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OFF THE ICE

Gagner still contributing in his rookie season

Monday, 26.11.2007 / 4:46 PM / Off the Ice
By Marc Ciampa  - edmontonoilers.com
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Gagner still contributing in his rookie season
New look for Gagner on the LW

Oilers forward Sam Gagner has been used in many situations so far this season and has played everywhere from the first to the fourth line. But tonight he will get a different look, playing on the left side for the first time this season on the team's top line alongside Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky.

"He's played well," said Horcoff, the team's leading scorer and top-line centre. "The kid can make some plays. Hopefully tonight we'll be able to create some open ice for him. He's proven he can get the job done."

Horcoff acknowledged that it's been difficult to find a fit on the left wing side so far this season for himself and Hemsky.

"It's just trying to get someone on the same page as us. Hemmer and I are guys who like to support the puck real close together. It's just trying to find that third guy to give us some chemistry."

Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish agreed with Horcoff that they're still looking for someone to play with the team's top two scorers.

"There hasn't been a true fit there for those guys yet. Hopefully it works off the bat but you may see a bunch of guys there as the game progresses."

The past few games, MacTavish has slotted Robert Nilsson into that left wing spot to start the game, but Nilsson started slow both games and was taken off the line.

"When you're in that situation, you want to make sure you get off to a good start," he continued. "You want to take advantage of that opportunity."

"It's going to get Sam skating. He can move the puck and make plays. The questions you have are how effective are they going to be on the cycles and the dumps and stuff like that. They've got to get in there quickly and win those battles," MacTavish stated. "If they do that, they have a chance."

Gagner was happy to have the chance to play on the top line as an 18 year old.

"I'm pretty excited," Gagner remarked. "They're really good players who have proven themselves in this league. It's a good opportunity for me.

"I've got to prepare the same way and come in with the same mindset."

Despite seeing some drop-off in his offensive production in the past month, Gagner is still confident he can contribute.

"I feel good," he said. "I'm playing the same way I was at the beginning of the year. The puck's just not bouncing the right way. I think I'm doing the right things."

- Marc Ciampa
The date is June 19, 2007, three days before the NHL Entry Draft and Edmonton Oilers scouts along with V.P. of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast were gathered in a Columbus, Ohio hotel room trying to come up with a ranking for the 2007 draft class.

The top two, in the Oilers mind, were no-brainers. Patrick Kane of the London Knights would be the first player chosen and in their opinion, Burnaby’s Kyle Turris would go second.

The player the Oilers had ranked third? Sam Gagner.

“It was a tight battle. We liked both of them equally well, him and (Jakub) Voracek. The way Gagner played at the World Junior Championships, accepting a different role and playing well in that role,” Prendergast said.

“(Gagner) brings something to the table. If you’ve got skill and you’ve got character you’re going to go a long way in this game.”

There was a trio of players ranked third, fourth and fifth that the Oilers would have been happy with – Gagner, Voracek and defenceman Karl Alzner – but it was Gagner they ultimately wanted the most.

“He’s got great hockey sense and he distributes the puck really well. He makes the right reads, right plays and goes into the tough areas. He plays a lot bigger than his 5’10” frame,” Prendergast said.

However, Edmonton had the sixth overall pick and would need some help to get any one of those three players. The help came early in the draft when Philadelphia took James vanRiemsdyk second overall after Kane went to the Blackhawks in the top spot.

Turris followed at third and then Los Angeles went off the board at the fourth spot, taking Thomas Hickey. Alzner went fifth to Washington making it a choice between Gagner and Voracek for Edmonton.

“Gagner’s a player that we scouted a lot. We liked Voracek but Gagner’s roots and history go back a bit and that sort of won out,” Prendergast remarked. “He plays like his dad only with a little more skill and his dad was a pretty good hockey player.

“He’s been brought up with the pro thinking through his dad and in London.”

HOCKEY FAMILY

Sam’s father, Dave Gagner, played 946 career games in the NHL where he had 318 goals and 719 points. It was right near the end of Dave’s career when he played with the Florida Panthers that Sam got into hockey.

“That’s really where I got my start in hockey. I remember I changed from forward to defence for a little bit and when I came back to Canada I changed back to forward,” said Sam.

“It was a fun time in my life and it let me experience hockey in a different way. In Canada it’s the big thing and in Florida at that time it may not have been as popular and I think it was cool to experience that.”

Being the son of a professional hockey player, Gagner was introduced to the behind-the-scenes aspect of the game early.

“It was fun to meet some of the players who are your idols growing up and seeing how down-to-earth they are,” he said. “I remember going to Florida and throwing on Martin Straka’s helmet and getting wheeled around the ice which was a lot of fun.”

Sam was nine years old when father Dave retired from the NHL and having spent the majority of that time in such hot weather locales as Dallas and Miami, he had some catching up to do.

“Once I came to Oakville (Ontario) I had a lot of catching up to do. I hadn’t really played much competitive hockey and I might have been a little bit behind at the AAA level,” he said.

His father set up a backyard rink at their Oakville home and Sam would spend countless hours honing his skills on the ice in the winter.

“We played three-on-three games back there and it was very competitive. Things happened quickly and that’s really where I learned to develop my quick thinking and hands. I think it developed me into the player I am today. It was a lot of fun for me and helped develop my passion for the game.”

His dad would coach his minor hockey teams in the winter and then drive him around Southern Ontario to play hockey in the summer on whatever team would have him that week.

