SUN Hockey Pool

Centres of attention

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 8:38 AM ET

CALGARY -- Just because the names are on a lineup sheet doesn't necessarily mean the writing is on the wall.

Nevertheless, as rookie Sam Gagner becomes a more viable option by the day, Shawn Horcoff's two-year grip on Edmonton's first-line centre job becomes more tenuous.

"I understand the situation with a young kid like that," said Horcoff, who's been asked to step aside while the 18-year-old Super Series MVP skates with Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner in training camp.

"I understand you have to give him minutes and play him with skilled players and see what he can do."

Horcoff has two goals and two assists in two pre-season games, including a shorthanded tally in last night's 5-4 overtime win over the Flames. But Gagner's also doing enough to make a case for being on the big line come opening night.

That would likely drop the 29-year-old Horcoff to the third line with Ethan Moreau and Kyle Brodziak, where he played last night. He'd still see plenty of special teams minutes, including the first power-play unit, but would become a third-liner at five-on-five.

Not exactly the way he envisioned it last August.

"When I talked to (head coach Craig MacTavish) in the summer he said that I'd be playing with Hemmer and Penner, and then when I came to camp it was changed right off the bat," said Horcoff. "I haven't talked to him about it (since), I don't know what his thinking is, but the kid played well, he's a good kid, he's got lots of skill and he's obviously the future of the franchise."

MacTavish believes the high end of Gagner's offensive ability is probably much higher than Horcoff's, and since the team needs offence, they have to give this a serious look.

"We need a dynamic scorer," said the coach, who had no idea Gagner would be this good this fast when Edmonton drafted him last summer.

"Horc, for all his strengths, is not a 100-point guy in our minds. You need a guy who's going to be a 90 or a point-a-game guy, at least, in that position. So we're going to entertain thoughts of looking at somebody else there at times five-on-five."

Horcoff put up 73 points with Hemksy and Ryan Smyth two years ago and 51 last year, struggling out of the gate when Petr Sykora centered Hemsky for half the year.

MacTavish want's more, and after finishing 25th in the NHL and 30th in goals, can't worry about whether or not change will result in any bruised egos.

"Like we said from the start, there's no interest in maintaining status quo," he said. "If it's bringing younger guys in a little bit before they're ready to really make an impact and trying to develop them and get better as the season goes on, we're very open to doing that as well."

MacTavish, who says he'll play Horcoff with Penner and Hemsky Tuesday in Phoenix, says the eight-year vet will still play a key role.

"He's getting lots of opportunity on the power-play, he's on the first power-play unit. What we're talking about is five-on-five ice.

"Maybe his role will be more important for us to be playing on a second or third line five-on-five.

"The minutes will be there. At times, situationally, (including PP and PK) he'll be playing first line minutes, but maybe at the start of the game his name isn't with Hemsky or Penner immediately."

Again, not what Horcoff envisioned.

"You want to play with the best players possible, too. I view myself as a top six forward in the league and I get paid to produce. And in order to produce you have to play with guys who are offensive-minded players.

"But, having said that, I've played in every situation and role in the league. Played wing, played third line and fourth line. It's not like I'm not going to be comfortable any place I get.

"It'll be interesting to see. Who knows how much room we have up the middle. If they do keep him I'll obviously have to talk with (MacTavish) and see where they see me."


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