Sam Gagner could have gone to arbitration, signed a one-year deal and next summer he could have been the youngest unrestricted free agent in NHL history.
"I’m not a guy who likes to run from his problems, I like to be a part of the solution," Gagner told me after signing a three-year extension with the Oilers less than an hour before the start of his arbitration hearing.
Gagner isn’t a guy who just says the right things, he truly wants to live up to what he says. I wouldn’t say I know Gagner well, but over the past six seasons I’ve gotten a better understanding of who he is as a man, not just a player. During interviews or just off the record candid conversations I’ve never had my "BS meter"go off when we spoke.
The 6th selection in the 2007 NHL draft is well aware of his strengths and shortcomings on the ice. He’s determined to continue improving, and it will be interesting to see how his overall game develops over the next few seasons.
Gagner joined me on my radio show to discuss his new contract, why he choose to re-sign, what he wants to improve in his game and how he plans on improving his faceoffs.
Jason Gregor: Was this year’s agreement more last second than last year?
Sam Gagner: No, this year we actually got it done earlier. Last year. I was actually in the room with the arbitrator. So it was nice to get this one done. We were able to talk about an hour before the hearing and throw out some ideas and we were able to come to an agreement which I’m really happy about.
Gregor: A lot of people say that teams and players don’t want to go through arbitration because a team doesn’t want to have to point out the weaknesses of a player. The reality is when you get as close as you have, you’re able to read their case because they have to submit it to you and your camp 48 hours in advance, so you know how they feel. Was reading their brief difficult?
Gagner: We exchanged briefs on Saturday and I didn’t really go into depths on what they said; I didn’t read all of it. But I kind of know the criticisms that are there. I know what I need to work on, so it’s not that big of a deal.
When you play in a market like Edmonton those criticisms get brought to light anyway, so it’s not something that is new to me. I know what I need to work on and there are definitely no hard feelings when you get that far. I’m just happy that we got something done and we’re moving on and just focussing on hockey.
Gregor: What would you say are the areas that you need to work on most?
Gagner: I think that there are a lot of areas. I’m just continually working to improve my overall game. I feel like I have another level offensively I can get to. Defensively as well I felt like I made some big strides playing on the penalty kill last year and getting a chance to play in some defence situations right in games. I want to continue to improve upon that and I still feel like there is another level to get to there and obviously faceoffs are a big one for me.
I’ve been thinking about different ideas to on how to improve upon that and working on my strength. I feel like I’m going to be ready to take a step forward there and those are all things that I’m continually working on. I’m excited about the challenges of getting to camp and having a great year.
Gregor: Outside of getting stronger, is it technique, is it learning how to cheat better, what are the things that you work on?
Gagner: I think that that’s part of it. There are different things tactically that you can do. When you look at the playoffs they were starting to kick guys out when they got their skates in. I’ve had trouble with guys who do that in the past so it will be nice if they continue to do that through the year.
There are different things that I can do tactically. I think that some guys, they’ll do different things in the neutral zone on purpose so that in the ‘O’ zone and in the ‘D’ zone they can get a better advantage to win the faceoff.
So I’ve been thinking about different things, talking to some different people about it. I think strength, and I feel like with the hand eye and with my hands I should be able to be better at it than I am. So it’s something that I’m going to focus on and try to improve that but at the end of the day I think if I spend too much time focussing on faceoffs and not rounding out the other areas of my game, it’s not really beneficially for me. But I realize that I have to get better at it and it’s something that I’m continuing to work on and along with a lot of other areas of my game, so I’m excited about that challenge.
Gregor: For the past two months Craig MacTavish spoke glowingly about your leadership and you’re the type of guy who cares, the guy who wants to be competitive every night and they want more of those guys around. Do you plan on being more of a verbal leader this year and encourage your teammates to play with that same competitive level of desire?
Gagner: I feel like I’ve taken steps there. I felt like I was more vocal last year than I’ve ever been, but I’ve always been the kind of guy that likes to lead by example and in your work habits. I feel like coming to the rink every day, being a professional, working hard on and off of the ice, doing the right things to make sure that you’re ready for games. And then ultimately it’s about making sure that you’re competing in games and you’re doing the right things, you have the right habits and games and that’s what guys look at.
