EDMONTON - After missing the playoffs for three straight years, there's no doubt that everybody who files out of the Edmonton Oilers dressing room prior to Saturday's season-opener has something to prove.
But that holds especially true for Dustin Penner, Mike Comrie and Shawn Horcoff.
All three are trying to put a forgettable 2008-09 season behind them by producing the kind of results they've proven capable of in the past.
"I think it's critical," coach Pat Quinn said as the team prepared to open the season against Calgary. "I think they recognize that. They feel like they had an off-season, even though they were knocking on the door with 10 games to go last year.
"Something happened, whatever it is. I don't have a clue and probably most of them don't know for sure, but they feel they didn't get the results they wanted. They feel they were off a little bit and feel they're capable of better hockey. Hopefully, that's going to happen because that's what we need to have happen - guys playing at the top of their game on a regular basis."
After missing the playoffs with a record of 38-35-9, this off-season was supposed to be one of significant change for the Oilers.
While Craig MacTavish and assistants Charlie Huddy and Bill Moores were replaced by Quinn, Tom Renney and Wayne Fleming, the roster remains much the same.
Comrie returns after signing as an unrestricted free agent. Nikolai Khabibulin takes over in goal. Gilbert Brule and newcomer Ryan Stone have made the roster. Still, this is largely the group that wasn't good enough in the stretch last season.
"As a professional, you have to buy in as soon as the coaching staff changes," said Penner. "I think we've done that as a whole and as individuals."
Horcoff, 31, will earn US$7 million this season and is coming off a 53-point campaign as the team's top centre. That, after a 50-point season cut short by injury in 2007-08 and a 51 points in 2006-07.
That's not the bang for the buck the Oilers were expecting when they signed Horcoff to a new contract after he had 73 points in 2005-06.
"A lot of it is maturity," Horcoff said. "Guys are a year older. There comes a point in your career where you either make that move or you don't.
"For a lot of us, it's here. I think we're prepared to do that. If you look down the roster, maybe two or three guys would be happy with their year last year. There's lots of room for improvement.
Penner, 27, managed just 17 goals and 37 points last season and found himself in MacTavish's bad books. He was demoted to the fourth line and was a healthy scratch more than once.
The Oilers inked Penner to a $21.25-million offer sheet in the summer of 2007 after he scored 29 goals for the Anaheim Ducks. He had 23 goals in his first season with the Oilers.
"The general excitement in the room, I think everybody feeds off that positive energy," Penner said. "Good attitudes are contagious and so are bad ones.
"There was a lot of negativity surrounding the team last year. It's way more positive this year. For me, I just go out there and play the game I love. It's a pleasure coming to the rink every day."
Comrie, 29, is coming off a season shortened by hip problems in which he managed just 27 points in 63 games with the Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders.
A two-time 30-goal scorer, Comrie tallied 33 goals with the Oilers in 2001-02. Comrie, who will open the season between Stone and Patrick O'Sullivan, led the team in pre-season scoring with 3-7-10 in five games.
"We all knew going into camp with a new coach we were going to have to work hard," Comrie said.
"It doesn't matter what you've done in the past. You have to play well to stay here. It's a good start, but we have to continue to play well and earn his (Quinn's) trust as the coach."
sub>Like Penner, Comrie and Horcoff, O'Sullivan expects more of himself after managing just 2-4-6 in 19 games with the Oilers after being acquired from Los Angeles. He slipped to 16 goals last season after scoring 22 with the Kings in 2007-08.
"If you've got any pride at all you want to get going again with the way our team finished," O'Sullivan said. "I think every guy in the room that was here at the end of the year would tell you the same thing."