When third-year centre Sam Gagner dropped the gloves and threw down with Calgary Flames veteran Craig Conroy in the Oilers’ opener, more than a few fans probably covered their eyes.
After all, Gagner’s career fighting record is slim to begin with — and the Oilers need the youngster’s hands to be contributing in different ways if Edmonton hopes to reach the post-season for the first time since that heady run to the final in 2006.
But in getting the better of Conroy and not doing any damage to himself in the process, Gagner signalled that it was a brand new year for him, and a blank slate he wants to take advantage of.
Gagner’s sophomore jinx last season was the stuff of dictionary definitions. After going straight from the draft podium to the NHL in 2007-08, where he tallied 49 points as a rookie, Gagner’s numbers fell off last year. Now, 41 points isn’t bad for a second-year player, but Edmonton’s folly was betting that Gagner and fellow youngsters Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson would increase their offence, instead of regress. The latter happened, and therefore the playoffs did not.
This was important because the Oilers do not have a marquee player in their lineup. Sure, you may love Sheldon Souray or be occasionally dazzled by Ales Hemsky, but no one is trading either of those guys straight up for Roberto Luongo, Pavel Datsyuk or Jarome Iginla. Sorry.
Gagner, however, at least has the potential. He’s the kid who put up 180 points in his final year of minor hockey. He’s also the kid who put up 118 points in his one year of junior, playing on a line with Patrick Kane and Sergei Kostitsyn on a great London Knights team.
We all know he can put the puck in the net, so the next step is faceoff acumen.
I’m not trying to make a comparison here, but the most important jump in Sidney Crosby’s NHL development came in the faceoff circle. During the Pens’ Stanley Cup run, Sid the Kid was much better at the dots than he had been in the past. For Gagner, there’s no harm in following that example. Free agency has been cruel to Edmonton lately, so finding that key player must come from within. Gagner, who just turned 20 this summer, has the ability to be that figure.