I mean it’s hard to be vocal if you’re not doing those things first. That’s my main focus, I need to make sure that I come into camp ready and that I’m an example for other guys and hopefully we can get off to a good start and we can turn this thing around, start winning some guys and make the playoffs and go from there.
Gregor: Last season was your most productive season offensively. What did you do different to be more productive?
Gagner: I felt like I was grittier, I got to the net a little more. I think that that was a big part of it. I find that you tend to get bounces and you tend to get a little more luck if you’re around the net and you’re trying to create chances.
I felt like that was the case last year and just getting confidence throughout the year from that and I like to play with a little more of an edge and I feel like I’m more affective when I’m doing that. So I think that it’s something that I’m going to continue to focus on. The big thing in the summer is making sure that you can be healthy through an 82-game season by treating your body the right way and by doing that you allow yourself to play the way you want to play. That’s my focus this summer, and I’m excited to see how it goes coming into camp.
Gregor: Have you spoken to Dallas Eakins, what type of differences do you expect in how your team will approach the game this year, compared last year?
Gagner: I’ve spoken to him a couple of times and I’m excited about it. To me he seems like a guy who holds guys accountable and makes sure that they’re playing the right way on both sides of the puck. That’s how you win games in this league and at the end of the day, that’s all you want to do.
I think you have to be excited about a guy has the passion he does for the game. The things that he’s said so far, they have to make you excited. I think for my perspective just getting ready and focussing on making sure that my fitness is where it needs to be and making sure that I’m ready to go come September and I’m looking forward to it.
Gregor: You don’t have a captain right now. How much will it impact the locker room who is chosen as the next captain?
Gagner: It obviously does make a difference. Horc was such a great captain just because of the amount of respect we had for him as a player. You see the amount of work that he puts in off the ice and you see the way that he carries himself and how mature he is and I think that that’s important for players to follow. I think that you see a guy like that and he holds the captaincy, I know for myself that just growing up in the league playing with him, learning from him, that I wouldn’t be the player that I am today without just seeing the way that he handles himself day in and day out and the professional that he is.
I think regardless of what happens in that position he has to continue to try to be like that every day and I know that he rubbed off a lot on our young core and I know that it’s important for us going forward to have those types of habits as a team.
Gregor: Kris Versteeg was one of the players your camp used as a comparable for your arbitration brief. When your own camp is saying ‘hey Sam we compare you to this guy’s contract and his production,’ how is going through that and finding who were compared to you?
Gagner: It’s pretty cool. The NHLPA does a lot of work; I know that they had their interns there this weekend doing work on the case. I know that it kind of ruins their weekend a little bit but it’s obviously a process that you don’t want to go through as a player but at the end of the day it got us to the point where there’s deadline and we had to make a deal. I think that helps to speed up the process a little bit and I’m just happy that it got done so that’s the main thing. I’m happy that we didn’t have to go through the process, but it’s nice to see around the league what your comparables are and kind of go from there. So it’s we’re good moving forward.
Gregor: When they bring out a comparable to you and you read it, do you think ‘I’m comparable to him’ or do you say inside, ‘I think I’m a better player than him’?
Gagner: Well there are different guys that bring different things. A lot of arbitration is about numbers and what can be statistically analysed. There are different guys that bring different things to the game and it’s hard to say if you feel like you’re comparable for different things. I had a chance to look at my brief a little bit more thoroughly than the Oilers brief, which is probably better for my confidence, but it’s an interesting process, and it’s one that I’m happy I don’t have to go through again.
Gregor: Other than Versteeg, what other players did your side use as comparables?
Gagner: I’m trying to think. There were guys like [David] Krejci, and [Jakub] Voracek and some other guys but you try to compare yourself to those guys in terms of statistics wise and there’s things that I have that they don’t, and they have that I don’t.
