SUN Hockey Pool

Last best chance for rookie Oilers

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

The Edmonton Oilers are less than a week from their regular-season opener and have one exhibition game left to work out the kinks.

So it would be reasonable to assume their lineup tonight against the Vancouver Canucks (6 p.m.) at Rexall Place will bare a striking resemblance to the one going up against the San Jose Sharks next Thursday.

Wouldn't it?

"Wrong," said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish. "We're going to play a few other guys. I'm happy with a lot of the veterans, I don't think they need another game right now. We want to take another look at some of the younger guys and give them another game, so it won't be all that similar to what we have opening night."

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

There are still a few decisions left to be made, a few spots to be battled for. Currently the Oilers still have 31 players on the roster.

They're looking to be down to 23 shortly after Saturday's game.

"We're open-minded and we'll be open-minded right through the start of the season," MacTavish said. "Just because camp is over doesn't mean that you're close-minded in terms of personnel changes. There'll be guys that we have high hopes for that aren't in that opening-night roster.

"There are guys that through their development and the coaching that we give them will improve in the areas of their game that they're weak at right now. Just because you're not in the opening night roster doesn't mean that you're out of the future plans. The onus is on the players to improve in those areas."

Andrew Cogliano appears to have won himself a spot on the opening night roster with his play so far through the preseason.

Sam Gagner has also turned heads.

The Oilers first pick - sixth overall - in last summer's NHL Entry draft has an opportunity to survive the next round of cuts.

"He's very much in the mix," MacTavish said. "He'll be one of the players that plays (today). We'll see how he does. We've liked what we've seen, he's played exceptionally well for an 18 year old coming into his first camp.

"He's a quick study and he's certainly very close to staying here and it's just a case of getting together with (GM) Kevin (Lowe), the coaches and making a decision of what we're going to do with Sam."

Unlike the other players on the roster, Gagner cannot be recalled this season if sent back to his junior team in Ontario.

That may buy the rookie some time in Edmonton. He's allowed to play 10 games with the Oilers before the team has to pay him an NHL salary.

"We don't have any place to put him. It's going to be a decision that we have to live with long-term," MacTavish said. "If we choose to keep him here for 10 games we can do that. We have that ability and that's very much something that we'll consider."

LUXURY TAX

The biggest battles for a roster spot will be on the third and fourth lines. The team also has an abundance of defenceman - a luxury they didn't have a year ago.

"I see more of an influx in the lineup, maybe on defence or on the fourth line," MacTavish said. "Those decisions we continually make as the year goes on."

Regardless the Oilers are anxious to get this final preseason game out of the way and begin eliminating the memory of a horrendous 2006-07 campaign.

"I think we're all ready to get going," said Oilers centre Shawn Horcoff.

"We put in a lot of work over the summer. Guys came into camp in great shape, have worked hard and are ready to go, so we're looking forward to starting up."


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