Dave Gagner played 946 NHL games scoring 318 goals and 719 points over 14 seasons. He scored 40 goals twice, 30 goals four times and 20 in three other seasons. He was even more productive in the playoffs tallying 22 goals and 48 points in 57 games. He was a solid NHLer, but the road to success wasn’t easy or quick.
His first four seasons as a pro were split between the AHL, NHL and IHL. From 1985 to 1988 he played 14 games in the IHL, 110 in the AHL and 131 in the NHL. It wasn’t until his 5th pro season that he became a regular NHLer, when he exploded for 35 goals and 78 points in 75 games with the Minnesota North Stars.
He’d never scored more than 19 points in any previous NHL stint, and even if you prorated his best season where he played at least 20 games his best totals would have been 27. In his first four years he struggled to just be a regular NHLer and then suddenly he was a point-a-game player for the next four seasons.
He didn’t suddenly get stronger or faster, although he did work on those areas, but mostly he became more consistent and confident.
Yesterday I sat down with Dave’s son Sam. The younger Gagner is playing some of the best hockey of his career with 18 points in his last 21 games. Gagner has had hot stretches like this before though, including 33 points in his final 34 games as a rookie in 2008. From January 18th to April 3rd he was solid; in fact he had 33 points in 31 games before going pointless in the final three that year.
In the final 20 games of 2009 Gagner tallied 21 points including nine goals.
From Dec 31st, 2009 to March 16th 2010 he scored 20 points in 26 games. His season ended three games later due to an injury.
Last year he never got on a great run, with his most productive stretch coming between Nov 27th and Jan 04th when he put up 14 points in 17 games.
Gagner has proven he can be a productive point producer in the NHL, but thus far he’s only been able to do it for 20-30 game stretches and not an entire season. During those hot streaks he’s tallied 106 points in 115 games, (0.92ppg) which is great, however, in the other 210 he’s only scored 87 (0.41ppg).
Looking at those numbers it is obvious why Gagner is the most polarizing player here in the Nation. When he is on he can be a productive NHLer, and when he isn’t, he doesn’t do much because he’s yet to establish himself as an overly physical player, doesn’t kill penalties and isn’t just a checker.
Gagner spoke with his father frequently over the years, but like most young men he didn’t always adhere to the old man’s advice. "I’ve always been lucky to have a dad, who went through what I’m going through, and we’ve always talked, but I don’t think I always listened," laughed Gagner.
"I would be like, ‘yes dad,’ but I didn’t really take his words to heart. I thought I could figure it (consistency) out myself. I’m not sure what happened, but over the summer his advice really hit home. Now I talk to him every day and I really listen. He’s got excellent advice, but he also knows how to challenge and support me."
When I was 18-21 I had the luxury of chatting with my father, but usually I’d walk away thinking I knew better. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I realized I should listen more intently to what the "old" guy had to say. I’m sure most of you can relate. As young adults we all think we know more than our parents, but then one day, almost surprisingly, we realize that most of their advice and wisdom makes sense.
Sam Gagner was no different, but this season the regular talks with his father have impacted him more and his main focus was to be consistent for an extended period of time.
"I’ve had different clips like this over my career where I’ve been good for 20 or so games, but for me it’s a matter of being consistent for the rest of the year. I had a tough start, coming off the injury, but there was still lots of hockey left and that’s what I’ve been focusing on for the past six weeks and I’ll do the same for the 2nd half. I wanted to find my game and be sure that I was ready every night to play, and I feel that recently that’s been the case. It’s been a tough go the past month, but I want to help the group find ways to win, and the best way to do that is be consistent," said Gagner.
Did you make it a goal of yours to be consistent for the final 60 games, rather than just a hot 20 games here and there?
"Definitely. You want to be looked at by your teammates and your coaching staff as a guy who you know what you’re getting from every night. I felt like in the past it is something that is hard to do over an 80 game schedule, and it’s something that I struggled with. If I can find that consistency it will go a long ways towards helping the team and helping me contribute to wins. I want to continue to get better every night at that (consistency) and making sure I’m good on both sides of the puck and the last little while it has been that way and hopefully I keep it that way."
Most players, whether they are rookies, sophomores or five or ten year veterans, struggle with consistency. Usually it is only the elite of the elite who figure out how to bring their best game most nights. Gagner feels that today he is much closer to realizing what it takes more than ever.
"I’ve obviously been through a lot in terms of ups and downs, and I’ve done a lot of growing mentally as a person and as a player. I feel like I’m definitely more well-equipped to handle an 80-game schedule and the consistency that comes with that now. It is tough, especially with the ups and downs of our team. It wears on you, and you want to help the team win every night, but it doesn’t always happen and the results don’t always come. It is a matter of staying mentally even-keeled. I think I’m getting better at that, and hopefully I can continue to grow in that area."
Outside of working on his mental game and absorbing his father’s advice, Gagner worked tirelessly on improving his skating this summer. He looked faster in camp, but then he injured his ankle in the preseason. It took him close to 15 games to get back up to speed. He looks faster, and I wondered if he has noticed an improvement in his skating now that he is healthy.
"My skating definitely does feel better. With the ankle it was tough. I still tape it, but not as tightly. Earlier in the year it was like a brick down there, because I was taping it so tight to ensure I didn’t injure it, but it seemed like I was tweaking it every game. Now I’m skating much better and I feel way better out there. I’m mentally stronger than I have been in my previous four years, and that allowed me not to get to down when I wasn’t scoring. I battled through it and that showed me that I just need to stick to my game and the results will come. Skating has helped, but I think my mental game is helping me even more."
Fatherly advice is a wonderful thing that most of us take for granted or disregard, until we finally decide we should pay attention. It was apparent in our conversation that Gagner really looks forward to his almost-daily talks with his dad now, and he is determined to become a consistent NHLer, rather than a guy who can get hot for 20-30 games stretches. Gagner is up for the challenge of showing everyone: his teammates, coaches, media, fans and most importantly himself and his father that he can find the same consistency that kept Dave in the NHL for 14 seasons.
If he can do that the Oilers might have two potent duos moving forward.
Gagner with Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with Jordan Eberle.
The puck is in his corner, let’s see how he handles it.