Oilers are hair today

Edmonton Oilers' Matt Greene gets a hair-cut before having his portrait taken during fitness and...

Edmonton Oilers' Matt Greene gets a hair-cut before having his portrait taken during fitness and medical testing at the University of Alberta on Thursday morning. (Edmonton Sun/Tim Smith)

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:00 AM ET

GRANDE PRAIRIE -- After coming within a win of sipping from the Stanley Cup, the Edmonton Oilers have been dismissed in some corners as fringe contenders turned pretenders.

As was the case on the way to a date in the Cup final with Carolina -- when the Oilers' bid was dismissed by some as a flash in the pan, a lucky roll, a fluke -- doubters abound. There are pundits who've already picked them to miss the playoffs this season.

Despite losing Chris Pronger, Michael Peca, Jaroslav Spacek, Sergei Samsonov, Georges Laraque, Dick Tarnstrom and Rem Murray, the Oilers beg to differ as they begin putting the pieces back together at training camp today.

The expectation is this edition of the Oilers, bolstered by confidence gained during the run they made at the silverware and the additions of Joffrey Lupul and Petr Sykora to offset the aforementioned personnel changes, is capable of an encore in the Western Conference.

They make a compelling argument.

"I read a couple of publications and some projections," scoffs Ethan Moreau. "It's unbelievable. It's ridiculous. I don't know how you can look at our lineup and come to those conclusions.

"We told everybody when we made the playoffs we were going to win the Cup. We almost did. It's not lip service. We'll be able to deliver. I really believe we're the best team in the west."

DISAPPEARING ACT

You heard right. NHL history is littered with teams that have made a bid for the Cup one season only to disappear the next. Near-champs to chumps. In a Western Conference that's loaded, there's not a lot separating the two.

"Until you get there, you don't know what to expect," said GM Kevin Lowe. "For everybody, the light's on now. It gives everybody an idea of how it's done and what the commitment has to be."

Craig MacTavish, like Lowe, puts a lot of stock in the experience and gamesmanship gained in series wins over Detroit, San Jose and Anaheim. Likewise, in taking Carolina the distance.

"Just knowing how disciplined, prepared and focused you have to be is going to be a real benefit for our team," MacTavish said.

"Expectations are higher, but we're not naive enough to think that last year's success means anything concrete in the standings this year ... the playing field is more level now than it was in the past."

In terms of personnel, the absence of Pronger, with the minutes he logged and points he produced -- particularly on the power play -- is a kick in the jockstrap. There's no getting around that. Spacek will also be missed.

Peca and Samsonov? Not so much. Peca didn't find his game until late in the stretch and playoffs. Samsonov didn't arrive until March. In the end, the dynamic Russian was more sizzle than steak.

From where I sit, adding Lupul and Sykora to a group of forwards including Shawn Hor-coff, Jarret Stoll, Ales Hemsky, Ryan Smyth and Raffi Torres makes the loss of Spacek, Samsonov and Peca a wash.

"We're the best team up front in the league," Moreau says straight-faced. "I don't think anybody can really make an argument against that."

As for overcoming the loss of Pronger, let's start with having Dwayne Roloson in the crease from the start of the season.

How much better will this team be with Roloson between the pipes instead of Ty Conklin, Mike Morrison and Jussi Markkanen for the first 60 games?

If MacTavish gets "the one more save" Roloson provided last season once he knocked the rust off, a blueline corps that's unquestionably thin might be passable without Pronger.

If it's not, Lowe has enough options up front to make a trade to bolster the back end. Rest assured, he won't dither if he can't find the right mix from the group that opens camp today.

WAIT AND SEE

"I'm sure MacT's state of the union before the season begins is we're back to square one," Lowe said. "Every shift, every period, every game, you have to start punching your ticket to the dance."

Pretenders? Flashes in the pan?

"I think we're better," Moreau said. "We lost a couple guys, but we're a better team. The reason we're better is the guys have so much confidence from last year. We'll see."

Indeed we will.


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