wasn't sure what to do with himself the last couple of months. Starting in September of 2006 he played a full Junior season with the London Knights, got drafted by the Oilers, was Team Canada's MVP in the 8 game Super Series versus Russia, made the Oilers out of training camp, played a full NHL season and then wore the Maple Leaf for the World Hockey Championships in Halifax and Quebec City. In other words it was a busy year and a half, not that it bothered Gagner one bit. "I like to stay busy; I like to play," he smiles.
So, when the World Hockey Championships came to a close in May, Gagner was faced with an unfamiliar reality; there was no hockey to be played. He took a couple months off and went on a couple vacations before recently starting his rigorous off-season training back home in London, Ontario. Gagner wasn't a huge fan of the time off, but does admit that it was necessary. "The down time was pretty good for me and heading into next season I wanted to get that rest," he said today during a visit to the Oilers Hockey School in St. Albert.
That said, he's anxious to get back into the swing of the NHL season. "I think I can speak for everybody when I say we're pretty excited to get going here," he says. "The summer has gone pretty fast and we're all looking forward to next year. We're ready for it."OIL CHANGES
It's well documented that the summer has been a busy one for the Oilers. New ownership, new management and new players. Plenty of changes, and Gagner's been keeping a close eye. "I think they're all for the better," he says. "We're all pretty excited about the acquisitions we made. We've really improved and hopefully going into next season we'll be a better team for it."
New faces bring the reality of losing old ones. When Gagner reflects on the loss of Stoll, Greene, Pitkanen, Torres and Reasoner he speaks first of how different it will be in the dressing room. The second thing that hits him, though, is that the team got a bit smaller. He's very clear that this isn't a definite negative because, he says, smaller doesn't mean weaker. "We might be a smaller team but I don't think we can be intimidated," says #89. "The guys on our team have a lot of character and a lot of heart and if teams are trying to run us out of the rink we're not gonna back down. The way the game is called these days if you play undisciplined you're gonna be in the box all game and we just have to capitalize on the powerplay."
Obviously for Gagner the additions of Lubomir Visnovsky and Erik Cole are particularly exciting because they fit in well with a more offensive blueprint. "We have a great core group of defensemen that can move the puck pretty well and our forwards have a lot of speed and a lot of offensive ability," says Gagner and he expects big things from the team offensively this year. Responsible for a big chunk of that productivity will be Gagner's line with fellow youngsters Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson, a line the coaching staff is currently adamant about keeping together. For his money, Gagner's ok either way. "I developed a great chemistry with them at the end of last season and I feel we really read off each other," he starts. "But, at the same time, in order to be a valuable asset you gotta be a guy who can play with anybody. We have 12 or 13 really good forwards and anybody can play with anybody."
In any event, new faces or not, the pressure is going to be much higher on this team in October than it was one year ago. They aren't coming off a season-ending losing streak where they dropped 19 of 20 like they did in 06/07; they're coming off a second half to last season that saw them perform as a team at a 100 point pace, nearly making an unthinkable burst into the playoffs. Gagner says it's important to bring the playoff push mentality to work right off the bat to give themselves a the best shot possible. "I think we wanna bring it right back," Gagner says of the mindset in the locker room. "The start we had last year didn't do us any favours and if we can get off to a good start it will definitely help us. We all know how important it is and we want to carry over the things that we were doing at the end of last season to the start of this season."SOPHOMORE JINX NOT IN GAGNER'S VOCABULARY
49 (13-36) points in 79 games is a pretty good rookie season. In fact, that puts Gagner 5th all time in Oilers franchise history, just 4 points behind Hall of Famer Glenn Anderson. But, great rookie seasons don't make a career...just ask Andrew Raycroft. The trick is to follow up a successful rookie year with 2nd year point totals that eclipse the first. Anderson, for example, put up back-to-back 104 and 105 point seasons following his rookie year.
For his part, Gagner feels his rookie season was a huge step forward but says it was also the craziest year of hockey he's ever had. "You know what, it was kind of a whirlwind year for me in the fact that I really didn't know what was gonna happen going into training camp," he explains. "I just kinda rolled with every opportunity I got. There were a lot of ups and downs during the season but I think as the season went along I learned a lot. This was a huge development year."
Now that Gagner has settled into his position as one of the go-to players on this Oilers roster, the questions will start. Do you feel more pressure? Can you keep up, or eclipse, your pace from last year? With so many young players on the team, isn't one of you guys bound to slump?
Gagner says jinx, shminx. "The sophomore jinx comes from two things," says Gagner, clearly anticipating the queries. "Either you forget how hard you worked going into your first year and you take the summer off and the other thing is you're playing against tougher opposition. For us, we just gotta stay mentally strong throughout the year and rise to the challenge."
To his first point, Gagner says he definitely hasn't taking the summer off. His father, former NHL'er Dave Gagner, has opened a new training facility in London, Ontario and Gagner is taking full advantage. He knows he has to get bigger and stronger and he says the work towards that goal has already begun. To his second point, Gagner isn't concerned about the opposition he faces. "We're not gonna sneak under the radar as much as we did last year but there's nothing we can do about that," he says matter-of-factly. "We just gotta worry about things in our control."Dan's Dish:
Gagner's heard all the hype and seen his moves in action, but he hasn't yet met or spoken to new owner Daryl Katz. "We drove by his house the other day and he wasn't around. It's a pretty nice house," he laughed. You can listen to Dan on Inside Sports weeknights from 8 to 11 on 630 CHED.