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Gagnon starting to make case for roster spot

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It seems like every year, a young player not expected to make the jump to the NHL arrives in Dallas Stars training camp and elevates his play so much that he forces club management to take notice and eventually, include him on the big league roster.

Aaron Gagnon
Last year it was Jamie Benn and Tom Wandell

This season, it just might be center Aaron Gagnon. 

While it’s still debatable if there’s even an opening available on the Stars’ forward ranks, Gagnon has already begun to state his case over the first five days or so of camp. Gagnon looked good in practices while the squad trained together in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. 

Then he followed that up with an outstanding performance Tuesday night in the Stars’ first pre-season game, a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay at the American Airlines Center. 

Gagnon scored a goal, led the squad in shots on goal with four, and was clearly one of the best players on the ice, resulting in his being named the contest’s second star. 

“He was showing last year that, ‘Hey I might be somebody you should think about as the year goes on,’” said coach Marc Crawford after the game. “Now he’s pushing. Guys like him are on the doorstep. The pre-season tells you whether or not they push the door down and break in, and it was a nice step for him tonight.”

Following a big year in 2009-10 with the Stars top minor league affiliate, the AHL Texas Stars, who are based just three hours away in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, Gagnon looks like he is picking up where he left off. 

The 24-year-old native of Armstrong, British Columbia led Texas during the regular season in goals, with 27, points with 58, and a +19 plus/minus rating, while also skating in his first two NHL contests during a couple of call-ups. 

Gagnon then added eight goals and 12 points, as well as a stellar +10 plus/minus, which ranked second on the squad and fourth overall in the league, in 24 playoff contests as the first-year AHL squad advanced all the way to the Calder Cup Finals before finally succumbing in Game 6 to the Hershey Bears. But despite the gut-wrenching way in which it ended, Gagnon credits that post-season run for helping increase his confidence on the ice.

“I think (last year) was huge for me,” says the 5-foot-11, 189-pound Gagnon. “I think most of it is just your confidence. Last year they gave me a great chance to have some great ice time and get put in some big situations. I think going to the Finals and having the load where they relied on me, really built my confidence last year. That’s the longest run I’ve had and you really realize how much that helps you as a player. We came back in a lot of games, and we had a lot of overtime games. I think that really helps you grow as a player.” 

Despite his obvious skill and ability to generate offense, for Gagnon to claim a job in the Stars’ lineup, he’s going to need to demonstrate strong defensive awareness and be able to adapt to more of a checking role. 

That’s is a familiar scenario for Gagnon, because it’s something that he’s done at every level of hockey coming up the ladder. He finished his junior hockey career as an offensive dynamo, producing 42 goals and 80 points in 59 games in 2006-07 with WHL Seattle, but took a couple of seasons in the AHL playing solid defense before he put up points on a regular basis again. 

“It’s kind of the same way going into junior as going into pro,” noted Gagnon, who split the 2007-08 season between AHL Iowa, where he had one assist in 25 games, and Idaho of the ECHL, before totaling eight goals and 19 points in 61 AHL games in 2008-09 in Grand Rapids. “I started out in junior as a defensive guy and became a scorer, and my first years in pro, I spent a year in Grand Rapids being a defensive guy, face-offs and penalty kill and last year I got more of an offensive role. But I see my role in Dallas here as being back to that defensive face-off guy.”

And it is those qualities - Gagnon’s proficiency at some of the details of the game that might not make it to the scoresheet - that has grabbed the attention of the coaching staff.

“I love his face-offs, first and foremost,” said Crawford after Gagnon went 6-4 on draws Tuesday night. “I love how he’s strong on the puck, I like how he skates. He’s showing to be a little bit more powerful now. Now he’s a stronger kid, a more confident kid and when the battle is there, he wants it more and he stays in it more. 

“He’s got great fundamental defensive habits. He has become more of a pro, and that’s where you see those things in the battle situations. The fact that he’s a right-shot, great face-off man, and he’s showing himself to be effective in those areas is quite good. To make the team, he’s got to be a guy that can kill penalties, that can skate, can check and show us that he’s really going to be a reliable person and he’s showing it right now.”

One comparison Crawford made, noting players who transitioned from offensive stars in junior hockey to more complete, two-way threats in the NHL was with former Star Guy Carbonneau and even moreso, with former Star and current assistant coach Stu Barnes. 

In his final junior year with WHL Tri-City, a club he is now co-owner of, Barnes racked up 52 goals and an unreal 144 points in just 63 games. His first couple of pro seasons, Barnes continued to produce, notching 36 goals and 87 points in his first 72 AHL games, while also contributing in Winnipeg. Eventually, though, Barnes developing into a more valuable, two-way, all-situation defensive stalwart he became during his time in Dallas from 2003-08.

One significant difference between the two was that Barnes was a first-round selection (fourth overall) by the Winnipeg Jets in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, while Gagnon was originally drafted by Phoenix in the eighth round (240th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, but never signed with them, before agreeing to terms as a free agent with Dallas midway through the 2006-07 season.

Still, Gagnon admitted he has noted the connection and hopes to be able to follow in Barnes’ footsteps. 

“I knew coming in, Stu was still playing here, he was basically a guy I wanted to be like,” said Gagnon, who first attended Stars training camp in Sept. 2007, just prior to Barnes’ final season. “Having him still around, it’s great to talk to him, get advice, doing face-offs with him during skates and stuff, he really helps me out.” 

“Stu Barnes was a highly, highly-skilled junior hockey player and even when he came up in the American Hockey League, they tagged him to be a skill player, but you find your niche and you find how to get into the lineup,” Crawford added. “And I think that’s what you’re seeing from Aaron Gagnon now. 

“And we’re going to be a tough team to make, we got a lot of guys that are all vying for those final spots.” 

So far, Gagnon has set himself apart from some of the others.

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