You look at Krejci, he’s won a Stanley Cup and he’s in the finals last year and he’s had some big performances in the playoffs so you look at that and you try to compare yourself. I’m hoping that at some point I can get the chance to live up to that and I’m excited for the team that we have because we have so much potential. It’s important for us to realize it pretty soon. We want a chance at playoffs and you want a chance to show that you can be a playoff performer. I know that I speak for a lot of guys in the room that way so that’s an exciting challenge for us and something that you want to live up to.
Gregor: There was a lot of talk that you had the ability to become be the youngest UFA in NHL history. Even after this new contract you will only be 26 turning 27 and able to test the free agent market. Was going to UFA this summer a serious consideration or did this three-year pact illustrate how much you wanted to play in Edmonton?
Gagner: Yeah, I think from day one of negotiations I felt like this was something that I wanted to get done in Edmonton. I’ve been here through a lot of the tough times and I’m not a guy who likes to run from his problems, I like to be a part of the solution. I feel like there’s a great opportunity for me to do that here and I feel like it’s a great fit for me.
I’ve become pretty close with a lot of guys in that room and with our staff and everyone that’s worked there. I’m excited about a chance to bring this team back to the playoffs and hopefully win a Stanley Cup; I mean that’s the end goal. I felt pretty strongly about the fact that Edmonton is going in the right direction, and I’ve been there for a long time and I wanted to be there when things went well. I’m excited for that and I want to continue to work forward here.
Gregor: You’re probably the most hotly debated Edmonton Oiler. There are a lot of fans who feel ‘Sam is young, he’s got a lot of potential to be a 70-point guy’ and there are those who think, ‘he’ll never be more than a 50 point guy.’ Do you believe you are developing at the right pace, and how do you take your game to that next level and become a consistent 65-70 point player?
Gagner: Well, I think that when you’re developing in front of people’s eyes it’s pretty easy to start to see holes in someone. I’ve been around in Edmonton since I was 18 and I feel like I’ve learned a lot in that time and I still have a lot to learn. I’m only 23 and I feel like there is a different level for me to get to. I started to scratch the surface last year, but I just want to continue to become a better professional, a better player and regardless of what’s been said, I put the most pressure on myself than anyone ever could.
I still feel like last year was just me scratching the surface and that I have a lot more to give and when times are tough and we’re fighting for a playoff spot or fighting to get on to the next round of the playoffs I feel that I’ve been through a lot so far in the league and that I’ve learned a lot from those experiences and that I’m ready for those challenges. I’m excited that I get a chance to do that in Edmonton. I’m looking forward to proving some people wrong, but also everyone that supported me I think I’m ready to take that next step and I’m looking forward to that as well.
Gregor: What have you done for fun this summer outside of train?
Gagner: I’ve been up at my cottage a lot. I train up there as well but it’s just a good place to get away. I get out on the boat and it’s awesome up there just with the views and being on the lake. I was at Tom Gilbert’s wedding a couple of weekends ago, that was a good time. Other than that I’ve just kind of been hanging out. So it’s been a pretty good summer.
I’m just glad that the contract stuff is done and that I can just focus on training. I think that I have another couple of trips coming up here. I’m going to Halifax to train next week and perhaps LA right after that. It’s been a pretty good summer.
Gregor: Did you catch the garter at Gilbert’s wedding?
Gagner: I did not. No. (laughs)
Gregor: As a young guy who is in a relationship did you at least try to catch the garter?
Gagner: No. [laughs)
Gagner: That’s not my place.
Gregor: I’ve been to weddings where guy don’t want to touch it, it’s almost like the Stanley Cup before you win it.
Gagner: I was talking to Ladi [Ladislav Smid] when it was happening so I just tried to avoid the whole thing. (laughs)
- I’m sure some will freak out about his camp using Krejci as a comparison, but keep in mind his camp would have asked for $5.5 million, and playoff stats aren’t used since players are only paid for regular season production. It would be interesting to see which numbers they used when comparing Gagner to Versteeg, Voracek and Krejci.
- The Urban Dictionary has some interesting and funny terms. I’m sure Craig MacTavish would chuckle at this, but he’d also warn all the young kids to never "Craig MacTavish".