SUN Hockey Pool

New beginnings

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

They're coming at the 2005-06 season from opposite ends of the spectrum that used to separate the NHL's haves and have-nots.

Last night at Rexall Place, Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe and Colorado Avalanche counterpart Pierre Lacroix met for the first time under the $39-million salary cap and on the level economic playing field the NHL is touting as the centrepiece of a new era.

For Lowe, the new CBA has meant adding the likes of Chris Pronger and Michael Peca without even approaching the cap. It means that on paper, if not on the ice, the Oilers can compete with anybody -- including the Avs.

"Time will tell," says Lowe. "I don't think these guys are going to be doormats by any stretch. With Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk and Rob Blake there, they're still going to be a tough team.

"Having said that, what would have happened in past summers is they would have added a couple bigger name players than they have ... what is different now is they can't just go out and grab those high-end players from other teams because of cap issues."

For Lacroix, the new CBA has meant cutting a payroll that sat at just over $60 million when the Avs claimed their record ninth consecutive division title in 2003-04. Last night, it meant watching his team file out of the tunnel without Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, all of them lost because of salary cutting.

"It was difficult to lose assets like that, especially people who have been with you for so long," Lacroix said.

"You don't want to lose them, but the fortunate part when it came down to decision-making was we were still able to keep a lot of good players.

'IT'S NOT EASY'

"It's not fun, it's not easy, but at the end of the equation, we wind up with a very good hockey club, a lot of guys left from the core of the team."

On a night all 30 teams marked the NHL's return to the ice, Lowe and Lacroix represent the tightening of the disparity that had existed between the league's big spenders and small markets.

Lowe used to look down Colorado's game lineup and see a roster that resembled an all-star team -- Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Alex Tanguay, Blake, Hejduk, Selanne, Kariya and Forsberg, the Oiler-killer.

And, if Lacroix didn't have the makings of a Stanley Cup contender to start a season, he bought the required pieces at the trade deadline, like in March of 2001 when he picked up Raymond Bourque from Boston on the way to another sip of champagne in Denver.

PLAYOFF PUSH

That same March, during a season in which the Oilers threw a scare into the Avalanche in the Northwest Division in the first half of the schedule, Lowe's budget dictated he could make one move for the playoff push -- sending Dan LaCouture to Pittsburgh for defenceman Sven Butenschon.

"There was a time, playing them, we knew we had to play an absolutely flawless game, and then get some help to get a win," Lowe says of tackling Colorado's powerhouse teams of the last decade.

"They could probably play just average and get a win against us. Does that mean that we're going to win any more often? That remains to be seen, but let's just say things are a little more even."

Lacroix quipped yesterday that the Avs were staying at the Hotel Macdonald, despite the payroll constraints. It's not like head coach Joel Quenneville is working with a cupboard stripped bare.

There's still Sakic and Blake, the injured Hejduk and Tanguay, as well as newcomers Patrice Brisebois, Andrew Brunette and Pierre Turgeon and youngsters Peter Budaj and Marek Svatos.

Lacroix isn't crying poor, or conceding a 10th straight division crown to the Vancouver Canucks or anybody else.

"We replaced the players we lost with a new philosophy," Lacroix said.

"We have four balanced lines, which is a philosophy we've never had. We have a different team.

"We have one of the best defensive corps in the league. We have three young goaltenders who are outstanding. We want to be contenders, to play in the last game in June. We have the same goal, but a different concept as a team."


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