NEW PLAYERS 5
NEW RULES HELP
BETTER THAN '03-04? YES
When Defenseman Chris Pronger coughed up the puck a few times during the Oilers' first public intrasquad scrimmage last month, the buzz from hockey's smartest fans brought a bemused smile to general manager Kevin Lowe's face. "People's expectations need to be realistic," Lowe says. "Prongs isn't a superhero." Maybe. But in a small market that has seen its hockey franchise strip-mined for its talent for 15-plus years, a 6'6" Norris Trophy--winning defenseman who actually came the other way, to Edmonton in a trade (and who signed a six-year, $30 million deal that will keep him there), is about as close to Superman as it gets. You think the staunchest pro-ownership fans during the lockout miss being a major player in the NHL? More than 3,000 citizens showed up at an outdoor press conference when Pronger and new teammate Michael Peca were introduced to the media in August.
Edmonton, bless it, has always aspired to play "Oilers hockey"--the dashing brand that led to five Stanley Cups between 1984 and '90--but it didn't have the resources to keep much of its high-end offensive talent. The new labor agreement and the looming presence of Pronger, 30, alter the equation. He is a superb passer, a quarterback for the power play. "Pronger can take a lot of pressure, and that'll buy some time for the forwards to run some routes," says coach Craig MacTavish. Pronger will have to tone down his liberal use of the stick--he can be Paul Bunyan without the ox--but he has the hockey sense and lateral quickness to still flourish in a faster NHL. Peca, a Selke Trophy winner, and Pronger bring a rough-hewn edge that makes this freewheeling team a tough opponent every game. "If having me and Peca allows the rest of the guys to feel like we have a better chance," says Pronger, "then you've won part of the battle."
Unless the opposition wears kryptonite pads, Oilers hockey will matter again. --M.F.
If unproven Ty Conklin doesn't win early, G.M. Kevin Lowe will start shopping for a more consistent goalie.
• ALL CAPS denotes new player