March 26 2008 01:35PM
This just in, Sam Gagner is a helluva hockey player. What Edmonton Oilers fans might not know is Gagner is also a fine young man. It's obvious to me that his dad, former NHLer Dave Gagner, did a lot of things right—on and off the ice—raising his boy. I've known that for months, but it seems a somewhat timely revelation in the wake of the disgraceful conduct of Hall-of-Famer Patrick Roy and his son Jonathan that's made news for several days. I'll get to that later, but, with another must-win game against the Minnesota Wild tonight, it's worth reiterating how good the NHL's youngest player has been for the Oilers in their push for a playoff spot. Let coach Craig MacTavish tell it "It's amazing to me that a kid at that age can be as polished emotionally and physically as he is," MacTavish said. "He knows the game. "You look at the greats over the years and they've all had some growing pains within the game. I think it's obviously a big advantage for Sam to come from a father who played the game." Has there been a better player for MacTavish than Gagner down the stretch? Statistically, certainly not—in the 24 games since Shawn Horcoff went out with a shoulder injury, Gagner has scored 8-19-27. As rare as it is for an 18-year-old to play in the NHL, it's almost unheard of that a player his age would lead the way as his team makes a playoff push like the Oilers are on now. "He (Dave Gagner) obviously passed on a lot of important lessons on how to play the game, how to conduct yourself and how to prepare yourself," MacTavish said. "He's really a complete player at 18. To be as productive as he has been offensively, well, you just don't see it. The last I saw that was when I started in 1979 with (Raymond) Bourque. He was polished at 18. He came into camp and he was a player. I see those same attributes. Sam is going to be a special player, for sure."
The Sam I've seen...
Having been punted from the travelling merry-go-round that is the life of a hockey beat writer after a decade by the Edmonton Sun in January 2007, I don't see Gagner every day. I don't know Gagner well. It's obvious from what I have seen that he's polite, accommodating of interview requests and well-spoken at an age when many players fumble around with a case of nerves like a freshman on prom night. But I did get a glimpse of the stuff Gagner is made of early this season, and it told me all I need to know about him. On an off-day during a homestand in November, I took my 14-month-old son Sam to a practice at Rexall Place. That's really a no-no, but I had no choice as the baby-sitter was sick, my wife was at work and I needed an interview. I was standing off to the side holding Sam—mine, not Dave's—as players began filing off the ice. As Gagner walked past, he said something along the lines of, "Who's this little guy?" I said, "He's your biggest fan. His name is Sam, too." Gagner spent a few seconds making small talk and then, after a tweak of Sam's cheek—mine, not Dave's—he headed for the dressing room. A few minutes later, crack media man J.J. Hebert emerged from the room, walked over and said, "Here, Sam, this is for you," and handed my son an Oilers puck Gagner had signed. The ink was still wet. Gagner had no way of knowing Sam's circumstances. How Sam weighed two pounds when he was born three months premature. How Sam had to fight for his life and was in intensive care for three months. Gagner had no idea of how much that gesture meant to me. He was just being, well, who he is. That puck is Sam's first. When he is old enough to understand, I'll tell him how he came to have it. I can tell you this: my son's first hockey jersey will be an Oilers jersey with No. 89 and "Sam" on the back. —Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 5pm on Total Sports with Bob Stauffer on Team 1260.
March 25 2008 01:05PM
Harlan Anderson (left) in his rookie year with the Bears From a CIS gold medal in hockey with the Alberta Golden Bears to a professional contract with the Edmonton Oilers, it's proving to be a busy week for Golden Bears captain Harlan Anderson.
March 24 2008 02:32PM
I had a chance to sit and talk one-on-one with Oilers GM Kevin Lowe at Rexall Place during this morning's skate. Here are some of his thoughts from a wide-ranging discussion. We talked about how injuries have forced young players like Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano. Robert Nilsson, Tom Gilbert and Denis Grebeshkov into roles they might not have necessarily had if the team had stayed healthy.
LOWE: "This isn't uncommon or unusual. This has happened before with teams where you have injuries. You say, 'Well, it's going to give us a chance to look at the young guys.' "Last year wasn't the same circumstances at all because the young guys were guys who were playing way ahead of where they should've been. How is this different from last year? The players are better this year. "Last year, we didn't have Cogliano and Gagner. We had Gilbert, but it was his first year. We didn't have Grebeshkov. As far as our team's concerned the guys who have really benefited from us having guys out are these five. "Gilbert to a lesser extent because he would've evolved to this. For sure, Grebeshkov because I could have seen him being the odd-man out a lot of nights. Now, he's in our top-two pairings. Cogs and Sam, they both would have stayed, but they've had bigger roles. Nilsson, because of the numbers alone, he might have had to be in the minors."
We talked specifically about Nilsson, whose calling card in the NHL has been inconsistency. As the key player coming back in the trade that sent Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders, Nilsson has finally blossomed on a line with Gagner and Cogliano.
LOWE: "He's an NHL player now. He's a very good NHL player. There was enough there that the coaches wanted to work with him. He responded. He put the time in to figure it out. "That's a good example to people. There's very few guys like Cogs and Sam in the world. We were lucky to get two in two different drafts. With some guys, it just takes two, three, four or five years before they click in. "If he'd played all the games and had the opportunity, he'd probably be a 50–55 point guy and still improving. In terms of the trade, he's been so good he's ahead of where we thought he would be. "As a scouting staff, we admired his ability. In his draft year, with some of the challenges that have taken him time to get to where he is, is why we might have been hesitant to take him at that spot (15th in 2003), but you still can't argue with what you saw."
In Nilsson's draft year, the Oilers took Marc Pouliot 22nd. Like Nilsson, he's a work in progress. Demoted to Springfield of the AHL after going scoreless in nine games to start this season, Pouliot's been effective since being recalled nine games ago.
LOWE: "He's another guy. He's not the same of those five others because he hasn't played as much, but he's really been impressive the last little while. If you talk to Mac (Craig MacTavish), it's a matter of him taking a role, being effective in it and then expanding it as time goes on."
While the kids have come on and the team has stayed in contention without key injured players, it's a quantum leap in logic to think Lowe is going to start blowing out veterans before next season.
LOWE: "We've got all these guys and they're great players, some might be as good as guys who aren't in the line-up, but that doesn't mean we're going to go on a rampage to move them all this summer. We'll be in a good position. We'll come to camp. We'll have a good situation."
With the emergence of Mathieu Garon, a lot of fans assumed Lowe would be shopping Dwayne Roloson, who earns $3.5 million this season and gets $3 million next season, at the NHL trade deadline. Lowe insists that wasn't the case.
LOWE: "People were speculating at the deadline we were moving Roli. Why would we move Roli? One reason would be if Roli said, 'Listen, I absolutely can't sit around not playing.' "You never take a situation for granted. Now, if Roli was making six million bucks, and it made it prohibitive for us to do anything else, then it becomes more of an issue. We had bad goaltending a few years ago and we don't ever want to be there again. "To move Roloson just because Garon had played, what, 20 or 30 games, all of a sudden he's a given? You just don't."
—Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 5pm on Total Sports with Bob Stauffer on Team 1260.
March 23 2008 10:03PM
Mathieu Garon still won't say it's his ankle that's kept him out of the Edmonton Oilers line-up the last five games, but he admitted today he's been injured since March 7.
March 23 2008 05:45PM
He's been written off as finished by some fans, but considering Marc Pouliot is two months shy of his 23rd birthday, is it a stretch to suggest he's just getting started?