SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers grit 'n grin

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:28 AM ET

You again?

If familiarity breeds contempt, the Northwest Division will be a truly nasty place for the Edmonton Oilers to stake their turf this season.

Talk all you want about rule changes in the new CBA opening up the game, creating offence and getting fans buzzing - here's hoping that's the case - but a schedule in which teams face division rivals eight times will ensure we aren't going to see a gap-toothed version of the Ice Capades. There's no kiss and cry in hockey.

When the puck drops Oct. 5, the Oilers had better have something more than sneers when Robyn Regehr and his pals get to face-washing in Calgary, when Todd Bertuzzi is in the mood to get after it in Vancouver and when the glass begins rattling in Denver.

Grit, guts and gusto will be at a premium in what stacks up to be a black-and-blue division, and Craig MacTavish insists his Oilers will be loaded with size and ill-will when the fun begins.

Buckle up.

INTIMIDATION A FACTOR

"When you're playing Calgary eight times, Vancouver eight times and Colorado eight times, even Minnesota, intimidation is going to be a big factor in divisional play," MacTavish said.

"The other thing is that we're in the best division. With the cumulative point total, we're above every other division in the game.

"It's going to be important we have that element of toughness."

With main training camp just a month away, GM Kevin Lowe and MacTavish have set out to bolster a roster that, to be honest, has been physically overmatched too often in recent seasons. The retooling starts right at the top of the marquee.

Six-foot-six Chris Pronger is as nasty as they come. Just ask Ryan Smyth about the Norris Trophy winner. Michael Peca is a miserable so-and-so - a dirty, little ... when he's on the other team, a character guy when he's wearing your silks.

Then, factor in six-foot-five winger Brad Winchester, who'll get a long look at left wing. There's Todd Harvey, who always plays bigger than he is and has never needed a written invitation to corner scrums or fisticuffs.

There's plenty of help on the way for mean-as-hell twins Jason Smith and Igor Ulanov, Steve Staios, Ethan Moreau, Raffi Torres and Georges Laraque, who will be kept busy.

The Oilers will need every bit of it.

Darryl Sutter's Flames were tougher and more determined than the Oilers from top to bottom in 2003-04, when they lost just once in six games to MacTavish's team. They've added Darren McCarty.

Colorado signed Bray May.

In Vancouver, Bertuzzi, probation or not, will be back in the Canucks lineup off the hop.

Minnesota won't be a walk down the garden path with the addition of willing Andrei Nazarov and former Oiler Scott Ferguson.

"The new NHL is going to demand an element of toughness," MacTavish said.

"We play Calgary a lot in pre-season. That'll be a good measurement of where everybody sorts out. They were a little tougher than us (in 2003-04) and that was a big factor."

GOING GETS TOUGH

We're not talking about a return to Gong Shows of eras past in the new NHL, but the schedule - the Oilers face Calgary a dozen times when you factor in pre-season -- is going to dictate that teams who can't hack it when the going gets tough won't be able to compete.

It might be a new NHL, but there will be some old-school hockey played this season and the Northwest Division won't be a place where weaklings have any chance to succeed.


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