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Gagnon making progress in AHL this season

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

He may not have started the 2009-10 season very prominently on the Dallas Stars’ radar, but after excelling all year with the AHL Texas Stars, center Aaron Gagnon has served notice that he is determined to be a part of the parent squad’s future.

Gagnon’s impressive performance even prompted a couple of call-ups to the big club.

Gagnon Photo Gallery
In his third professional season, the 24-year-old Gagnon has elevated his game another notch, leading the Stars’ top minor league affiliate with 27 goals and 58 points during the regular season. Proving his ability to play at both ends of the ice, Gagnon also topped the club with a +19 plus/minus rating, and with 10 power play goals. 

He has continued his strong play in the AHL playoffs, chipping in with five goals and eight points in 14 games, as well as a plus/minus of +7, helping Texas advance to the Western Conference Finals. Following a 5-4 overtime victory over the Hamilton Bulldogs in Game 3 in Cedar Park Wednesday night, in which Gagnon scored on a power play late in the second period, the Stars trail 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.

Dallas management believed Gagnon finished his regular season down on the farm so well he earned himself a visit to the big club, enabling him to skate in his second NHL contest on April 8 at the American Airlines Center. 
“It’s nice to know (they’re thinking of me),” Gagnon said before what ended up as a 3-2 Stars shootout victory over Anaheim. “Every time you get called up, obviously, it means you’ve done something well down there. I think I’ve been playing really well the last month or two and I’m glad they gave me a chance to get a game in.” 

That contest also happened to the be final home game of the season and included several emotional ovations for veteran Stars Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen and Marty Turco, all of whom were likely playing their last home game at the American Airlines Center. Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk felt that just experiencing that raucous atmosphere would be valuable for Gagnon, as well as young defenseman Philip Larsen, who made his league debut that night.

“I think it was very important,” Nieuwendyk said. “Aaron Gagnon is a guy that really improved his game at the minor league level. What he projects to do here is still unknown, but to give those guys an opportunity and to show them we appreciate the steps they’ve made this year was terrific for them. And for those two guys to be a part of that night, the last game against Anaheim, I think, to have that experience is going to benefit them.”

Gagnon fit seamlessly into the Stars’ lineup against the Ducks, logging 8:32 of ice time while recording his first two NHL shots on goal, dishing out four hits and winning all three face-offs he took.

Not bad for a guy who spent half a season as a free agent before signing with the Stars on Feb. 2, 2007, in the midst of his final season of junior hockey, during which he scored 42 goals and 80 points in 59 games for WHL Seattle. 

Gagnon has taken several steps forward since joining the organization three years ago. Skating for the Stars’ lower-level affiliate in the ECHL, the Idaho Steelheads, Gagnon amassed seven goals and 21 points in 22 games in 2007-08, while also skating in 25 contests with the Stars’ former AHL club in Iowa, picking up one assist. 

Last season, when the Stars did not operate their own AHL squad, their prospects were scattered across the league and Gagnon ended up in Grand Rapids with the primary farm team of the Detroit Red Wings. While he excelled at the defensive aspects of the game, Gagnon totaled just eight goals and 19 points in 61 outings, but as he has grown more comfortable at the AHL level, the offensive production has come.

“I have (been working at being a solid two-way player),” Gagnon confirmed. “I think, every league that I came into, starting in junior, I was a defensive guy to start, then I became an offensive guy. And in the American League, I started as a defensive guy and this year, I started to score some goals, and just provide some energy to the team.”

It was during his first recall to Dallas back on Oct. 16 that Gagnon had the thrill of making his NHL debut, although it came in a disappointing 3-0 loss to Boston. In 9:06 of ice time, he went 5-3 on face-offs and registered one blocked shot.

“The first time kind of happened right away, it was just after a (Texas) game, it was my first game up, so there was a lot of nerves,” Gagnon admitted.

His offensive production continued to increase as this season progressed and Gagnon finishing strong, collecting an impressive 16 goals and 27 points over his final 26 games. He then added four goals in Texas’ six-game series triumph over Chicago in the Conference Semi-Finals.

“Things have been just clicking lately,” said the 5-foot-11, 190-pound native of Armstrong, BC. “I think it just goes with confidence, once you get playing more and coach puts you in those good situations and you get an opportunity, you roll with it. And once they start coming, they always say goals come in bunches.”

As the Texas Stars have advanced deep into the playoffs, they have been aided by the assignment of Dallas Stars’ rookie Jamie Benn, who leads the squad and is tied for second in the league with 11 goals and 19 points. But as Gagnon points out, the club’s strength all year has been solid depth where they don’t just rely on one or two players to get the job done. 

“We’ve had a lot of guys hurt, and I think that’s a good thing about our team, we have a lot of guys that can fill in a lot of different places,” said Gagnon, who was initially drafted by Phoenix in the eighth round (240th overall) in the 2004 Entry Draft but never signed with them. “It’s going really well. Going into the playoffs, our goaltending and our defense have been the backbone of our team, but whenever we can get some offense, we have a pretty balanced attack.”

Gagnon’s role in that balance has been significant, and if he keeps it up, he may well end up plying his trade in Dallas for much more than two games next year.

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