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Pivotal season ahead for Gagner, Oilers

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Sam Gagner and the Edmonton Oilers have some extra motivation this season.

"As a group, we're out to prove some people wrong," he said Friday at Perry Pearn's 3-on-3 camp.

Finishing in the lottery for a second straight season doesn't earn you much respect, but the team isn't concerned with others' expectations. It's a new group entering the 2011-12 campaign, and Gagner is ready to step up and lay claim to better days.

"Absolutely," he said when asked about pushing for the post-season. "That has to be our goal. With the way last season ended, we're not happy about it. We've got a lot of new players coming in that have really helped establish some more depth within our team.

Sam Gagner (Getty Images)
"Everyone that was here last year has that fire to turn things around, too."

With Eric Belanger and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins added to the mix, the Oilers' depth at centre has improved considerably over the summer.

There's no extra pressure, but rather a chance to make a mark, cementing a role in the team's crowded top-six.

"It's a neat circumstance for everyone," Gagner said. "All everyone wants is to be on a winning team and to be a big part of it. There's an opportunity here for everyone to do that and make an impact."

In addition to creating battles down the middle, the Oilers' increased depth has also made strides in toughness. Darcy Hordichuk, Ben Eager and Andy Sutton were brought on, helping to boost security on a game-by-game basis. It won't change the players' on-ice mindset, but they may open up some previously impassable lanes.

"[Toughness is] an important part of today's game, so I'm looking forward to having them on our side," Gagner said. "I've never really thought about holding up or not making plays, but they'll help open up some space. As a skilled player, that can only be a good thing."

As a 22-year-old veteran, Gagner is still young, but knows there's room to improve. Having not scored more than 49 points in his four-year NHL career to this point, he's looking to make 2011-12 a career-season, upping his scoring production and shoring up weaknessess in his own end.

"I want to continue to develop all areas in my game," Gagner explained. "Every summer I work hard on my strength and speed. Those are things that really help you establish your mark as an NHL player. The coaches have been supporting me there as well. It's something I've worked very, very hard at and I'm interested to see how it all works out.

"I think I've done a good job of learning how to become a pro; about what it takes nutrition-wise and taking care of my body. I've grown so much in that area, and those little things usually have a big impact on the ice as well."

Now it's about putting it all together. Gagner and the Oilers have both set the bar high, expecting a turnaround season on the rebuild's upward swing. While Edmonton will keenly push for the Western Conference's eighth seed and beyond, Gagner will do everything he can to help get there.

"It's important to set goals, but you don't want to look at it as the big-picture," he said. "I don't want to apply too much pressure, because we end up worrying about long-term goals in the short-term, which never helps. I'll set small goals and worry about games in small intervals."

Having spent his entire summer back home in Oakville, Gagner is thrilled to be back in Oil Country as the new season quickly approaches.

"We're all excited for the challenge and we're going to rise to the occasion. We're going to turn things around and get going in the right direction once again.

"It's going to be a good year."

Follow Ryan Dittrick on Twitter | @ryandittrick

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