Sitting at home watching his son make an unlikely assault on the NHL’s single-game scoring record, Dave Gagner wasn’t getting caught up in the numbers that would leave the hockey world talking.
Instead, he was most excited about what kind of impact they might have on his career.
“I think Sam’s a much more mature person than he was three or four years ago,” Dave Gagner said Friday in an interview. “I think he’s kind of getting to that point where he’s very comfortable with who he is. You know, I think he’s able to express himself a little bit more now.
“Hopefully this will catapult him to higher levels now.”
It’s a hope shared by the Edmonton Oilers, who had to create a new entry in their record book alongside Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey following Sam Gagner’s eight-point performance against Chicago on Thursday night.
With four goals and four assists, he sped past 90 other NHL players in the scoring charts. It was pretty impressive stuff for someone who has spent much of the season stuck in neutral.
“He’s had a lot of people question his ability and stuff like that,” said Dave Gagner.
In recent years, that’s simply been part of life for Sam Gagner. The sixth overall pick in 2007, he jumped straight into the Oilers lineup as an 18-year-old and had a solid rookie season with 13 goals and 49 points.
Naturally, bigger things were expected, especially since Gagner had scored 118 points during his only season with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights.
But he’s yet to show anywhere near that level of scoring prowess on a consistent basis in the NHL. Looking back, former Knights coach Dale Hunter wonders if another season of junior hockey might have helped his development.
“He was very skilled with us, and they brought him up real young and sometimes you lose your confidence,” Hunter, now the coach of the Washington Capitals, told reporters Friday.
Another mitigating factor is the environment in which he’s been groomed. The Oilers have bottomed out in recent years, starting a rebuilding cycle that has seen them draft other high-end prospects Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
With all of those players entering the mix and showing promise, it’s pushed Gagner slowly out of the spotlight.
“That’s hard for a young athlete to handle,” said one veteran NHL player, himself a former first-round pick. “It’s hard to not feel almost slighted: ‘What you like him more than you like me?’ After your rookie year, the expectations are different—just because you scored last night doesn’t mean they’re going to tell you that you did a great job.”
This season has come with yet another wrinkle. As Gagner sputtered through the first half (the four goals Thursday nearly doubled his total to nine), his name started to be mentioned in trade rumours.
In fact, that kind of speculation had recently been picking up steam with the NHL’s Feb. 27 trade deadline approaching.
“He’s had to learn to deal with it,” said Dave Gagner.
The atmosphere has undeniably changed after one unexpected night.
Gagner became just the 12th player in NHL history to record at least eight points in a game—and the first since Mario Lemieux last accomplished the feat Dec. 31, 1988.
Former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Darryl Sittler continues to hold the all-time record with a 10-point game against Boston in 1976. Less than a week from the 36th anniversary of that event, he still can’t entirely explain it.
“Everything falls into place,” Sittler said Friday. “It’s magical those types of nights, they don’t happen very often. I would never have thought that in my wildest dreams that I would be the one to score 10 points in a game, but it happened.
“I’m sure Gagner probably never thought he’d have eight.”
There were certainly very few obvious hints that it was coming. At least from the outside.
Dave Gagner had noticed some improvement in his son’s play of late and attributes it to him becoming more “sophisticated” in how he prepares for games. The former NHLer is now director of player development for the Vancouver Canucks and believes Sam is finally putting the proper emphasis on all of the small details needed to be a successful pro.
“I don’t think when you’re really young you really are convinced that it matters,” said Dave Gagner. “But then you find out it’s a really difficult league to do well in on a nightly basis because everybody’s good and everybody’s prepared. You’re not really fooling anybody so you have to bejust that much sharper in all the things that go into your preparation.
“I think Sam’s really understanding that now. He understands it’s a very fine line between success and failure.”