SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers' centre of attention

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

PHOENIX -- Lesson No. 1: Don't let up.

Lesson No. 2: Don't give up.

Lesson No. 3: Don't take anything for granted.

Lesson No. 4: If somebody has to teach you Lessons 1, 2 and 3, it's probably too late.

Fortunately for the Edmonton Oilers, the enormously talented youngsters trying to crack their lineup appear to be self-taught.

With four games down and three to go, the battles for job openings at forward -- the most coveted of which is located right between Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner -- are hotter and heavier than ever. First, Sam Gagner looked like a lock to centre the first line. Then, Andrew Cogliano came to life and made a case for himself with three goals in his last two games. And all incumbent Shawn Horcoff has done, meanwhile, is score two goals and two assists in two games and lead all forwards in plus-minus.

With head coach Craig MacTavish already hinting that Cogliano, on the strength of his two goal night in Calgary, could audition between Hemsky and Penner tomorrow against the Flames, the picture is getting fuzzier.

Or is it getting clearer?

"It's still early," said MacTavish, who cautions against rushing to judgement on anyone who hasn't proven himself in the league yet.

"Cogliano looks like he's got a pretty good foot in the door right now, but I've seen things change quickly in the last couple exhibition games as teams get down to their rosters. We'll wait till Saturday before we make that decision completely."

Cogliano has the advantage of being two years older than Gagner, already signed to a contract and AHL eligible if he should struggle in the regular season.

Gagner, scheduled to skate between speedster Geoff Sanderson and Marc Pouliot tonight in Phoenix, needs to turn in a good one. While it's easy to look good between Penner and Hemsky, they'll see what he can generate elsewhere.

"I think Gagner has good enough players with him that he should get something done," said MacTavish. "You look at Cogliano, who went into Calgary with Troy Bodie and JF Jacques and got two goals. It's not all about who you're playing with; you have to make the most of your opportunity."

Don't let up and don't take anything for granted.

"I just have to worry about myself in this kind of situation," said Gagner, a clear front-runner until a few days ago. "Obviously there's a lot of players here who are rising to the occasion. That's great. The more competitive it is, the better the team is going to be for it. It should be interesting going into the season."

It seems unlikely that MacTavish would start the season with five centres -- Horcoff, Stoll, Reasoner, Cogliano and Gagner -- but he says he isn't ruling it out.

"They could (both make it)," he said. "If both outplay other guys, they're going to play. We're very much open to that happening."

Talks beginning

The Oilers and Gagner's camp are opening discussions, trying to get an entry-level deal sorted out.

The base money is pretty stock given where he was drafted (the rookie maximum is $850,000). The only haggling point would be choosing an NHL bonus schedule -- one is worth an additional $875,000, the other $2 million more, if he hits all the targets.

"I don't really worry about the contract side of things," said Gagner. "If I worry about that it'll be just another unneeded thing on my mind. I just try and focus on playing hockey and enjoy myself while I'm out there. Hopefully it'll work out for the best."

And I say, Doh!

Cogliano went to Michigan, not Michigan State. All you Wolverines can stop with the e-mails now.


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