Last week, the Oilers traded Sam Gagner and two second round draft picks to Detroit for pending RFA winger Andreas Athanasiou. Edmonton was selected Gagner sixth overall in the 2007 NHL entry draft and he became the youngest player in Oilers history to play in an NHL game. Gagner was 18 years and 55 days young when he made his NHL debut on October 4th, 2007. A player will need to be born between August 11th-September 15th and play at 18 years young to beat his record.
He became an instant fan favourite during his rookie season, scoring 49 points, but he endeared himself the most to Oilers fans when he dropped the gloves with Ryan Kesler.
Sam Gagner played 542 games for Edmonton, 19th all-time, and he is 22nd in goals (111), 18th in assists (206) and 19th in points (317) all-time. He and his wife Rachel have made Edmonton their off-season home and Gagner will be back this summer.
He spoke with Jason Strudwick and me late last week about the trade — the disappointment of it, but also the new opportunity it presents as well as his family and his time with the Oilers.
Jason Gregor: How were you feeling going into the deadline and were you caught off guard at all by this trade?
Sam Gagner: I’ve been through enough trade deadlines that I know to just stay away from social media and all of that kind of stuff and just control what you can control. There are a lot of things in this business that you can’t control so just try to focus on other things. I knew, I mean I’m not naïve, I know being at the end of my contract, what I was making and I knew if they felt like they had to upgrade at different spots there had to be money going out the other way. So, I understand that part of it.
I felt like I was playing well. I felt like I could have helped down the stretch run. You want to stay and you want to be a part of it but you understand the business side of it.
Jason Strudwick: Gags there was no doubt you were playing very well, contributing in a big way. What was that conversation like when Ken Holland called you? What was his vibe?
Gagner: I thought Kenny handled it really well. He called me and let me know that I had been traded and he wanted to see me so that we could chat. I went to his room and he just kind of broke down everything for me; why I had been traded and what they were thinking and told me where I was going and put me on the phone with Steve Yzerman to talk to him for a little bit.
Obviously I think it’s a tough conversation for Kenny and I thought that he handled it very well. There are times when you get traded and different things happen in your career and you get a little bit upset about how things were handled. I thought Kenny handled it as well as he could have and, while obviously not the news you want to hear, you just try to take it and, you know, look for the opportunity. I know there is a great opportunity here for me too. That’s where I’ve been taking it.
ADAPT AS A PLAYER…
Gregor: You’re at the later stage of your career and Ken Holland told me, ‘Most players start lower in the lineup, then they work their way up to the top and then they slowly start to make their way down. And the good ones can contribute at almost any line, it really doesn’t matter.’ You can help out on the power play, you think the game as an offensive player and you can play in a bottom six role as well. Is that how you see your game and how it has evolved over the years?
Gagner: I think that my game has evolved a lot. Early on in my career I felt like if I wasn’t producing, I wasn’t helping. I don’t really feel like that’s the case anymore. I feel like I can help and contribute in a lot of different areas. I feel like my game is a lot more solid than it was before. I still want to create and produce some numbers, but I think that I look at my role in Edmonton this year and I felt like when I was on the ice I helped to push the play into the offensive zone. And when you have guys like Connor [McDavid] and Leon [Draisaitl] and the offensive weapons they have there, it’s always nice for them to start their shifts in the offensive zone.
If you can contribute that way by making plays and getting the pick advanced and I feel like I’m a lot better defensively than I was earlier on in my career. There are a lot of layers to my game that I feel like I’ve evolved and you need to have that if you’re going to play for a long time. I still feel I have a lot of game left in me. I work really hard and make sure I’m in good shape and I’m prepared for the season, and so I’m going to keep going as long as I can. Hopefully I’ve got some more years in me.
Strudwick: The one thing I’ve always appreciated about you is you’re always very self aware of your own game and I think that to play a long time in the NHL you’ve got to understand where you’re at, where the team is at, where the league is at. One thing I saw from you the last couple of years was you’re going in on the forecheck as one of the first wedge breaker to separate a guy and get that puck. Because once you guys have the puck it is a big deal and you were getting it. Was that a conscious choice and how did that evolve?
Gagner: I think that earlier in my career you get a lot of power play time and it allows you to get more touches and you’re more involved. As you go along you realize, if I’m going to play and if I’m going to get ice time I have to find ways to have the puck more and you’ve got to get the puck. I feel really comfortable when I have it and it’s just a matter of going and getting it. I think that I’ve come a long way in that regard.
I look at a forecheck now as one of my skills. I’m able to go in and read what defenders are doing and hopefully get in a lane and hopefully take away a puck and then we’re playing in the O zone. If you can do that enough times it just helps your team. It creates momentum, it allows the next line coming out to not have to take it from the D-zone and bring it to the O-zone because you’re creating momentum.
Those are really important things in kind of building a team game. I think the days of your fourth line or your third line being checking lines, or they don’t have the puck ever but they just grind teams down and they hit people are kind of fading away a little bit. These guys need to be able to make plays and allow your best players to play in the O-zone. That’s kind of an area where I’ve wanted to continue to evolve and I feel like I have. I just want to keep going in that regard.
