November 16 2011 01:52PM
When Sam Gagner skated with the Edmonton Oilers at Millennium Place Tuesday, he did so on the fourth line. At Rexall Place today, Gagner didn't even take a twirl. Yet another speed bump in a season fans hoped would help define how and if Sam fits in the long-term plans.
The start of Gagner's fifth NHL season has been, to understate, a trying one as we approach the quarter-pole. The struggle continues with word from coach Tom Renney today Gagner has tweaked his back and is officially listed as being out day-to-day.
Having already missed six of the 17 games the Oilers have played because of a high-ankle sprain, Gagner returned from a six-game road trip with just two assists to show for the 11 games he's played.
Already passed on the depth chart by 18-year-old rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and stuck behind Shawn Horcoff and Eric Belanger, Gagner's bounced between the right wing and his usual spot at centre. Tuesday, Renney had him at pivot with Ben Eager and Lennart Petrell. Now, this.
What to do with Sam?
While the Gagner debate between backers and detractors often gets nonsensical -- he's portrayed by some as a future franchise cornerstone and by others as destined to become a draft day stiff -- he's an NHL player. The real question, what kind of NHL player? We don't have that answer.
After back-to-back seasons in which Gagner was limited to 68 games by injury, and points totals of 41 and 42, I counted myself among the group of people who felt Gagner needed to show us something this season that would clarify where he fits in the pecking order. I still feel that way.
With Gagner yet to duplicate the 49 points he tallied in 2007-08 as a rookie and with 28 games missed these past two seasons, my take has been that he needed to stay healthy and play something approaching a full season -- say, 78-82 games. Keep projections and what-if out of it.
That's likely not going to happen this season, even if this back issue proves to be minor and he's back in the line-up against Ottawa on Thursday and for a rematch with Chicago Saturday.
To this point, those of us hoping Gagner would provide some clarity have yet to see it. If anything, the big picture and Gagner's place in it, is less clear now than it was when training camp opened. A bad start. Another delay. More debate.
The prudent approach, as always, is patience. We already know that runs thin with a sizeable segment of Oiler fans. What I'm wondering is if that's becoming an issue with team management.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.