SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers an optimistic bunch

DEREK VAN DIEST -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:54 AM ET

It begins this morning.

The dawn of a new season with high expectations gets underway as the Edmonton Oilers report to main camp with medicals and fitness testing.

Not since Chris Pronger and Michael Peca were unveiled after the lockout has there been this much optimism heading into the year.

Winger Erik Cole and defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky were the two biggest off-season acquisitions for the Oilers. They'll join a healthy core of veterans and an exciting group of youngsters as the club aims to make the playoffs for the first time since coming a win away from claiming the 2006 Stanley Cup.

Unlike last season, there do not look to be many spots available on the roster. It's unlikely a rookie will come in and make the team the way Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano did last October.

But there should be interesting battles at all positions.

It starts in goal with veteran Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon battling for that No. 1 position.

Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers is also in the mix.

With blue-chip prospect Devan Dubnyk expected to play the majority of games in Springfield this season, Drouin-Deslauriers will have to prove he's capable of playing at the NHL level.

On defence, the Oilers have eight NHL-calibre blue-liners battling for six spots, while up front, the openings are limited to fourth-line roles and extra bodies.

The team will have its first on-ice session tomorrow and open the exhibition season Monday at home against the Vancouver Canucks.

They'll play seven exhibition games before getting the regular-season underway at home against the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 12.

Here's a look at the Oilers training camp going into the 2008-09 season.

FORWARDS:

LEAD PIPE LOCKS TO MAKE IT

LW ALES HEMSKY

The anointed star of the team, Hemsky has always shown flashes of brilliance, but has yet to explode into the full-fledged superstar the team is hoping and have paid him to be.

Last season, Hemsky lead the Oilers in scoring with 71 points. But after a 77-point campaign and a trip to the Stanley Cup final two years ago, the team was looking for more from their most offensively talented forward.

Coming into camp this year fitter and more mature, Hemsky has to move on to the next level. And realistically, the Oilers will only go as far as he takes them.

C SHAWN HORCOFF

He's worked his way from a fourth-line checker to a first-line scorer entering his eighth campaign with the club. Last season Horcoff was having a career year with 50 points in 53 games before a shoulder injury brought it all to an end.

In past years, Horcoff may have been the Oilers' first-line centre by default, but this summer the club emphatically stated he was their guy by agreeing to a six-year, $33-million contract extension.

LW ERIK COLE

When the Carolina Hurricanes went to their first Stanley Cup final in 2002, Cole was considered one of their budding stars and a cornerstone of the franchise. When the Hurricanes defeated the Oilers for the Cup in 2006, he provided an inspirational lift returning to play in the final two games of the series after having broken his neck earlier that season.

Healthy and happy to be playing in a hockey market for the first time in his career, Cole is one of the reasons for the high sense of optimism.

LW ROBERT NILSSON, C ANDREW COGLIANO, RW SAM GAGNER

There hasn't been this much excitement over a group of kids since Gretzky, Messier and Coffey played here. Forced into action due to the amount of injuries the Oilers suffered last season, the trio nearly pulled the Oilers into the playoffs with an improbable late-season surge.

None of them were locks to make the team heading into training camp last season and Nilsson was actually sent to the farm at the beginning of the year. However, they'll be counted on heavily this season and are expected to complement the Oilers top line with a big scoring punch.

LW DUSTIN PENNER

Big things were expected from him after he signed an offer sheet with the Oilers, much to the ire of Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke. Penner may have struggled with the amount of minutes the Oilers were asking of him at the beginning of the season, but did prove to be a reliable goal scorer, finishing with a team-high 23 last season. A big body with soft hands, he will be a valuable weapon on the power play and is expected to improve his goal tally from last season.

RW FERNANDO PISANI

What a difference a year makes. Heading into training camp last season, hockey was the furthest thing from Pisani's mind, battling to control his ulcerative colitis. Eventually Pisani was able to get back in the lineup, but as a shell of his former self. The Oilers' scoring sensation of the 2006 Stanley Cup run, Pisani returns this season healthy and looking to put together a solid season. If he can regain his playoff form, he should be able to surpass his season high of 18 goals.

C KYLE BRODZIAK

Brodziak is the perfect example of developing a player in the minors. After three seasons in the AHL, Brodziak had a solid rookie year with the Oilers, finishing with 14 goals and 31 points. This year, the Oilers will expect more from the St. Paul, Alta., product, and judging by the way he played last season, there is no reason to believe Brodziak can't oblige. It's expected he'll take on a bigger offensive role to go along with his checking and penalty-killing duties.


Videos

Photos