SUN Hockey Pool

They're feelin' blue

ROBIN BROWNLEE, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

Without even counting his seven goals, Chris Pronger's 33 assists with the Anaheim Ducks ties him for the Edmonton Oilers' team scoring lead with Petr Sykora.

Likewise, the Oilers don't have a defenceman near the top 40 in scoring among NHL blue-liners through 36 games. Marc-Andre Bergeron's 15 points are as good as it gets.

That's not to revisit the soap opera about why Pronger asked for a trade out of town or point fingers at individuals, but those are the facts and two of the reasons the Oilers are 20th in the NHL in goals scored with 102.

Just as it's not always the fault of a defenceman when there's a breakdown in the defensive zone, it's not solely the fault of the forwards when the attack grinds to a halt, as it has too often of late.

Who can make that first pass?

"Not good enough," sums up coach Craig MacTavish. "We've got to get better in that area."

The Oilers came out of their own zone as well as any team last season, largely on the strength of Pronger's knack for passing - his ability to get the puck to forwards on the fly. That's a component that's missing.

There's not a pure passer on a blue-line corps that includes Jason Smith, Steve Staios, Matt Greene, Daniel Tjarnqvist, 20-year-old rookie Ladislav Smid, Jan Hejda and Bergeron. Smid might become that guy one day, but he's still learning the ropes. Bergeron?

"It's a tough play to make," said Jarret Stoll. "He (Pronger) is a great player. To get out of the zone, you've maybe got to make smart simple plays instead of the big, long pass.

"I don't remember how many times (Pronger) would find Hemmer (Ales Hemsky) flying down the wall with a crisp pass, you know? Maybe we aren't getting that now, but there are other ways to get out of the zone."

Pronger's first-pass prowess isn't something easily taught. So, unless or until GM Kevin Lowe makes a trade to address the deficiency, MacTavish will have to try to coach around it.

"We're not asking players to do things they're not capable of," MacTavish said. "Our expectations are well within our players' ability.

"We can't get caught holding on to the puck as long as we have. We've got to do a better job in that regard ... you have to coach around your limitations and, as a player, you have to play around your limitations.

"The start of that is recognizing your limitations and not trying to over-extend yourself in areas of your game that you're not capable of. Just keep it simple and keep moving the puck forward."

AROUND THE RINK ... MacTavish indicated yesterday Hejda will draw into the lineup against the Vancouver Canucks tonight, although he didn't name Smid, who is the likeliest candidate to come out, as the rearguard who will get a seat in the press box.


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