SUN Hockey Pool

Thrill of last year a distant memory

JOHN SHORT

, Last Updated: 11:53 AM ET

What a difference a year makes!

Last season at this time, the Oilers were battling for a playoff spot and Kevin Lowe sprung a couple of magic moves to bring in players who could help in the struggle. Jaroslav Spacek, for one, was a perfect fit beside the wonderful (on-ice) Chris Pronger.

This year in the NHL West, the Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars have all improved. The Oilers, largely due to injuries and inconsistency, seem to be getting worse. Okay, maybe they aren't as bad as I've been thinking, but they sure aren't getting any better. Lack of performance, not lack of coaching, is the problem.

Until the early part of the month, it was fair for Oilers watchers to point out that nobody else was dealing either, but Peter Forsberg, Brad Stuart, Vitaly Vishnevski and other top-level athletes have switched jerseys in a hurry.

Are the Oilers hamstrung by their budget? Are tradeable players over-priced and unattractive to other teams? Are Lowe's fellow GMs asking for shining minor-league prospects like Rob Schremp, Tom Gilbert and Devyn Dubnyk, players who no capable executive could surrender so early? Whatever the explanation, it's thin gruel for ticket buyers and TV addicts who have no idea how they'll survive until next fall if the Oilers miss the playoffs.

PROMISE FOR THE FUTURE

After a handful of promising high school grads visited Huskie House last week, members of the Prairie Conference junior football team came away convinced the coming season will be a bright one. The defending champion Edmonton Wildcats feel the same way.

Huskies offensive coordinator John Belmont still plans to walk away from day-to-day coaching - at the junior level. Now preparing to work with the Leduc high school senior team, Belmont says this about the level of high school talent across the province: "The kids are better physically and they're getting better coaching," he said.

For a long, long time - going back to Norm Kimball, Ray Jauch and Joe Faragalli - the Eskimos openly sought ways to put Alberta youngsters into good university programs, many of them in the United States. Rick LeLacheur was an interested observer in those days and Danny Maciocia has a proven record of working with young players and young coaches. They make the big decisions for the Eskimos these days. How long will it be before their influence leads Alberta's best prospects south of the border, where tougher competition can only speed their development?

A REASON TO WATCH CBC

Apart from Hockey Night in Canada, the only good sports product provided by CBC comes on the weekend when this country's best speedskaters, downhill skiers, figure skaters, lugers and snowboarders match skills and fitness with the best in the world. It's expensive to send a typically-large CBC contingent all over Europe, but watching the competitions can be riveting.

Maybe that's what frustrated Oilers fans will come to before long. If so, good for everybody.


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