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Sam Gagner going great guns for Canada's junior hockey team

NHL.com @NHL

RED DEER, Alta. (CP) - Sam Gagner, you've come a long way.

Just over a year ago, Gagner was cut from Canada's under-18 hockey team after an unimpressive selection camp.

The London Knights forward is now one of the best forwards on Canada's under-20 team in its Super Series against Russia.

Heading into Friday's Game 7, Gagner led the team in scoring with five goals and six assists, but that's not the biggest change in his game in the last year because he's always had considerable offensive talent.

The 18-year-old from Oakville, Ont., has been able to mesh those talents with the conservative, defence-first team game demanded by Canadian head coach Brent Sutter.

"We talked to him about it that . . . if he wants to be an established player not just at this level, but at the pro level, he needs to make a commitment defensively and he jumped right on board here," Sutter said.

"Because he's such a smart player, it wasn't hard for him to figure out. He hasn't cheated one bit. He's been smart in the neutral zone. He's made the simple plays when they've had to be made. Obviously you can see he's very gifted with the puck and from the top of the face-off circles down, he's dynamite."

Gagner, the Edmonton Oilers' first pick in this year's NHL entry draft, can thread a pass through traffic on to the tape of his teammate's stick and has equally soft hands when he has a chance to score.

He's been a standout on the power-play, making use of the extra time and space to score and set up his linemates.

"I tried not to think about it coming to much into this series, as far as expectations of stats," Gagner said. "You don't want to put too much pressure on yourself, but at the same time you don't want to limit yourself.

"I just came in with a clear mindset. I've been given a chance on this team to play with some great players and I've kind of just run with it."

Gagner, an assistant captain on the Canadian team, is the son of former NHL player Dave Gagner, who had a career 719 points in 946 NHL games.

The younger Gagner's development went into high gear after he was sent home from the under-18 team last August.

He joined London for his rookie season in the Ontario Hockey League and Hockey Canada scouts couldn't ignore the numbers he was putting up those first few months with linemate Patrick Kane.

Gagner was invited in December to try out for the Canadian junior team, which he made as a 17-year-old.

His learning curve at the world junior championships was a steep one and there were times he struggled with the pace and ended up in the penalty box. He finished the tournament with no points.

"World juniors went by really fast. Winning a gold medal is probably the best feeling I've ever had," he said. "Obviously the world juniors was a little bit quicker than the Ontario Hockey League. I felt it took a couple games to really adjust to that level. I felt by the finals I was playing better hockey.

"The world juniors was my first time ever with Hockey Canada, so going through that experience and learning from people there has definitely helped me coming into this."

Gagner says he prepared for this Super Series by playing short, intense shifts during his summer hockey scrimmages in addition to trying to increase his speed and strength.

The five-foot-10, 190-pound forward had 35 goals and 83 assists in 53 games for the Knights last season, plus another seven goals and 22 assists in 16 post-season games.

Gagner is eligible to play for the Canadian junior team at the next two world junior hockey championships.

But the Oilers, who took Gagner sixth overall in the draft, will give him every chance to make their team starting next week when he arrives at their training camp.

"I'm just going to go into camp, do whatever it takes, work as hard as I can and hopefully adjust to that pace too," Gagner said.

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