The Edmonton Oilers open the 2007-08 season tonight at Rexall Place against the San Jose Sharks.
Edmonton, the 2006 Western Conference champion, is trying to regroup after finishing last in the Northwest last season with 71 points. Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe was aggressive in the offseason, signing free agent defenseman Sheldon Souray to a five-year contract reportedly worth $27 million and restricted free agent right wing Dustin Penner to a five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet - a nearly 10-fold increase from his 2006-07 salary of $450,000 - Anaheim failed to match.
Lowe was criticized by Ducks general manager Brian Burke for the offer sheet to Penner, who was Lowe's second choice after the Sabres matched his stunning seven-year, $50 million offer sheet to left wing Thomas Vanek.
Souray had career highs of 26 goals - 19 on the power play - and 64 points with the Montreal Canadiens but also a career-worst player rating of minus-28.
"I want to improve not on the numbers, but on my all-around game," Souray said when he signed in July. "And continue just to try and be a leader and to do the things the organization's going to expect me to do coming in there."
Penner had 29 goals and 45 points for the Ducks in his first full season in the NHL and is expected to take some of the pressure off Ales Hemsky, who struggled to 53 points after scoring 77 in 2005-06.
Edmonton and San Jose split four games last season as Thornton topped both teams with six points.
San Jose was eliminated in six games in the conference semifinals against Detroit last season, scoring just three goals in losing the final three games. It was a disappointing end after San Jose set team records with 51 wins and 107 points en route to a second-place finish in the Pacific Division, three points behind eventual 2007 Stanley Cup champion Anaheim.
It was the third consecutive postseason that ended short of the finals for the Sharks, who will again try to embrace the lofty expectations placed upon them.
"I know I picked our team to win," said Sharks star center Joe Thornton, who finished second in the NHL with 114 points. "My expectations are meeting everybody else's, finally. ... I think we've got a great combination of guys. We've got every piece you need on a team to win any game. It's just up to us now."
Thornton, acquired in a blockbuster trade with Boston on Nov. 30, 2005, has accumulated 42 goals and 206 points in 140 games with the Sharks. He won the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP and Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top scorer in 2006.
Sharks coach Ron Wilson - entering his fourth season with the club - is addressing the urgency by having Thornton center what he hopes will be a high-scoring top line. Team captain Patrick Marleau - the No. 2 center last season - and right wing Jonathan Cheechoo, both 30-goal scorers in 2006-07, will flank Thornton on the first line.
Marleau, the longest-tenured member of the Sharks entering his 10th season, was a major disappointment in the playoffs against the Red Wings. Despite failing to score a point in the series and having a minus-5 player rating, the Sharks signed him to a two-year, $12.6 million extension in the offseason.
The Sharks also re-signed defenseman Craig Rivet and extended Milan Michalek's contract while preserving salary cap space for midseason additions.
"Just knowing these guys and watching them skate every day, I don't see how we can't be the odds-on favorite," said 37-year-old center Jeremy Roenick, who was signed as a free agent to provide leadership and toughness. "But with that comes a lot of responsibility, a lot of pressure. We have to make sure that we don't sit on those accolades. We have to go out there and make sure they come true."
Roenick, who spent last season with Phoenix, is five goals shy of becoming the 40th player with 500.
The Sharks made Evgeni Nabokov the No. 1 goaltender after dealing Vesa Toskala to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a draft-day trade. Nabokov went 25-16-4 with a 2.29 goals-against average and seven shutouts in 50 games in 2006-07.