A moment of clumsiness by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has opened a door of opportunity for Sam Gagner. His future with the Edmonton Oilers might well hinge on how gracefully and effectively he steps through it.
With Nugent-Hopkins out of the line-up for the balance of the month with a left shoulder injury – I suspect it’s separated, but that information has not been released by the team – after catching a rut, stumbling and falling into the boards, Gagner has a gold-plated chance to continue the roll he has been on after a difficult start to the season because of an ankle sprain.
Starting tonight, when Gagner lines up at between Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky against the St. Louis Blues, he’ll be front and centre, literally, while Nugent-Hopkins mends.
Bad luck for Nugent-Hopkins means opportunity for Gagner, who will be leaned on by Tom Renney. He’ll get plenty of ice time and the chance to play an offensive role in the top-six mix – a situation that hasn’t always presented itself, and that Gagner hasn’t grasped, in his fifth NHL season.
If Gagner is going to stand and deliver, the time is now.
MORE DEBATE TO COME
Gagner, 22, has pretty much been a lightning rod for debate among armchair experts, media and fans in the three-plus seasons since he had 49 points as a rookie in 2007-08.
The former London Knight and sixth overall pick in the 2007 Entry Draft has yet to replicate that point total and his past two seasons have been cut short, he played just 68 games in each, because of injuries.
A lot of people, me included, saw this season as the campaign Gagner had to establish where, and if, he fits into the plans moving forward with Nugent-Hopkins, Hall, Jordan Eberle and Hemsky, when he’s healthy, inked into Renney’s top-six spots.
Falling into the boards and spraining his ankle in pre-season, an injury that kept him out early, has only fuelled debate. Gagner has been playing catch-up since then – quite efficiently, of late.
Moved up and down Renney’s line-up and between centre and wing, Gagner has 16 points in his last 19 games and 5-13-18 in 32 games overall. Not bad, all things considered. He’s averaged 15:45 of ice time to this point with a variety of linemates.
Gagner backers see him as a bona fide second-line centre behind the prolific Nugent-Hopkins. Still young and developing, they think he can become a 55-65 point player.
Other fans aren’t so sure, they aren’t sure at all, in fact. They see Gagner as a spare part – projecting as a third-liner on a young and improving roster who really doesn’t have the skill-set to play that far down the line-up. Top-six or bust, it is.
With Nugent-Hopkins out for 10 games if he misses January, Gagner is going to get a chance to have his say and bring some clarity to the debate as the Oilers scrap to stay within hailing distance of a playoff spot.
"I always feel better when I’m playing a little more. I think everyone does," Gagner said today. "It’s just a matter of you’re into it a little more.
"Your legs just feel better when you’re playing more. I think the work you put in in the summer goes a long way toward playing that type of game where you’re playing a lot of minutes. I’m comfortable in that position.
"I’ve just got to make sure that with the opportunity I’m getting, I’m continuing to create offense and help this team win some games. If I can do that, hopefully, I continue to get the opportunity."
Does Gagner feel he has something to prove? Does he feel he’s been pushed aside and passed on the depth charts, and in the minds of Oilers fans, by the kids? Does he see this as a chance to make a statement? Is there a SIUTBOHC factor at work here?
"I just want to continue to push forward no matter what kind of, you know, respect you’re getting or how highly touted you are," Gagner said. "You just want to continue to come to the rink every day with the same attitude and push forward.
"I feel like as the year has gone on, I’ve got better. I just want to continue to improve and help this team win some games."
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.