Peca, Pronger still trying to find their way

Updated: October 27, 2005, 5:51 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

DENVER -- They went to Edmonton as the 2P Package.

Chris Pronger, acquired from St. Louis, and Michael Peca, signed from the Islanders.

Michael Peca
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesMichael Peca has just one goal in 10 games for the Oilers.

Together, they further energize the Oilers and the Edmonton market, in part because of the financial commitment their arrivals represented in the new salary-cap NHL world, but also because of their talent.

Wondering where the Oilers would get their scoring in this era was nitpicking. Peca especially was skilled enough to be able to adapt and consider the new rules and obstruction crackdown as a license for creativity, enabling him to remain one of the top defensive centers in the game and to contribute more than ever offensively.

And Pronger was going to be the anchor on defense, giving a boost to the power play, as well.

That was the theory, anyway.

After winning their first three games of the season, the Oilers are mired in a seven-game losing streak, sinking slowly in the Northwest Division and being accused by their coach, Craig MacTavish, of making "stupid" mistakes caused by a "junior-league player mentality."

(To which the Kelowna Rockets might respond: "Hey, compared to those guys, we're Yale.")

Bad goaltending magnifies problems, of course. Ty Conklin was banished to Hamilton for a conditioning stint (he needed to get his game back in shape) and Jussi Markkanen has been terrible as well.

That said, it doesn't all fall on the goaltending.

As much as I looked at the opportunity here as a great one for me, it's not as easy as I thought it would be. In the past, I knew what I was doing every single night, I knew what my role was, and then I came in here. I'm not completely comfortable with what I'm doing and getting caught halfway a lot of the time.
Michael Peca

The power play has been horrible, scoring only three times in the last 45 advantages. And then there is that tendency to go into brain-lock mode.

"When you're learning the same lessons over and over again, it gets to blatant stupidity on our part," MacTavish said after loss No. 7, a 5-3 defeat to the Avalanche in Denver this week. "There's nothing more than that. They didn't dominate us with excessive skill and tic-tac-toe plays, it was ongoing opportunities that we provided them."

With one goal and three assists in Edmonton's first 10 games, Peca is struggling, and it seems to have a lot to do with him trying to figure out what he is supposed to be, expected to b, and even capable of being in the relaunched NHL.

Reasonably, the Oilers looked at the new game and their $3.99-million investment in Peca this season and initially decided a center with a defensive bent was a luxury, especially because he was so good defensively because of skills that might be transformed into offensive weapons in the new league.

He needed to get back in at least the 20s in goal-scoring, as he managed as recently as in 2001-02 with the Islanders, and maybe even get beyond that. But as scoring has exploded around him, and around the Oilers, he hasn't been able to get the puck in the ocean from the end of the pier.

It's all part of a growing process and re-evaluation taking place throughout the league, and it might come back to a decision that you can't ask a leopard to change his spots -- and that it might be better to ask the best in the game at what he does to stick with that, and simply try to branch out.

If Peca sticks to what he has done best, perhaps his own scoring will hitch a ride in the jet-stream of the new league. If the new NHL holds, a defensive center who can frustrate scorers after they've become accustomed to the newly opened ice can create offensive chances for himself.

Chris Pronger
Garrett Ellwood/WireImage.comChris Pronger has just two assists in 10 games for Edmonton.

"I think that's the problem with me this year," he said quietly after the loss in Denver. "I've tried to change my game. Until this game, I wasn't killing many penalties, I wasn't playing against the top line, I wasn't really doing anything I've been successful at my entire career.

"So it's been kind of a different environment for me and I think it's affected my play."

So he likes the new rules and standards?

"The things that I've brought to my game in 10 years, well, I think I can still be as effective now with them due to the high speed of the game," Peca said. "I've never done it with hooking and holding. I was never big enough to slow the guys down that way, so I always had to rely on speed and quick stick.

"They gave me an opportunity not to worry about [as much defensive responsibility] coming into the season," said Peca, "but it's not easy to just change your mentality. As much as I looked at the opportunity here as a great one for me, it's not as easy as I thought it would be. In the past, I knew what I was doing every single night, I knew what my role was, and then I came in here. I'm not completely comfortable with what I'm doing and getting caught halfway a lot of the time."

Though he was terrific with the Blues again in 2003-04, Pronger's recent physical problems could lead to a natural questioning of his health. But he seems fine, if you don't count his slow gait in the dressing room because of the ice packs taped to each knee.

"We're finding a way to lose right now," Pronger said. "There's nobody who can get us out this but ourselves. Each guy, look at your buddy next to you and play for one another. Get back to the simple things that had made us a successful team the first three games. When we do that, we'll win a lot of games."

In this reshuffled NHL, a lot of teams are still searching for an identity, but Pronger wouldn't snatch that excuse.

"I don't think our template's changed one bit," Pronger said. "Bringing in Pecs and myself, we still have a very similar team to the team here two years ago. We expected to move up, but we have a hard-working team that has to do it that way. We're not going to finesse teams. We're not going to tic-tac-toe it like Sakic, Hejduk and Tanguay. We're going to outwork the other team and be physical and use our speed and get in on the forecheck, and do it that way.

"We're not going to pick you apart. We're going to wear you down."

So far, though, the Oilers look as though they're still trying to figure out who they are.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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