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Canadian Press
2/8/2007 2:27:41 PM

EDMONTON (CP) - Buyer or seller?

Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe will be asked that question countless times before the NHL's Feb. 27 trading deadline, but with less than three weeks to go until then, he doesn't have an answer.

While the need for a puck-moving defenceman, a history of deadline deals and more than US$3 million in salary-cap space suggest Lowe will be a buyer, a tight market and the inability to contend for Western Conference playoff spot could make him a seller.

These days, Lowe is neither.

"If you look over our recent history, there's been years when people counted us out," said Lowe, who added Dwayne Roloson and Sergei Samsonov at the 2006 deadline on the way to the Stanley Cup final. "They just assumed we'd be sellers and we ended up being buyers. I'm still optimistic we'll be in that mode. I've been operating on that basis for some weeks trying to be prepared, but it's still too early to tell."

With 54 games in the books and 56 points in the standings, the Oilers were six points behind eighth-place Minnesota heading into Thursday's NHL games. If they fall further off the pace during their upcoming seven-game road trip, acquiring a blue-chip blue-liner might become a moot point.

If the Oilers hang in through the trip, which ends in Minnesota on Feb. 25, then Lowe likely takes a front seat at the trade table. Until then, he and assistant GM Scott Howson will play the waiting game.

"We're analyzing the situation on a daily basis," Howson said this week. "We're making calls and fielding calls and seeing what's out there.

"We're looking at the performance of our team and seeing where we're at and what we need on a short-term basis, but always with an eye on the long term."

In the absence of Chris Pronger, who was dealt to Anaheim in July, an anemic attack has been the team's most glaring shortcoming. The Oilers have scored 149 goals, 21st in the NHL, and their power play ranks 26th in the 30-team league.

Marc-Andre Bergeron leads Edmonton defencemen with seven goals and 23 points but isn't in the top 30 among NHL rearguards. The rest of the defence has combined for just nine goals.

"There's not a surplus of them," said Lowe, who not only met Pronger's trade request but also lost Jaroslav Spacek and Dick Tarnstrom off last season's team.

"You might phone and ask about a certain player and he could be available, but the price is exorbitant. I suspect that with any players who move, there's going to be a fair premium to pay."

With about $40.6 million in cap space used, Lowe has room to get to the limit of $44 million. Assuming he's in a position to make a deal, Lowe can focus on acquiring a rental player - somebody who'll be an unrestricted free agent after July 1 - or he can think longer term.

Brad Stuart of Boston and Eric Brewer of St. Louis are most often mentioned as rental players expected to be available although the Blues were expected to open contract talks with Brewer this week. Players with contracts or who are restricted free agents include Joni Pitkanen of Philadelphia, Adrian Aucoin of Chicago and Rob Blake of Los Angeles.

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