EDMONTON – Sam Gagner and the Edmonton Oilers are hoping his first goal of the season will provide a spark that ignites an offensive flame.
Gagner snapped a 21-game goal-scoring drought dating back to last season when he scored in a 5-3 loss to Calgary at Rexall Place Saturday. It came as much relief for Gagner who has been slowed by an ankle sprain that kept him out of the first six games of the season and foiled by bad bounces and good goaltending when he returned to action.
“I’m hoping that’s the way it goes,” Gagner said Tuesday as the Oilers, who have just one win in the first four games of a six-game homestand, prepare to face the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday.
“I don’t even think it’s just the goal,” he continued. “It seems the last six or seven games, I’ve felt a lot better and I’m playing a lot better. I knew it was going to take some time to get back to where I wanted to be after the injury. I just didn’t think it was going to take that much time.”
While youngsters Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall shared the spotlight and dominated the score sheet as the Oilers jumped to a surprising 8-2-2 start to the season, Gagner was either injured or struggling to regain his confidence and find his game.
Since being moved to left wing on a line with captain Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky, Gagner’s showing signs of doing exactly that, even if modest offensive totals of 1-7-8 through Edmonton’s first 27 games represent his slowest start in five NHL seasons.
“Since he’s come on our line he’s been solid,” Horcoff said. “We know he’s talented, and his confidence is starting to come a little bit more now.
“This is a game of confidence. I’ve been there before with streaks. It can become pressing on your mind and it can be tough to stay positive. I think he’s handled it really well and shown a lot of maturity. He’s been great in the locker room.”
With so much the attention focused on Nugent-Hopkins, who leads all rookies with 29 points, and Eberle, also among top-10 scorers with 28 points, Gagner’s been somewhat lost in the shuffle. He’s been spotted up and down coach Tom Renney’s lineup and has played all three forward positions looking for a fit.
It’s easy to forget the former London Knight, selected sixth overall in the 2007 Entry Draft, is only 22-years old and still developing.
“The good thing about Sam is that right from the beginning, he’s worked hard,” Renney said. “He came into camp in very good shape. Under the circumstances, with being hurt, that’s not an easy thing to maintain, but he did that, too.
“When he came back, it didn’t take him long to get to kind of get back into lock-step with everything else. He’s been a centre. He’s played right wing. He’s played left wing. He’s certainly become as versatile as a guy could.
“I like the fact he’s getting rewarded for all that with more touches, more opportunities . . . what he’s done is persevere. He does have the ability to contribute to our offence, without a doubt. The first goal is always one that sort of breaks the ice.”
Limited to 68 games by injuries each of the last two seasons, Gagner has yet to match the 49 points he tallied as an 18-year-old rookie in 2007-08. He had 41 in 2008-09 and 2009-10 and 42 last season. Then, this slow start.
“It’s one of those things where I want to push myself to continue to be a better player,” Gagner said.
“I’m always pretty emotional and animated when I score. I remember Brett Hull said that every time here scored he was so happy because there are times you feel like you’re never going to score again. That’s the way things go. You never know when the next one is going to come.”
Displaced by Nugent-Hopkins, Horcoff, Eric Belanger and Anton Lander at centre, Gagner will stay on left wing for now. With the Oilers struggling to a 5-9-1 mark the last 15 games, Renney could use more scoring from Gagner’s line to complement his top trio of Ryan Smyth, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle.
“That’s just being part of a good team,” Gagner said. “You have depth and guys have to play out of position and play different roles. You have to find a way to be successful despite that.
“If everybody finds a way to be successful, you’re going to win. That’s the great part about being on a good team. We’ve got a lot of different options and a lot of weapons. If you want ice time and you want to play a significant role, you have to push yourself night in and night out to produce. Moving forward, I think that’s going to help everyone be better.”