Gregor: Detroit has a lot of young players. Some of your former Oilers teammates told me you were someone, because you were a high draft pick and now play a different you role, that you can relate to different players, including the star guys and the pressure of wanting to produce. How comfortable are you with now being one of the veteran older guys on a new team?
Gagner: I played pretty much every role throughout my career so I understand what is going through everybody’s mind as they’re preparing for games or going through some of the things they go through during a season. I played on a couple of really good teams and then I played on some teams that weren’t very good. So you learn about yourself and your teammates and what makes them tick. I consider that a strength of mine and being able to read the room and help guys out through that. I mean like you said, there is an opportunity in every situation and I look at the situation here and the guys have had a tough year and I’m coming in with a fresh mindset and hopefully I can help the guys through it and hopefully we can win some games down the stretch and we can start to feel better about the way things are going into the summer.
Gregor: You have been through a couple of trade deadlines before, but I don’t know if you’ve been through one where you had a brand new baby. How difficult was the personal side of this trade for you and your wife Rachel and now you just have to up and leave? I don’t know if Rachel and your three kids are going with you or not, but if they aren’t, I’ve got to think that has to be the most challenging part of this right now.
Gagner: Yeah that’s definitely the hardest part. It’s no secret that we love Edmonton and Rachel’s family is from Edmonton. We really enjoyed our time being there and I was actually on the phone with Rach when I got the call from Kenny and she’s like, ‘Did you just get traded?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’
It’s one of those things going into the trade deadline. I wanted to be an Oiler through it and I wanted to play playoff games as an Oiler. It was a big goal of mine going into this season. I felt like I had played hard all season, played well and played myself into the plans and you just kind of,…you kind of have to, like I said, control what you can.
So it hurt, it was emotional, when it first happened. I know so many great people in Edmonton. I’m going to miss the training staff, my teammates and all that kind of stuff. That stuff was really hard and then obviously the family stuff is really hard, but you have to kind of look forward and look for the opportunity in everything. I think there is a great opportunity here in Detroit and just being here the last couple of days they’ve been great to me and just kind of getting me settled in and comfortable and looking forward to getting into some games here.
Strudwick: Now that I have young kids and I’m coaching them, and as much as they want to be just like their dad — a steady stay at home defenceman — they do want to learn the offensive skills that they’ve seen guys like yourself put on display. So right now I’m teaching them that move where you kind of fake the shot, pull on your backhand and change the angle and fire it again. Any tips or tidbits myself or other coaches can use? Because I’d never seen someone stickhandle it on their backhand until I played with you.
Gagner: I might have to directly talk to them. I don’t know if you can relay the information (laughs).
Strudwick: What? I had 13 career goals, and one in the shootout. I can score with the best of them buddy. I just never had the chance.
Gagner: We’ll wait until I’m back in Edmonton in the summer and I’ll talk to your kids for you (laughs). We’ll get them dialed in.
Strudwick: So that’s a hard no then to any tips?
Gagner: (Laughs) I don’t know. I’ll help them, I’ll get them going.
Gregor: Now Gags, Struddy has regaled us with tales of his time in the NHL.
Gagner: Yeah, I’m sure.
Gregor: He talked a lot about when he was with the Oilers, you and Andrew Cogliano were two young bucks in the game. He loved ripping on you two. He really enjoys the chirps. I will give Struddy credit, he’s pretty witty, he’s got some pretty good chirps…
Gagner: The one thing that I’ll give Struddy a lot of credit for, even though I don’t like to, is that I feel like my wittiness and my chirp game has come a long way since playing with Struddy. There was times I would come to the rink and I was thinking, ‘If I don’t have anything prepared I’m going to get roasted here.’ So it just kind of made me a little more aware of my surroundings and making sure that I was prepared if someone came at me.
Gregor: When Struds called Andrew Cogliano Snookie, is that one of your favourite lines of all time?
Gagner: Yeah, that was a good one. Cogs was always flexing in the mirror, showing off his body and stuff like that. We told him to turn around because he has a terrible back. He has a good front, but a bad back. Struddy told him that his back looked like Snookie. And we (laughs) we got a good laugh out of that one. I still remind Cogs of that one every once in a while.
Strudwick: I don’t think that Cogs has eaten a carb since that day!
Gagner: Hopefully not.
Strudwick: He’s just trying to get down to only muscle.
Gagner: A lot of intermittent fasting since then.
Gregor: Did Struds ever ask you for stick handling tips?
Gagner: Oh yeah, oh yeah. That’s why I just said I have to go directly to his kids because it didn’t take with him.
Strudwick: I remember the first time I stepped on the ice with Gags. He would always do that forehand, backhand, and he would stick handle. And I was like what is this guy doing and how are you doing it? And I remember I just went around and I was trying to do that backhand toe drag. For weeks I practiced and I just never got any better (laughs). It was so embarrassing, I played like 600 NHL games and I couldn’t do it once!
Gagner: It was a little robotic for you. You’ve got to have some flow to it.
Strudwick: I would take robotic. I would take anything. Now I can actually do it pretty good.
Gagner: There you go, there you go. You’ve got to feel things. I’m sure you’re getting there.
Gregor: Sam, thanks for your time and best of luck in Detroit and we will see you this summer.
Gagner: Thanks for having me. And thanks to all the fans for their support. I really enjoyed Edmonton.
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