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Edmonton Oilers hope young guns, new additions, will lead them to playoffs

EDMONTON - With a cadre of young guns, a revamped defence, a new general manager and a new owner, the Edmonton Oilers are determined that the final chapter of this NHL season will include a trip to the post-season.

That's not so tall a tale even for a team that hasn't made the playoffs since it caught lightning - and Chris Pronger - in a bottle and marched to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals.

"We're confident that we're a good team and have the potential to be really good, but as of right now we have a lot of work to do," said centre Andrew Cogliano.

"We're not going to just be able to step on the ice and win games," added forward Fernando Pisani.

"We have to put the work ethic in, and play hard and win those one-on-one battles and do the little things well."

Last season, the Oilers battled through a team-record injury total (346 man-games lost) to turn on the jets in the last quarter and finish with 88 points, ninth in the Western Conference but three points out of the playoffs.

To return, they'll rely once more on their offensive linchpin, fleet-footed Czech winger Ales Hemsky.

The 25-year-old led the team with 20 goals and 71 points in 2007-08, but now appears to have a strong supporting cast including youngsters Sam Gagner, Cogliano and Robert Nilsson.

The 19-year-old Gagner tallied 13 goals and 49 points in 2007-08, and was a demon in the shootouts by scoring four times - one short of the league record for a single season.

The key, he said, is to avoid the sophomore jinx.

"I've just got to focus on preparing the same way every night and bringing a consistent effort and consistent game and hopefully the results will speak for themselves," he said.

Rounding out the front-line forwards are Shawn Horcoff, newcomer Erik Cole, Dustin Penner, Ethan Moreau and Kyle Brodziak.

The Oilers will benefit from a healthy Horcoff, their first-line centre and 2007 all-star. He scored 21 goals for 50 points even though he missed 29 games with a shoulder injury.

Because the offence (235 goals, good for 17th in the league) shows such potential, head coach Craig MacTavish has been toying in training camp with the luxury of keeping a heavyweight fist thrower on the roster for the first time in two years.

Six-foot-six, 235-pound career farmhand Steve MacIntrye was brought in halfway through camp to audition for the job of protecting the young guns in a division dominated by the Minnesota Wild's fistic leviathan Derek Boogaard.

But while the offence can hold its own, the defence was downright porous, allowing 251 goals. Only four other teams allowed more.

The Oilers were 41-35-6, 19th the NHL. Changes followed, starting at the top.

Local pharmacy billionaire Daryl Katz took over as sole team owner on July 2 after making a series of escalating bids that first fractured, then won over, the Oilers ownership consortium.

A month later, general manager Kevin Lowe moved upstairs to become president of hockey operations.

Longtime Vancouver Canucks executive Steve Tambellini - who worked with Lowe on Team Canada - took over as general manager.

Forwards Raffi Torres and Jarret Stoll, underperforming second-tier leftovers from the magical '06 Cup run, along with mercurial blueliner Joni Pitkanen where shipped out.

Pitkanen went to the Carolina Hurricanes in a Canada Day trade for Cole - a bruising 29-year-old power forward gunning for a fourth-consecutive 20-plus goal season. He also ranked 11th among NHL forwards last year with 186 hits.

Defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings for defenceman Matt Greene and Stoll to ignite the offence with tape-to-tape breakout passes.

"He can make those passes you don't think anyone can do," said goalie Mathieu Garon, who played with Visnovsky in Los Angeles.

"It's going to be good for everything - the power play and in our D-zone."

The defence will also benefit from a full season of Sheldon Souray. The six-foot-four ex-Montreal Canadien with the heavy slapshot was limited by shoulder problems to 26 games last year.

Tom Gilbert is also back. He played all 82 games last year, collecting 33 points to become the first rookie ever to win the team's defenceman of the year award.

Veterans Ladislav Smid (minus-15) and Steve Staios (minus-14) struggled and are expected to step up.

In goal, the starting job appears to be Garon's to lose. The 30-year-old was signed last year to caddy for starter Dwayne Roloson, but eventually took over the No. 1 spot. He was 26-18-1 and an astonishing 30 for 32 on shootout saves.

That, he admits, will be tough to duplicate: "Guys get to know me. I get to know shooters. We'll see what happens."

Roloson will see a little action or a lot, depending on how Garon fares, particularly in the opening stretch of the season. Edmonton marks its 30th year in the NHL with 18 of its first 26 games on the road.

"Every year you come in with high expectations, but this year they might be a little more justified," said Horcoff.

"As long as we make the playoffs - as long as you get in - we've shown anything can happen."



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