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Edmonton Oilers open training camp looking to answer questions, critics

Were the Oilers really as good as they looked going to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup final against Carolina? Were they as dismal as they appeared in missing Western Conference playoffs last season, managing just two wins in their final 20 games?

More important, how will the Oilers, without captain Jason Smith, Ryan Smyth, Petr Sykora and Joffrey Lupul, stack up this season with hopes hinged on newcomers Sheldon Souray, Dustin Penner, Joni Pitkanen and Geoff Sanderson, not to mention a handful of unproven youngsters?

That's the $64,000 question.

"They've gone from something pretty spectacular two years ago to last year being a pretty big disappointment," Souray said of his new teammates after fitness testing at the University of Alberta.

"I think everybody is looking to redeem themselves. They know they fell short of what was expected of them. They know they have more to give."

While some teams will merely tweak rosters for the 2007-08 campaign, the Oilers open camp at Rexall Place with almost as many new faces as familiar ones.

That's understandable after they finished 12th in the conference at 32-43-7 for 71 points and scored an NHL-low 195 goals. Several veterans struggled mightily. Others, namely Ethan Moreau and Jarret Stoll, missed significant time with injuries.

"Everybody has something to prove again," said Stoll, who was limited to 51 games because of post-concussion symptoms.

"Everybody had a disappointing season. Obviously, we didn't finish where we wanted to - or even close."

Penner, 24, plucked from Stanley Cup champion Anaheim by way of a US$21.25-million, five-year offer sheet after a 29-goal season, is being counted on to fill the void created by the losses of Smyth, Sykora and the disappointing Lupul.

He'll likely play left wing alongside Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky on coach Craig MacTavish's first line.

"Nobody was happy with the way we finished last season," Horcoff said. "We all feel like there's something to prove right now.

"Not just individually, but team-wise also. We want to get back to the level we were at two years ago. We feel, with the changes we've made, there's really no excuses for us."

It's rebuilding a defensive corps that seemingly never recovered from the trade of Chris Pronger after that remarkable roll to the Cup final, though, that kept GM Kevin Lowe busiest this summer.

Souray, 31, inked as a free agent to a five-year contract worth $27 million, is the key cog on the back end.

"There's a lot of room this year for improvement," Souray said.

"I think the organization has shown a willingness to go out and get some guys. We're going to fill the holes to make sure this team is as competitive as we can be."

Pitkanen, obtained from Philadelphia with Sanderson in the trade that sent Smith and Lupul to the Flyers, is being counted on. The Oilers also have high hopes for Russian Denis Grebeshkov, obtained from the New York Islanders for talented but mistake-prone Marc-Andre Bergeron.

Dick Tarnstom is back in the mix after a season in Switzerland.

"The key thing, with so many new faces, is to get them in here and get comfortable quickly," said veteran Steve Staios. "We want to make sure guys understand what it takes to play here and feel comfortable. That way, they can contribute as much as they can."

MacTavish must find the right chemistry for Penner. He'll need bounce back seasons from Horcoff, Hemsky and Raffi Torres. He'll need a healthy Stoll, who slipped to 39 points after 68 in 2005-06.

"The start of the season is huge for everybody, but especially the veterans, the guys who have been here a few years and are looked upon to help lead this team," Stoll said. "When you have a disappointing season, you're expecting changes.

"We have to get together as a team as quickly as possible and come out of the gate with, hopefully, a good start to the season."

A youngster or two from a group of prospects including 2007 first-rounder Sam Gagner, Rob Schremp, Marc Pouliot, Andrew Cogliano, Ryan O'Marra and Robert Nilsson could earn roster spots.

"There's definitely some spots open," Stoll said. "In the past, there was one spot open, maybe two. This year, there are a lot of young guys who can grab a spot and, hopefully, stick."

As with other teams, the opening of camp signifies a fresh start and a clean slate for the Oilers.

"Last year is last year. It's over with," Staios said. "We're looking forward to this year and we're not going to look back. It's time to move on."



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