Dependable, or Disaster area?

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:28 AM ET

They were supposed to have been fully exposed by now as the glaring weakness in an otherwise potent lineup.

It's still only pre-season, but, given all the anticipated shortcomings on defence, five games should have been more than enough to exploit the sisters of the poor on Edmonton's blueline.

Aside from Saturday night in Calgary, however, when Craig MacTavish iced six rookies on defence, they haven't been half as bad as everyone expected.

In fact, seven goals against in five games suggests they've been pretty good.

"I don't have a lot of concerns about our ability to defend," said MacTavish, adding stellar netminding has as much to do with Edmonton's dazzling GAA. "But I think the quality of defencemen we have and the style of defencemen we have are very capable. I think we'll be good in our own zone."

The Oilers' blue-line is all but set, with rookie Ladislav Smid stepping into the No. 6 spot behind Jason Smith, Steve Staios, Matt Greene, Daniel Tjarnqvist and Marc-Andre Bergeron.

They don't look nearly as good on paper without Chris Pronger and Jaroslav Spacek, but, through two weeks of camp, they have managed to ease some of the off-season concern.

'DIFFERENT LOOK'

"It's obviously a different look on our back end," said Staios, who's being paired with Smid for the time being. "The good thing is we have guys who can contribute in a lot of different areas, so you can mix and match."

It's a younger group than last year's - Bergeron, Greene and Smid have 134, 27 and 0 NHL games under their belt - but so far, so good.

"Everybody has jelled together well," said Smith, who knows that solid goaltending and oodles of talent up front don't mean anything if the defencemen can't control their own end or make the crisp breakout pass.

"Playing solid defence is going to be something that's important to us having success.

"When you lose Chris and Jaro from our back end, they're both guys who played a lot of minutes. I'm looking forward to that challenge of getting some more ice time. I know Stevie and Danny Tjarnqvist are, too. And our younger guys, we're going to spread those minutes out ... and be a tough defensive group to play against."

The sixth spot was up for grabs when camp opened, and Smid seems to have grabbed it.

"He's pretty aware for a young guy," said Staios, who'll have the initial task of taking the 20-year-old Czech under his wing.

"Coming into the league as a defenceman at that age is difficult, but he's willing to learn. He's a heads-up kind of guy who seems to understand the game pretty well and he has a pretty good skill set ... and he works hard. He has all the tools to be a good player."

MacTavish said pairing Smid and Staios was a no-brainer.

"A young guy and a veteran, it seems almost like a natural," he said. "You want to put him with a guy who understands the game very well and Stevie does."

The seventh spot on defence is still open, although many of the contenders for that post played themselves out of the mix on Rookie Blueline Night against the Flames.

NOT READY FOR NHL

"We saw that, clearly, some of those guys weren't ready to play at this level," said MacTavish, who won't be naming names until cut time. "You want to continue to give them the opportunity until they fail, and there were some failures. As it normally does at this time of year, the picture starts to become clearer and clearer."


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