PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM

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.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

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.

  • OilLeak

    Of course Gagner is producing, he’s playing with capable linemates that can finish his passes. Playing on a line with Jones and Belanger was a recipe for disaster. Jones, for all the scoring he’s providing this year always produces in spite/despite his linemates, and Belanger has been where offense goes to die while being defensively responsible.

  • Stocc

    Gagner was once touted the future of the franchise…we now have a few of those, but that does not make Gagner indespensible. I would say he’s pretty darn important given our 1C is out for a month…and we need a legit 2C in a bad way…and there is no way Belanger or Horc has earned that right. On another note, everything has its price, and if we were to trade Hemsky and Gagner for Getzlaf…well that’s just a good deal, but it won’t happen. So let’s quit talking about trading him (and I know you guys won’t just because I told you to), but every team, including the Oilers, could use a guy like Sam. So far I’d say he’s got the most chemistry with Hall for a guy down the middle. Eberle obviously earns that right overall, but we need a centre…

  • melancholyculkin

    I’m not the only one saying this, but Hall-Gagner-Hemsky is a very, very good line. Good enough to outchance and outscore the other teams best.

    If they stay together and all stay healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me if they score 25 points between the three of them over the next 10 games.

    Do people seriously want to trade Gagner and Hemsky? That’s insane.

  • Gagner has always been a slow starter, and with the injury to start the year it was made even worse. There’s a place for him on this team. I think we’re seeing the best Horc can give for the next few seasons here, and it looks a lot like what we expected Belanger to bring.

    Neither of the two FO winning vets has the offensive awareness to play with the kids for an extended period of time. Nuge is obviously the 1C for the next decade, barring a melt down of course. That leaves Sam uncontested for the 2C spot in my eyes.

    Add to that the seemingly inevitable Hemsky trade and I’m seeing a void in the Oiler top 6 that gets worse if Gagner is flushed too. I think he gets locked up at a good but not outrageous price for at least 3 years.

  • justDOit

    One thing that might hamper Gagner’s opportunity to grasp the ring at 1C, is that Horcoff is nursing an injured wing. Aside from Belenger, the Oilers might be in trouble as far as face-offs are concerned.

    Do we know what Gagner’s FO % has been in these last 19 games?

    • OilFan

      As we have seen face offs are overrated. Belanger wins lots I still would trade him and his 1g for anything and use Lander in his spot. Has having the puck more this year turned into more points 2 I believe from last year.

      • The sooner people realize that Belanger was signed for that reason the better off we’ll be. He signed here and wanted to play here, how many UFA’s in the past five years have given us the cold shoulder? After Eberle, Hemsky, Nuge, Hall, Gagner, Jones, Paajarvi, Smyth and hell even Horcoff. Belanger can win faceoffs and not produce and at 3 years 1.75 per thats just fine by me.

      • justDOit

        What you can’t measure, is how many goals against the Oilers would have suffered if Belenger doesn’t win some of those defensive draws. I don’t believe that starting the play with the puck as being ‘overrated’.

    • justDOit

      Here are Gagner’s FO% last 19 games.

      46, 75, 50, -, 33, 100, 100, 22, 33, 75, 66, 75, 75, 66, 0, 50, 50, 0, 50

      Remember that he did not play center in all those games and he is 51.5% on the year.

      • Sweet Sassy Mollassy!!1!

        Sam Gagner is over 50% on the faceoff dot and nobody is saying anything about this? Is this some sort of Bizarro world we live in? What’s next, Cats and Dogs living in harmony?

        In days of Yore Bards would tell tales of turn-arounds like this. Came in to Camp faster than ever, over 50% on the dot, 16 points in last 19 games, paid not even 2.5M a season?!?

        ~Lets trade this bum, he’s good for nothing. I dont care how young, productive, cheap, and constantly improving he is.~

        • Spydyr

          Young-yes.

          Productive-productive at getting knocked of the puck and injured.

          Cheap-of course you have to do something first to get the big bucks.

          Constantly improving-his first year was his best year IMO.