here to do it. At this point, everyone is just worried about their own game, getting themselves ready. Everything else will fall into place.”
The wild card could be Comrie, who broke in with the Oilers in 2000 as a centre and has spent most of his career there, but has played mostly on the left wing the past two seasons.
“You need an offensive line to score goals,” Comrie said. “There’s going to be an opportunity for a few guys. That’s what pre-season is for. Whoever is there is going to need to earn it.”
Comrie is the only player at camp who has scored 30 goals at the NHL level. He scored 33 in his first full season with the Oilers, 2001-02, and 30 with Phoenix in 2005-06.
“You’re going to need to make your linemates better and it doesn’t matter what line youre playing on,” he said. “That’s a skilled line, and the guy who fits in there is going to have to finish their opportunities.”