February 07 2013 07:54PM
If Sam Gagner scored 40 points for the Edmonton Oilers this season, and he might despite playing just a 48-game schedule, somebody would be sure to sniff: "See, Sam still hasn’t even managed 50 points in an NHL season. He's not that good."
As polarizing a player for a rabid and playoff-starved fan base as the Oilers have had in many years, Gagner draws raves from some and criticism from many no matter how well, or poorly, he plays.
Those who appreciate Gagner for what he is – a reasonably productive second-line centre with a hint of grit and a competitive streak – are quick to point out these days the former London Knight is off to the best start of his NHL career with points (3-8-11) in 10 straight games.
Those fixated on what Gagner is not – a smooth-skating pivot who produces big points as a bonafide No. 1 centre, which the Oilers have lacked since the team drafted him sixth overall in 2007 – are less impressed. He doesn't skate well. He's lousy on face-offs. He's not as good as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who already better fits that top-billing in the middle.
Given Gagner's start to his sixth NHL season – amid the pitiful state the Oilers find themselves in with Shawn Horcoff, Nugent-Hopkins, Eric Belanger and Anton Lander on the limp – his detractors have found themselves woefully thin on new material so far. Wait awhile. They'll come up with something.
"I felt like I was in a good spot coming into the year," says Gagner, who played with Klagenfurt AC in Austria during the lockout. "I tried to put in a lot of good work during the summer and you get confidence from that. I was excited for the start of the year and I've had the opportunity to play with some great players."
With Nugent-Hopkins playing between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle before he tweaked his shoulder, Gagner's spent most of his time between rejuvenated and healthy Ales Hemsky and rookie Nail Yakupov. The trio has been both good and opportunistic through 10 games. Given Edmonton's injury woes at centre, Gagner's torrid start has been timely.
"I've worked a lot on just staying even-keeled," said Gagner, who inked a one-year deal that pays him $3.2 million this season. "There's different things that can go on during a year that are tough to handle at times with the way the last few seasons have gone.
"We couldn’t seem to gain any traction as a team. That wears on you. The whole reason you play this game is to win and get a chance to play in the playoffs (something Gagner hasn't done since turning pro in 2007). This year, we have a great opportunity to do that. That's exciting for everyone in here.
"For me, I wanted to keep the same attitude no matter how things were going and I worked a lot on just focusing on that this summer. I've done a good job of it so far, but it's a long season and you have to stay with it all the time."
SO FAR SO GOOD
Surpassed by Nugent-Hopkins, Hall, Eberle and rookies Justin Schultz and Yakupov on the marquee, Gagner's stayed on task and is leading the Oilers in scoring despite the team's recent slide, punctuated by a 3-2 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars Wednesday.
Of course, Gagner's still small. He's still not particularly fast, even if he's half-a-step quicker than he was as a rookie. He's minus-3 and his face-off percentage is a sub-par 37.8 per cent. And, history suggests -- he's had seasons of 49, 41, 41, 42 and 47 points – he's destined to fall off the point-a-game scoring pace he's on.
I wonder, though, where the Oilers would be right now without Gagner and his two wingers, even if he's not the type to waste time and energy giving that or the naysayers much thought. I wonder what role he'll play as the season wears on if the playoff push fans long for materializes.
"We haven't been very good, but we're better than we've shown," Gagner said of the expectations of improvement fans have for this edition of the team. "This year, people are optimistic about our future. We want to turn it around right now. That's our focus."
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.