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Oilers can't escape shroud of skepticism

10/11/2006 - NHL Edmonton Oilers

Listen to an overwhelming number of the pundit/prognosticators weighing in on this NHL season, and the current edition of the Edmonton Oilers seems to have a lot in common with Commander Cody and His Lost Pilot Airmen ("Hot Rod Lincoln") or Carl Douglas ("Kung Fu Fighting") or C.W. McCall ("Convoy") or the immortal Buggles ("Video Killed The Radio Star").

All are destined to go down as a trivia answer in the category: One-hit wonders.

The defending Western Conference champions, the same feel-good gang that was a game away from Stanley Cup immortality, certainly ain't finding an awful lot of love outside the City of Champions.

Skepticism, in fact, is the order of the day.

The Hockey News, the Old Testament of the game, picks them 12th and well out of the playoffs, for instance. ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated figure the Oilers will sneak into the Top 8. Just. On the whole, that's an optimistic projection. The Sporting News ranks them fourth in the Northwest Division!

"So?" asked pesky winger Raffi Torres, unimpressed. "We're not much for reading the papers. Sure, we hear things, but that's not going to affect us. We're solid. We've got depth. We're certainly not worried."

Nothing more than a magical mystery tour, one of those happy one-offs that make sports-following so unpredictable and compelling; just an average surfer fortunate enough to lock into a big wave and ride it to the fullest.

"I'm a little surprised by the outside hockey world and where they have us projected," admitted left winger Ethan Moreau, resisting the urge to bug out his eyes, mop a sweaty brow, yank on an imaginary tie and do a Dangerfield. "I don't understand it. I realize the West is really good. Obviously, we lost [Chris Pronger] and he's the best defenseman in the world.

"But with our system, guys are pretty disciplined and dedicated to playing a really aggressive style offensively, but we also take care of our own end. We block a lot of shots, we get in shooting lanes … we don't give up much."

Maybe it's wondering where they plan on making up the 27 minutes, 59 seconds a game that Pronger, who torched his parka, packed some sunscreen and headed off to Anaheim, logged on the blue line. Or, to a lesser degree, how are they going to replace Jaroslav Spacek, an immense contributor down the stretch and through the postseason who now plays for the Buffalo Sabres?

Not everyone is completely sold on goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who turned in a memorable, if somewhat unorthodox, performance during that amazing run to the finals against the Carolina Hurricanes.

"I suppose a lot of people do consider us a flash in the pan," admitted graybeard defenseman Steve Staios. "I can understand the curiosity with the players here who are going to have to take on additional minutes, but there are a lot of guys on this team in only their first or second years who can have an impact.

"Didn't someone pick us 12th in the conference? I certainly don't understand it, but that's fine. We can use it as extra motivation."

The Oil are, as advertised by champions and skeptics alike, fairly deep up front in skill and speed, adding Joffrey Lupul and Petr Sykora to a group that already includes Moreau, the inspirational Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Fernando Pisani and Jarret Stoll. But those trumpeting projections for 300-plus goals are behaving a bit delusional.

This is a far cry from the Gretzky-Kurri-Messier-Anderson-Coffey version of the Edmonton Oilers, after all. They might have eight forwards capable of netting 20 each, but what's lacking is that home-run hitter, the 45-goal, go-to guy.

Offensively, they'll paper-cut you to death by committee. But given the verve and flair they undoubtedly possess, the Oil are bound to be entertaining. The defensive corps, particularly over the murderous haul of an 82-game season, has to be of concern. Taking a horse the size, strength and durability of Pronger out of any lineup would be crippling. It's a real pity that a small-market Canadian franchise, which viewed his arrival as a sign that the dynamics in the game had changed following the labor impasse and lost season, would have to stomach being rejected again, so soon, after such a tremendous ride. (Apparently, Pronger's wife simply could not face a long stay in Edmonton. Hand us a hankie. All together now: Awwwwwwwwww!)

"You don't replace a guy like Chris Pronger," acknowledged Torres. "It's just not possible. But it just creates new opportunities for guys to step in. We're confident those guys are here."

Moving into new or more prominent roles are 20-year-old Ladislav Smid, 23-year-old Matt Greene, soon-to-be 26-year-old Marc-Andre Bergeron and former Thrasher and Wild D-man Daniel Tjarnqvist.

"I think they've handled the pressure extremely well," coach Craig MacTavish said. "All the talk has been about losing Pronger, but Jason [Smith] and Staios have a lot of experience. Tjarnqvist may be new to our team, but not to the league. Matt Greene just might be the best-kept secret in the game.

"So far, so good."

Roloson, meanwhile, probably is wondering what he has to do to convince some people. Well, putting together a regular season to match his playoff heroics would go a long way in dispelling the doubts. He doesn't give off the look of a rock-solid, in-control goaltender, like, say, Miikka Kiprusoff. But looks can be deceiving.

The best style in the world is stopping the puck. No matter how.

A lot of "ifs" surround the Edmonton Oilers of 2006-07. But, really, no more than you'll find in 29 other cities. In today's NHL, nothing can be taken for granted. And a split of a home-and-home, season-opening mini-series versus the rival Calgary Flames is a positive beginning.

"I think our odds to win the Stanley Cup," Moreau joked with reporters last week, "were 30-1 in Vegas. I think people should hop on a plane and go there and put some money on us."

One-hit wonders? These Oilers could care less about the pundit and prognosticators.

"In the final analysis, it doesn't matter what people say or think or write," replied Torres, shrugging. "The only thing that matters is how we play."

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.