Daring to dream

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 5:54 AM ET

How much better did Anaheim get?

How much weaker are Dallas and Colorado?

Is Calgary for real?

Is the Obstruction crackdown?

And now that the Edmonton Oilers are finally getting the open ice and level playing field they've been so desperately seeking all these years, what will they do with it?

Until the season gets a few weeks under its belt and we find out to what degree new rules and a salary cap have altered the National Hockey League landscape, it's all just a guess.

We don't know how many rock-solid defencemen won't be quite so rock solid anymore if they can't clutch and grab. We don't know how many speedy, undersized guys who never seemed like much will burst out of the neutral zone straitjacket and light the league on fire.

We don't know if Minnesota will back five skaters into their own crease and try to shut the game down that way, or if Keith Tkachuk will be penalized for too-many-men every time he hauls that ample boiler of his over the boards.

Fourth? Sixth? Eighth? Tenth? You could make a solid argument that the Oilers will finish in any one of those spots.

"It really is a tough question to answer,'' said defenceman Steve Staios. "We obviously feel very, very good about what's been going on, but with all the changes everywhere it's hard to predict. We think we're ready to make the next step, now we just have to go out and prove it.''

The next step would be the one they've stumbled on for as long as they can remember - winning a playoff series. It hasn't happened since 1997-98, but with Chris Pronger and Mike Peca joining a club that just missed the post-season by a whisker, optimism in Edmonton has never been higher.

"A lot of players moved around in the off-season and a lot of teams are better,'' said Jarret Stoll. "And we're one of those teams.''

The Oilers never did get the first-line centre their fans were drooling for, and until their question marks in net get answered there remains some uneasiness about that position. But they have made significant improvements everywhere else.

Their defence, which was already pretty good, is infinitely stronger with Pronger playing 30 minutes a night. Their stable of youngsters, which was already pretty good, is measurably better than it was 18 months ago. Stoll, Raffi Torres, Ales Hemsky and Fernando Pisani don't look like rookies anymore. And the core of veterans that led this team in the past is still very much in its prime, with Ethan Moreau, Ryan Smyth, Jason Smith, Radek Dvorak and Staios reporting for duty with a renewed hunger and sense of purpose that comes from knowing that Edmonton, finally, has as good a chance as anyone.

Add all of that to a lineup that finished last season as the hottest team in hockey - they earned points in 24 of 29 games down the stretch (16-5-4-4, including 12-0-1-3 in their 16 home games) - and it's easy to see why Oilers fans are daring to dream.

"We had a lot of great things in place even before (Pronger and Peca) were here,'' said Staios. "They're going to complement this group. But we can't sit back and watch them carry the load. Everyone here has to contribute and improve on what he did last year. That's the only way we're going to get to where we want to go.''

Indeed, because Edmonton isn't the only team that bulked up in the off-season. All those clubs close to them or below them in the standings bolstered their lineups, too, and all those stripped powerhouses above them, like Denver, Dallas and Detroit, still have some bite left.

With so much parity in the league, so little separating fourth from 15th, depth, desire, special teams and goaltending have never been more crucial to a club's success.

Edmonton has the depth and desire parts covered and the other two question marks, like everything else, will be answered shortly.

"To be honest, I think it's going to be a battle for everyone to get into the playoffs,'' said Stoll. "Because there's just so many good teams now.''

So how will the Oilers finish?

It's anyone's guess. But they've got a fighting chance this year, and that's all they've ever asked for.


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