Gagner is Knights' best line of defence

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:55 AM ET

The London Knights have entrusted their defence to a guy who played forward all of his 15-year NHL career.

But those are mere details for new assistant coach Dave Gagner. After all, this is a club with a top, innovative power-play structure -- and it's run by head coach Dale Hunter, one of pro hockey's all-time penalty minute leaders.

"Playing centre, you're very aware of what's going on in the defensive zone," said Gagner, 41. "If you don't take care of your defensive responsibilities, there's no way you'll see ice time at the next level. It's easier if the guys learn that here, than when they move up and have to learn the hard way."

It was the Gagner way.

The Chatham native, and an OHL scoring star with the Brantford Alexanders, was a first-round draft pick by the New York Rangers in 1983, but was repeatedly shuttled up and down from the minors before finally getting a chance to play with the Minnesota North Stars.

"I was sent down about 10 times -- (quitting) did cross my mind," he said. "But you have to adjust to stay in the game. In Minnesota, I learned a lot from Dino (Sarnia Sting co-owner Dino Ciccarelli).

"He wasn't the biggest guy, but he found a way to be productive and that's what I had to do. Taking care of our end of the ice was part of that."

It was evident from London's season-opening victory over Saginaw last Friday that the Knights have the offence and goaltending to keep them in games. Defensive play could be the difference between an average season and a championship campaign, so Gagner's work takes on added scrutiny.

"Every boat has a few holes and we know our defence has to get better," said general manager Mark Hunter. "Dave likes to teach and we're counting on him this year. We like that he shares our mindset. He likes to work with skill and that's the kind of players we want to have on our team."

Foremost, Gagner wants his defencemen to instantly recognize what kind of forecheck the opposition employs against the Knights.

"If you interview the best defencemen, they'll tell you they know -- they can feel -- how much pressure is coming at them," Gagner said. "It might be tough for a 16-year-old to pick up right away, but it can be learned. There's only the odd young defenceman who can pick up that pressure naturally. Those ones are special."

Gagner believes in blue-liners using their partners with an initial cross-ice pass to reverse the flow. Banging it around the boards and off the glass isn't a first option, but has its usefulness.

"You'd love to say you're going to have the puck the whole game so you don't have to defend, but it doesn't always work that way," he said.

"I like a quick pass," Gagner said. "It's a lot harder to forecheck when you have to cover the whole ice. If a defenceman uses his partner, it usually opens up the middle for an outlet pass.

"Here, we have a goaltender (Steve Mason) who plays the puck very well and can act as a third defenceman. I'm in favour of that because it gives us another option against the forecheck."

Some have claimed Gagner got the London job as a condition his talented son, rookie forward Sam Gagner, report to the Knights. But the dad has interest in being behind a bench long after son Sam has moved on to the pro game.

His four-year work with a talented Toronto Marlies group, which included OHLers John Tavares and Akim Aliu, plus a journey to Minnesota to help coach high school hockey, shows this was no freebie appointment.

"I thought it was important to move here (from Toronto) because it shows commitment," Gagner said. "You're either 100 per cent in, or 100 per cent out.

"I'm serious about this. I'm not doing this as a part-time thing. I like that the Hunters are serious about this and they should be. They're all about building excellence and doing whatever it takes to make it happen."

This time, the plan involves a shifty centre with the 1991 North Stars team that made one of the more stunning runs to the Stanley Cup final in recent NHL history.

"You never forget what you learned in something like that and you incorporate those lessons into how you coach," Gagner said.

Following his pro career, Gagner went into a business that specialized in building rinks.

He doesn't have to build anything at the JLC this year -- just help keep the winning coming.

KNIGHTWATCH

Tomorrow: vs. Owen Sound, 7:30 p.m., John Labatt Centre

Saturday: at Erie, 7:30 p.m.

Update: London forward Jordan Foreman, recovering from a broken foot, took some turns on his skates yesterday at the JLC, but is still not able to practise in full equipment


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