EDMONTON - Austria's Erste Bank Eishockey League was a popular destination for locked-out NHLers during the League's four-month-long work stoppage. Joining the likes of Edmonton native Johnny Boychuk, Columbus Blue Jackets Derek Dorsett and Derick Brassard, Norris Trophy candidate Tyler Myers and ex-Oilers teammate Andrew Cogliano, Sam Gagner was an EBEL standout -- a star with Klagenfurt AC, posting 10 goals and 20 points in 22 games.
"Going over to there was a great benefit to me," Gagner said. "With the big ice, you're not as close to the net all the time and you have a little more space to make plays on the outside. Coming back to a smaller rink here, you've got to make sure you're getting to the net all the time. It was a benefit for me to play hockey and to do it at such a high level over there."
Of equal importance , Gagner wanted to appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Traveling by bus, enjoying the sights of the crisp, snowy countryside and staying in some of the most scenic and secluded Austrian hotels was an experience in itself. If you follow Gagner on Twitter (@89SGagner), you will have seen it all.
"[The work stoppage] was unfortunate," Gagner said, "but I wanted to take advantage of it. It's an experience I probably won't get again, so I wanted to make the most of it. I met some great people and learned a lot. It was a great experience for me and a lot of fun."
Earlier in the week Head Coach Ralph Krueger said that, while he has several options to consider given the Oilers' wealth of star power and offensive talent, Gagner has been quietly campaigning to get some time on the power-play as a point man.
"I don't know if you can call it 'campaigning,'" laughed the 23-year-old. "I played the point pretty much the entire time I was there with (Tyler) Myers. I feel comfortable in a lot places on the power-play, but especially so back there. That's an opportunity I do want to have and run with. But no matter where I am or what position I'm put in, I'm excited for the year and I'm comfortable I'm going to get the job done."
Gagner isn't the only one. With Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz, Nail Yakupov and others already in mid-season form, the London, ON product sees great potential in what the Oilers will be rolling out. It's quite possible that the pivot will start the season centering Yakupov and Ales Hemsky on the Oilers' second line.
"Whoever I do play with, I've got to bring the same thing every night," Gagner said. If it were to happen that way, Hemmer's a guy with a lot of speed, a lot of skill and he makes a lot of plays out there -- and Nail can really shoot the puck. I've got to go out there, move my feet and go to the net to create some chances.
"We have a lot of great players and that's an exciting thing to be a part of. We've been stockpiling for a while now and bringing in a lot of great players. But the time is now to bring it all together and turn this into a winner. I think everyone here is on the same page and we're all pretty excited."
Signed to a one-year, $3.2M deal last summer as he narrowly avoided salary arbitration, Gagner's 2013 season is a big one. Since collecting 49 points in his rookie season, he's yet to eclipse that mark. He came close last season, though, registering a career-high 18 goals and 47 points -- including an historic eight-point night vs. Chicago nearly a year ago.
Shortened season or not, Gagner's outlook is the same.
"It doesn't change anything," he said. "This is a big year for me either way. I want to continue to make steps. I made steps last year but I'm nowhere near the player I want to be. I feel that over the past few years I've really learned a lot about myself and how to handle [difficult] situations. Going over to Austria was another steppingstone for me as a player. I've got to continue to make those steps and be sharp every night. In a 48-game season that's magnified a bit, but my thought process doesn't change.
"With the way we're set up here, it's an opportunity for a lot of guys to have success. For me, it's just a matter of bringing that same thought process every night, doing my best to help this team win and hopefully having a great year in the process.
"I'm excited for the challenge."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
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