Monday, February 6, 2012
Fatherly advice the ticket for Gagner
By Pierre LeBrun
TORONTO -- A little chat with Dad during the All-Star break has done wonders for Sam Gagner.
Frustrated by a season that saw him dropped mostly into a third-line role and trade rumors swirling around him to boot, the 22-year-old Edmonton Oilers forward got some well-needed advice from his father, Dave Gagner, a former NHL All-Star forward himself.
"It came from my experiences when I played, I had to go through a lot of adversity early on, and people doubting me like I was a failure as a first-round pick,” Dave Gagner told ESPN.com during Monday night’s Oilers-Leafs game at Air Canada Centre. "You have to learn to deal with it and forget about it and focus on the game. He’s been able to maintain his confidence level pretty good throughout all this, but it’s tough when a lot of people are doubting you, and when you’re that young.’’
His mind at ease from the pep talk with Dad -- who was selected 12th overall by the New York Rangers in 1983 and is now the director of player development for the Vancouver Canucks -- Sam Gagner has exploded out of the All-Star break with 13 points (6-7) in four games, eight of them of course in that one memorable evening against the Chicago Blackhawks last Thursday night.
"The trade rumors are something that I haven’t really dealt with up to this my point in my career because I’m so young. That was tough to deal with,’’ Sam Gagner told ESPN.com Monday. "But the All-Star break was really good for me, just to re-energize and refocus. I changed my mindset as I was coming back. I wanted to get rid of the distractions and just focus on what it takes for me to be a great player in this league. I think that was a big thing for me and hopefully I can just keep it going here.’’
It’s as if Gagner, Edmonton’s first pick (sixth overall) in the 2007 NHL entry draft, has decided enough was enough. He doesn’t want to be left behind in this Oilers renaissance that is keyed by youngsters Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall. He wants to remind people he’s got lots of talent, too. And there’s a little advice from Dad in that sentiment, too.
"He’s played 336 NHL games,’’ Dave Gagner said during his son’s 337th game. "Now is the time to take charge, take the bull by the horn. He’s a great kid that way, he’s always listened, he’s always been very coachable that way.’’
His trade value could have only gone up with his performance over the past seven days. But the Oilers insist they are not looking to move him.
"We’re not shopping Sam Gagner,’’ Oilers GM Steve Tambellini told ESPN.com just before puck drop Monday night. "We’ve always been consistent with Sam. We’ve always wanted him to be an emerging contributor that can provide leadership and talent to our hockey club. And I don’t see anything else but that.’’
Another NHL GM told ESPN.com Monday that Gagner could be had but it would be a steep price to pay. Of course, you could say that for a lot of players on all 30 NHL rosters.
What’s apparent is that when Gagner was being used as a third-line winger this season, it certainly wasn’t where he pictured the rest of his career playing out. On Monday night, he centered Hall and Eberle on the top line for a third straight game, picking up an assist on the opening goal.
He’s shown in the last few games what he can do in a top-six role.
"I’ve always wanted that if I was going to get a consistent opportunity to make sure I was ready for it,’’ said Sam Gagner. "Obviously with Taylor and Jordan, they’re such great players, you want to be a guy that really steps up playing with them.’’
Long term, let’s be honest here, Nugent-Hopkins is the No. 1 center on this team. Which means if there’s a future in Edmonton for Gagner, it’s going to be as a No. 2 center. Which is still a top-six role.
"His skating is just above average and his size isn’t great,” an NHL scout, who requested anonymity, told ESPN.com. "But he’s got great hands, he’s smart and he competes real hard, which is what you like to see. And he’s got a great shot from in close.’’
There was certainly nothing wrong with his game last Thursday night when he tied a club record held by Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey for most points in a game. Talk about royal company. The Great One sent Gagner a text while Coffey also reached out, and on Monday morning even met with Gagner at the Air Canada Centre.
"It was incredible for them to take time to do that,’’ Gagner said of Gretzky and Coffey. "For Paul to come here (Monday) morning and say hi to me, and for him and Wayne to contact me after that, it just shows how classy they are. It’s a great part of our game and it meant a lot to me.’’
What meant a lot to Gagner, too, was coming right back out Saturday night against Detroit and having another productive game with three points (2-1). He didn’t want his eight-point game to be a one-hit wonder.
"That was a big thing for me. I wanted to make sure I continued to play the same way,” said Gagner. "A lot of times after a game like that, you start maybe cheating for points and think it’s going to come easy. I just wanted to play the same way, go hard to the net and try and create as many chances as I could. Obviously, my linemates have done a great job helping me out. We’re just hoping to keep it going.’’
His post-All-Star tear has also provided him a moment of clarity.
"I think it helped clear up some doubts in my own mind of what I am as a player,” he said. "It helped with my confidence. I always knew I had the ability to be that player. Given the opportunity in the last little while, it’s been great for me and it’s help me to realize that. I hope I can just keep it going here. Whatever happens in the future, it happens. All I focus on is my game and becoming a better player.’’
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com