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Spreading his wings

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

THURSDAY'S VIDEOS: Practice Story | Gagner | Arcobello | Smyth | Eakins

“It may turn into something and it may not turn into anything.”

That was Edmonton Oilers Head Coach Dallas Eakins’ message when he discussed today’s practice and the lineup changes involving centre Sam Gagner moving over to the wing.

“Well, I don’t know if that should be a big story because I was just having a look at it,” said Eakins. “I’m not even sure I will stick with that tomorrow. We were just talking about it in there with the staff. We’re looking at Pittsburgh’s lines. Is it the right thing to do tomorrow? The good thing about… well, a lot of our players is, Gags can play the wing, he can play the middle, we’ve got players that are… We can switch some wings. Once you get to this level, you should be, for me, you should be able to play anywhere. He will be an option there, but I’ve got to have another look at Pittsburgh’s lines and see if I like how are matchups are going to be. It shouldn’t be headline news that Gags is maybe going to play wing.”

When the Oilers took the ice for practice, bright and early at Rexall Place this morning, Gagner was on the right wing on the top line with Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Photo by Getty Images

“It’s fine,” said Gagner. “I’ve played a lot there before, so I’m comfortable there and hopefully I have a good game tomorrow.”

Eakins confessed to the media, post-practice, that the move is intended to ‘jumpstart’ the Oilers forward, who has 17 points in 33 games. Gagner says that he already feels like it’s working.

“I feel jumpstarted. I feel like I’m playing well. I just want to keep going. I think when you’re playing with Nuge and Hallsy, they’re great players and I’m just excited to get a chance to play with them so I could have a good night tomorrow.”

For Gagner, the move isn’t as big or difficult as it might seem.

“I think you’ve got to focus on moving your feet a little more,” he said. “You’re stuck on the wall sometimes and you don’t have a chance to kind of, get your speed up as much. You’ve got to focus on that, but at the same time, it’s a little less responsibility in your own zone down low. There’s some positives and some negatives with it and I’ve just got to focus on playing the right way and hopefully have a good game tomorrow.”

Gagner hopes that focusing on the simple things, like constant feet movement, will help with the possible transition.

“I don’t think anything is easy in this league but I think for me, I just have to focus on moving my feet. Beyond that, it’s just playing hockey. I think, on the wing, you can get yourself caught and stuck on the wall because at centre, you can kind of swing a little more and keep your speed. If I focus on that and getting my feet moving, I just got to go out there and play hockey.”

“It’s definitely easier on the wing,” added linemate Hall, who went through his own transition at the start of the season. “There’s no question about it. Just having to get pucks out in your own end and doing the dirty work is probably the biggest adjustment and I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for Sam. He’s a guy who battles hard and I mean, his game is suited to centre for sure but I think he’ll be a good winger too. Hopefully, this experiment works out well. I like playing with these guys.”

Hall played centre during the pre-season and at the start of the season while the team awaited the return from injury of Nugent-Hopkins.

Moving to the wing can possibly ‘simplify’ the defensive game for Gagner and allow him to get some point-production rolling with two talented linemates, should the Oilers choose to keep him there.

“I think there’s a lot less thinking on the wing,” said Eakins. “As a centreman, they always seem to end up down low in your zone and you’ve got different responsibilities. The thought there is to hopefully, maybe jumpstart him. Gags in the past, has been a guy that’s been able to put up points and I think he’s played much better as of late, but I thought if maybe we put him with Nuge and Hallsy, it’d really get him going. Getting not just a point-a-night, but multiple points. Then, we could move him back into the middle. Listen, as a coach, you’re looking for new structure in your lines…”

Photo by Getty Images

Coach Eakins added that he might have started ‘wavering a little bit’ on switching up his line combinations after looking at his next opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Should the team change things up, it will be in an effort to jumpstart not just one player, but the entire team.

“I just think we’re looking for different looks,” said Gagner. “We haven’t won, so we’ve got to find ways to win hockey games and you’ve got to move guys around to do that.”

“I just think we haven’t found ways to win hockey games and you’ve got to find different ways to move guys around to be beneficial to your lineup and hopefully we can find a way to win tomorrow and get more consistent with it.”

For Gagner, this season has been a roller coaster. It all began with a broken jaw in the pre-season, followed by his rehab and return to action.

“There’s been ups and downs, but I feel like I’ve been playing well for the most part, recently. I knew that it was going to take some time, coming back from the jaw (injury). But the last little while, I’ve felt like I’m creating chances and that’s what I’ve done in the past and I just want to continue to do that.”

Lately, Gagner has been the subject of trade rumours in the media. The Oilers vet commented on those, today.

“I’ve been through trade rumours my whole career, it seems. It’s something I’m used to at this point and unless something actually came about, it’s not something I worry about. I’m here to help the Edmonton Oilers win and that’s my focus.”

“There’s going to be trade rumours if the team’s not successful and I haven’t produced at the level I’m accustomed to as well. You’ve got to expect that. For myself, I’ve just got to continue to play the same way I’ve been playing the last little bit here and get back to that production level. All those things kind of work themselves out when that happens.”

The potential of moving to the wing is just another storyline in Gagner’s season, one him and his teammates hope is a positive.

“He’s played wing before,” said Hall. “It’s not like it’s brand new for him and he’s a guy that can adapt. I think he’s excited about playing the position. It’s not something that’s crazy for him, it’s not like he’s going to play defence or anything. It’s playing wing. He’s just got to make sure that he’s not thinking too much out there, he’s just playing.”

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