With 14 NHL forwards returning this season the thought was it would be tough for someone to crack the Dallas Stars roster coming out of training camp. Center Aaron Gagnon is doing his best to break through.
The 24-year-old had a strong showing at the start of camp in Prince Edward Island and continued to show strong in the team’s preseason opener, notching a goal and an assist in a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay.
“He was showing last year that, ‘Hey I might be somebody you should think about as the year goes on,’” Stars coach Marc Crawford said after Tuesday’s game. “Now he’s pushing. Guys like him are on the doorstep. The preseason tells you whether or not they push the door down and break in. It was a nice step for him tonight.”
Gagnon, who is entering his fourth pro season, took a big step forward with the Texas Stars last season. He led the team in scoring with 58 points (27 goals, 31 assists) in 78 games, and was second on the team in goal scoring in the playoffs (8 in 19 games) as Texas advanced to the Calder Cup Finals.
“It was huge for me. Most of it is just your confidence,” Gagnon said. “They gave me a great chance to have some great ice time and get put in some big situations. I think going to the Finals and having a lot of the load on me really built my confidence last year. I feel a lot better now. “
Although Gagnon was a top scorer for the Texas Stars last season, his role in the NHL would be different.
“To make the team he’s got to be a guy that can kill penalties, skate, check and show us that he can be a real reliable person,” said Crawford. “He’s showing us that right now.”
Gagnon, who was signed by the Stars as a free agent out of juniors in 2007, said he’s worn the hats of both a scorer and a defensive forward during both his junior and pro careers.
“I started out in junior as a defensive guy and then became a scorer,” Gagnon said. “I spent a year in Grand Rapids just being a defensive guy, faceoffs and penalty killing. I got more of an offensive role last year, but I see my role here in Dallas as being back to that defensive, faceoff guy.”
Gagnon is a right shot and a right faceoff guy, which is another plus with the Stars. He won 6 of 10 faceoffs Tuesday night and in a two-game call up with the Stars last season he won 8 of 11 draws.
“Love his faceoffs, first and foremost. I love how he is strong on the puck. I like how he skates and he’s showing to be a little bit more powerful,” said Crawford. “When the battle his there he is in it more and he stays in it more. He’s got great fundamental defensive habits. He has become more of a pro.”
All that has helped put Gagnon in a position to fight for an NHL job. Although he was a 40-goal scorer in his final season of junior hockey and approached 30 goals last season in the AHL, he’s showing the willingness take on a checking, defensive role to get a crack at an NHL roster spot.
“You find your niche; you find how to get into the lineup. That’s what we are seeing from Aaron Gagnon now. He’s close,” said Crawford. “But we are going to be a tough team to make because we’ve got a lot of guys that are vying for those final spots.”
And even if the doesn’t make it out of camp, he’s put himself in a great position to be at the top of the list when the Stars need help at the forward position during the season.