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On pace for a 164-goal season? Maybe not, but Shawn Horcoff, centre with Radek Dvorak and Ryan...

On pace for a 164-goal season? Maybe not, but Shawn Horcoff, centre with Radek Dvorak and Ryan Smyth, had an impressive opening night all the same, finishing with two goals and an assist. (Edmonton Sun/Perry Mah)

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:17 AM ET

Who doesn't want to be the go-to guy?

Shawn Horcoff certainly did. He would've loved to step right into the spotlight when he broke in with the Edmonton Oilers during the 2000-01 NHL season as a Hobey Baker Award finalist from Michigan State.

Daydreams aside, Horcoff took a look at the depth chart and saw Doug Weight, Mike Comrie, Todd Marchant and versatile Rem Murray at centre in coach Craig MacTavish's pecking order. He figured out quickly he was going to have to earn his keep playing a lesser role.

Rather than complain while others got the ice time, headlines and bigger paycheques, Horcoff shut his mouth, did his job and moved to the wing to stay in the lineup, hoping to prove to MacTavish he was capable of taking on more if the opportunity arose.

Jump ahead four years, and that's what happened. Opportunity knocked after GM Kevin Lowe opened the vault for Chris Pronger and Michael Peca instead of the big-name centre the Oilers have long coveted. Horcoff, MacTavish insisted, would be his top centre, or at least split duties with Peca.

SCRATCHED THEIR HEADS

More than a few people scratched their heads. Horcoff? The guy with a career-high 40 points in 2003-04? That Horcoff?

Yes, that Horcoff. The one who scored two goals, including the winner, and had a three-point night in a 4-3 win over Colorado at Rexall Place Wednesday.

Opportunity seized.

"When you're coming to camp and you're a kid on a two-way contract coming out of college, you see Rem Murray, who'd been here forever, Todd Marchant, M.C. and Dougie," Horcoff said. "Where do I fit? I quickly realized I'm going to have to learn to play the wing or learn to kill penalties. I was able to do that."

While somebody joked yesterday that Horcoff is now on pace for a 164-goal year, nobody's expecting the Trail, B.C. native to be vying for the Rocket Richard Trophy.

What Horcoff, 27, might provide, however, is a surprise to those who've pegged him as a career third-liner, a checker without the offensive tools to justify duty on the first or second lines.

"Critics of mine who say I can't do the job, I say, 'You have to understand the role I was in.' I wasn't in an offensive role," he said. "I was never out there on the power play. I wasn't out there with guys who were looked upon to score.

"That was fine. I was happy to be in the NHL. I was trying to establish myself as an NHL player. I was biding my time, waiting my turn. I always had confidence I'd be able to do it. I'm just happy the organization had confidence in me."

Horcoff, who improved his points totals in each of his first four seasons - 16 as a rookie, 22 in 2001-02, 33 in 2002-03 and 40 in 2003-04 - looked at home between Ryan Smyth and Radek Dvorak Wednesday. He believes he can make good on the chance in front of him. He also knows one game does not a season make.

"Edmonton fans, they care," Horcoff said of skepticism he can deliver. "They care about their team. Why would they not want a proven player? The way I looked at it, a lot of players go through that progression in their careers. They have to establish themselves.

"There's 50 or 60 other guys like me in the NHL. It's just a matter of who's going to take advantage of it."

Between increased ice time and a training regimen that has him in great shape, Horcoff figures he can make a go of his new go-to guy gig. When opportunity meets preparation, that's generally the way things unfold.

'HAVE PATIENCE'

"A handful of guys come into the league and get their 60-70 points and they're set for the rest of their career," he said. "It's a process, and I'm in that process, you know what I mean? I just hope they (fans) have patience with me and see that I can do it because I have confidence I'll be able to."


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