“Every time I was on the ice it never really felt like practice, we were just having fun with it,” he said. “It seemed like I was playing on a different team every weekend but my dad enjoyed being around the rinks and taking me which made it a lot easier for me. I’ve got to thank him for that.”

While a lot of players would get burned out by such a hectic schedule, the more hockey Sam played the more passionate he got about the sport.

“It was a lot of fun growing up in a hockey family,” he continued. “Even at home you try and get away from the hockey talk but it always seems to come back at the dinner table.”

Gagner scores on Chicago goaltender Khabibulin in Saturday's shootout. (Photo: Andy Devlin/EOHC)
CHANGE OF PLANS

Sam’s passion for the game certainly also helped speed up his development past anyone’s expectations. Instead of playing in the NHL right now, the original plan was for him to be beginning his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin.

In 2005-06, Sam moved to Sioux City, Iowa and played junior hockey for the Sioux City Musketeers with an eye on getting a scholarship.

“I went to the USHL because I was going to go to University in the States. I thought that was the best option for me. I had a pretty good year there and I had grown a little bit.”

However, when the opportunity arose to return home and have his dad behind the bench again Sam couldn’t pass it up.

“London of the OHL was trying to get me to come there and my dad was going to have a chance to coach so it turned out to be the best fit for me.”

It turned out to be a great fit. Sam had 11 goals and 46 points in 56 games with Sioux City but then his development skyrocketed with the London Knights. As a 17-year-old rookie last season, he ranked fifth in the entire league in scoring with 35 goals and 118 points in 53 games.

“I had the best time there. I really enjoyed myself and thought I developed a ton. Last year was definitely huge for me and my development and helped me get here,” he said. “London has a winning tradition. They’d won a lot the previous three years before I got there and that was a major thing for me – I wanted to go to a winning team.

“We were able to get a lot done during that season. I felt I’d developed a lot and the coaching staff was unbelievable.

“They gave me an opportunity to play a lot and with some great players, (first overall pick) Pat Kane being one of them. I was able to develop some chemistry and learn a lot with him. He’s got a ton a skill and does things out there you can only dream of.”

It was Sam’s first opportunity to really stack himself up against his peer group.

“You see guys that are drafted high and chances are they’re going to play in the NHL one day and it develops a healthy competition. You want to be able to say you played better than them that night. Almost every rink you go in there’s a player drafted pretty high that you can measure yourself against.

“If you try to be the best player on the ice every night, chances are you’re going to get recognized. I was given an opportunity to play with some great players and that helped me out a lot. At the NHL level everybody has some skills and playing with skilled players helped get me ready for this stage.”

Being thrust into the OHL spotlight also enabled him to be recognized internationally. He was the youngest player on Team Canada’s gold medal-winning entry at the World Junior Hockey Championships.

Continuing with his rapid development, after Sam was drafted sixth overall by the Oilers, he was called upon to play a prominent role for Team Canada in the Canada-Russia Super Series late in the summer.

“After World Juniors I thought I was going to get an opportunity to play a little more and I just wanted to be ready for that opportunity. I worked really hard in the summer to try to be as prepared as possible for the tournament.”

Sam once again made the most of his opportunity. In leading Canada to a 7-0-1 series victory, he led all scorers with six goals and 15 points en route to being named MVP.

“It ended up paying off. I was given an opportunity to play with some great players right off the bat,” he said. “I just tried to run with the opportunity and have fun with it.”

Gagner poses with Kevin Prendergast and Kevin Lowe after being selected by the Edmonton Oilers during the first round of the National Hockey League Entry Draft in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, June 22, 2007.(AP Photo/Ryan Remiorz,CP)
BLAZING A PATH TO THE NHL

It was Gagner’s performance in that tournament that really made the Oilers sit up and take notice that this might be a player who could contribute right away.

“The fact that he played at the World Juniors as an underage kid, which from Canada is pretty rare, and how he played against the Russians, all of a sudden it increases your realization of his potential of him playing this season,” said Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe.

For Sam, it was at the draft when he first seriously thought about making a push for the NHL.

“After the draft all (my father) told me was, ‘Enjoy it while it lasts. You have to realize that being drafted is a huge honour but it’s only an opportunity to try out.’ That’s the way I approached it all summer. I wanted to work hard and prove that I belonged at this level. That advice was huge for me.”

From the Super Series, Sam was thrust into the spotlight in Edmonton immediately being slotted between Dustin Penner and Ales Hemsky for the Joey Moss Cup and then his first pre-season game the next night.

“It was definitely a whirlwind experience for me. A lot of great players on the ice and you’re just trying to be competitive with them and prove that you belong.”

Sam impressed with four points at the Joey Moss Cup and continued to ride that success through pre-season. Early in the regular season he ranks among the league’s top rookie scorers.

“I think I was welcomed pretty awesomely coming in here. The guys treated me very well and I think it helped me relax, be comfortable and just play my game. It made it a lot of fun for me.”

As an 18 year old, Sam Gagner is the youngest player currently in the NHL.

“I wanted to believe that I could (make the NHL). That’s the only way it’s possible, if you believe you can. I came in with that mindset, just wanting to prove I belonged every day. I still have to approach it that way, try to improve every day and prove to myself that I still belong here.”

So far, he has shown just that.

“There are many nights in which he’s been among our top three best forwards,” said Lowe.

“He’s very smart, has a good understanding of the game, and maybe his best attribute is that he’s passionate about the game. Generally, it’s the great ones who have the ability, the sense, and the passion.”

This story originally appeared in Oil Country Magazine
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