GRANDE PRAIRIE -- In some circles, D is short for defence.
In Edmonton, it's more like a failing grade that critics have already pinned on the Oilers' seriously depleted blue-line.
With three of their top six defencemen having bolted in the off-season, most notably Chris Pronger and Jaroslav Spacek, who ate up over 52 minutes a night, it is widely assumed that the back end will be Edmonton's soft white underbelly - the place an otherwise solid team will be most vulnerable.
Where they'll be defenceless, if you will.
It's OK, you don't have to whisper. They've heard it, too.
They're not the same team without Pronger. They don't have enough talent back there. There's no way all those rookies can pick up that much slack.
"Everybody is entitled to their opinion," said captain Jason Smith, who can be forgiven for taking the non-confidence votes personally, since he is the leading man on the blue-line.
'LOOKING FORWARD TO THAT CHALLENGE'
"There's going to be more people looking at our back end now that we've got some new faces. But I think every one of us is looking forward to that challenge and stepping up ... playing more and taking what we learned last year and moving forward."
It's understandable that the new-look defence is being second-guessed before the first game. It's hard to imagine that whoever steps in to fill the void out of Ladislav Smid, Tom Gilbert, Jan Hejda and Daniel Tjarnqvist won't be a fairly significant downgrade from the not-so-dearly departed trio of Pronger, Spacek and Tarnstrom.
But Smith, without getting too defensive on the subject, is quick to point out that Carolina didn't have a Pronger-like defenceman, either, and they turned out OK.
"You saw last year during the playoffs that teams like Buffalo and Carolina played defence by committee," he said. "Four or five guys rather than one guy playing a lot of minutes. They had a lot of success. We'll do whatever it takes as defencemen on this team to play well and let the team do well."
The Oilers are going to need a big year from their captain. He'll have to take on a lot of extra minutes. Also with Georges Laraque gone, he'll have to take on more of that role, too. Fine by him.
"It's a big year every year. As a player you always want to do better. There are things you want to improve on. If you don't want to be a better player year by year and game by game there's really no reason to play."
HORCOFF GETS A CHUCKLE
Shawn Horcoff listens to the criticism of the Edmonton blue-line, how they're too young, how many of them have never had this responsibility before, and he laughs. One year ago the same doubts were being cast his way.
"It's funny, last year we had a couple of question marks up front about younger guys having to step up and do the job and we were able to do that as a core. I think you're going to see that on the back end this year. Some younger guys are going to get more minutes and they're going to have to run with it."
If not, it's not like the Oilers don't have money to spend or players to trade. "(Lowe) has shown in the past that if you can't get the job done he'll make the moves necessary."