EDMONTON – Training camp is about expectations, and Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson are Exhibit A as to how profoundly those expectations can change in one year.
When the Edmonton Oilers opened camp last September, not one of the three first-round draft picks – Gagner was taken sixth overall in 2007 and Cogliano 25th in 2005, while Nilsson went 15th to the New York Islanders in 2003 – was expected to make the team.
Skip ahead 12 months, and few people would argue that any success the Oilers have in 2008-09 will hinge largely on Gagner, Cogliano and Nilsson, the team’s most prolific forwards in the stretch drive last season, picking up where they left off.
“We’re not rookies any more,” said Cogliano, who left the University of Michigan after two years to turn pro.
“I think a lot of the league knows what we’re capable of doing now, but you really can’t think about that … I did pretty well for myself and I want to carry that into this season.”
For all the changes the Oilers made this summer after two straight years missing the playoffs, notably trading Joni Pitkanen to Carolina for Erik Cole and Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene to Los Angeles for Lubomir Visnovsky, the fuzzy-cheeked threesome will have a big say in Edmonton’s fortunes.
“Coming into this season, it’s a fresh start from last year,” said Gagner, who made Edmonton’s roster after just one season with the London Knights of the OHL.
“I’m excited to start off where we left off last year. We’re all pretty excited to get going. It should be a lot of fun.”
Leaned on heavily because of injuries to Ethan Moreau, Shawn Horcoff and Raffi Torres, the trio, dubbed the Kid Line, led the way as the Oilers went 14-5-1 in their final 20 games.
Gagner, 19, scored 7-10-17 during that stretch on the way to tallying 13-36-49 in 79 games.
Cogliano, 21, scored 9-8-17 and finished with 18-27-45. He had a team-leading five game-winning goals and established an NHL record with three consecutive overtime game-winners in March.
Nilsson, 23, had 3-13-16 and ended up with 10-31-41 in 71 games, despite being sent to the AHL for five games early in the season. He went from being a defensive liability to tying for the team lead with a plus-8 rating.
“The good thing with the coaches here is you get a lot of feedback,” said Nilsson. “I have to take all the feedback in right from the start and play like I did last year.”
The challenge for Gagner and Cogliano is to avoid any kind of sophomore slump. Nilsson has to replicate the consistency that convinced coach Craig MacTavish to keep him in the line-up and earned him a new three-year contract.
“Last year, I didn’t really know what to expect,” Gagner said. “Now, I know a little better. Obviously, there’s still things I need to learn. For me, I need to continue to work hard and get better every day.
“The sophomore jinx? A lot of the time it comes from forgetting how hard you worked in the summer before your first season. I’ve tried to work as hard as I could so I’m ready.”
While a healthy Horcoff and Cole will eat up ice time on the first line with Ales Hemsky, MacTavish said Friday he intends to keep the Kid Line intact going into the pre-season.
“We had a lot of fun,” Nilsson said. “We played the last 40 games together. We know each other inside and out, so, of course I hope so.”
It’ll be up to the threesome to show they’re capable of handling increased ice time and attention from checkers over the long term. That’s a challenge all three players relish.
“He’s the coach and he’s going to put together the lines he thinks are going to be most successful,” Cogliano said.
“For us, I know we had a ball playing together. I know we want the chance and would enjoy the chance.”
NOTES: The Oilers have confirmed that forward J.F. Jacques will need surgery to repair herniated discs in his back and that surgery will be done Tuesday . . . MacTavish intends to move right-winger Fernando Pisani to centre and left-winger Dustin Penner to the right side on a line with Moreau during pre-season.