Cogliano trying to find a role with young Oilers

Imagine the Edmonton Oilers rising from the tar sands and turning back into black gold, going from last place in the NHL to winning the Stanley Cup sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Can you see Andrew Cogliano(notes) in that picture? Oilers president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe can.

The question is how he fits into it.

“To me, he can play a part on a championship team, as I see a championship team mold,” said Lowe in an interview last month. “Where it gets tricky is, a guy like him I think feels – and probably can be – a top two-line player, and now we’re introducing all these…”

Lowe went on listing the key members of the Oilers’ young forward corps. Taylor Hall(notes), Jordan Eberle(notes) and Magnus Paajarvi – all highly regarded first-round picks – are expected to break into the NHL together this season. They will join Cogliano, Sam Gagner(notes), Ales Hemsky(notes), Dustin Penner(notes) and company.

“All of a sudden,” Lowe said, “you’ve got all these guys who are vying for top-six spots.”

Cogliano, who signed a one-year contract on Friday, will be an interesting subplot as Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi take over the marquee.

If the Oilers are going to make a dramatic jump into the playoffs, like the Colorado Avalanche did last season, they’re probably going to need more than Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi to have exceptional rookie seasons. A bounce-back season from Cogliano would help, too.

And if the Oilers are going to become Cup contenders again someday, they’re going to need players to settle into roles. Could Cogliano break back into the top six? Could he thrive on an energy line and be satisfied with that?

Cogliano has been the subject of constant trade rumors. But Lowe makes it sound as if the Oilers would like to keep Cogliano, at least in some capacity.

“The media are doing the math and going, ‘OK, who’s playing where? OK, if you’re the Oilers, who would be the most likely guy to go?’ ” Lowe said. “That’s more their speculation than how we feel.”

“We” is a relative term. Pat Quinn, the Oilers’ coach last season, didn’t seem to care much for Cogliano. He took him out of the top six.

“I was playing more of a third- or fourth-line role, and you had to adapt,” Cogliano said last month. “I had to play a role where you don’t get a lot of special teams. You have to go out there, you have to put your minutes in, you have to make sure you’re not being scored on.”

Last season was Cogliano’s worst in the NHL. In fact, the downward trend of his career is disturbing. He has played all 82 games in each of his three NHL seasons, and he has posted, in order, 45, 38 and 28 points.

But remember: Cogliano is still only 23. He still has the speed that won the fastest skater competition at the 2009 NHL All-Star Game. He still has the talent that made him the 25th overall pick in the 2005 NHL draft.

And Quinn has been replaced behind the bench.

Last season was bad for all the Oilers. Maybe Cogliano can turn it around under new head coach Tom Renney, who is known as a top-notch teacher. Maybe he will actually benefit from the arrival of Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi. Along with the increased competition should come an increased level of play.

“I think when you have guys surround you that you can play with and play to your liking and how you play, I think you’re just better off,” Cogliano said. “For myself, this will be my fourth year in the league. I’m only 23, which is a good thing for me. I take the onus on myself and the responsibility as an older guy now for a bunch of guys that are coming that are 19, 20 years old. I think it’ll be fun.”

It’s up to Cogliano to rise to the challenge. The Oilers appear set on the wing, but there is an opportunity at center. Cogliano will compete with Shawn Horcoff(notes), a soon-to-be 32-year-old veteran, and Gagner, a 21-year-old who also hasn’t matched his rookie point total from 2007-08, going from 49 points to 41 and 41 again.

Cogliano’s feet move about as fast as they can. His hands are a different matter, though. This summer, for the first time, Cogliano didn’t stay off the ice and focus on the gym. He skated at least a couple of times a week with private tutors at home in Toronto, working on technical aspects of his game like one-timers, faceoffs and stickhandling. He hopes that will help, along with the experience he gained grinding it out on the third and fourth lines last season.

“I focused on getting more hits during a game, being physical, getting up and down the ice quicker,” Cogliano said. “I think by adding those last year, if I add it to my game that I know I’m about – and that’s skill and speed – I think I’ll be better off.”

And so will the Oilers.

“He’ll probably get some top-two line time this year,” Lowe said. “It depends how the young guys are and how much they can handle. He’s still finding his role like a lot of young guys. Sam’s the same way. Where does he fit?

“Some guys are fortunate, like (Chicago Blackhawks stars Patrick) Kane and (Jonathan) Toews and those guys come in right away and immediately kind of put in a spot. But Cogs is still trying to find it.”