SUN Hockey Pool

Gagner's golden opportunity

Oilers rookie Sam Gagner skates while facing the Canucks during pre-season action at Rexall Place...

Oilers rookie Sam Gagner skates while facing the Canucks during pre-season action at Rexall Place on Saturday. (Sun Media/Darryl Dyck)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:15 AM ET

Play it again, Sam.

The Edmonton Oilers are so intrigued by what they saw out of Sam Gagner in five preseason games, they're giving him a chance to play a few more when it counts.

With a few hours to go before yesterday's 3 p.m. deadline to sign junior-eligible players, the Oilers announced that they'd inked Gagner to a three-year entry level contract and will give him as many as nine regular season games to prove he deserves to be here all year.

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship between the 18-year-old centre and the team that drafted him sixth overall this summer.

"It's a dream come true to be at this position, where there's a chance to play in the NHL," said Gagner, who scored two goals and finished plus-one in the preseason.

"To have the contract done is obviously a load off my shoulders but there's still a long way left to go. I still have a lot to prove."

He's proven plenty so far, both at the Canada-Russia junior Super Series, where he was tournament MVP, and in the Oilers training camp, where he caught everyone's attention from the first drop of the puck.

Throw in the three-year deal worth $875,000 a year (with that much more available in bonuses) and it's been a whirlwind few months.

"I just wanted to work really hard this summer to improve as much as I could so I could come to camp and really turn heads," said the five-foot-11, 191 pounder, adding it's easy to stay grounded in a pretty grounded dressing room.

"You see all these guys around me who are established NHL veterans and they seem to remain humble. Seeing that, it's a lot easier to do that. It's just an exciting time for me and I'm having fun with it."

Gagner is too young to be sent to the AHL, so he'll either spend all season in the NHL or all-season back in London with the OHL Knights. The Oilers get nine games to decide which is best because once he hits 10 there's no going back (games spent in the press box don't count).

Game 1 could very well be Thursday night against the San Jose Sharks.

"I really am anxious to see Sam," said head coach Craig MacTavish, adding he'd like to have him in the lineup on opening night. "We're happy to have a player with that pedigree in the lineup. You need players who can be in the top 10 in scoring in the league. He definitely has that dimension."

MacTavish says Gagner has clearly benefited from having a father, Dave, who played 15 years in the NHL.

"It's a tremendous advantage for a player to have that feedback from his father, obviously he's been well-schooled in the game. That's why he's a lot further along than most 18 year olds.

"He thinks the game incredibly well for an 18-year-old. Even when he's not creating things offensively. he's in the right spot defensively. I don't think I've had to talk to him once through this training camp about positioning in the defensive zone.

"Development is a pretty inexact science at times, but when you have a head, and can make plays, and have those hands, it's very likely that you're going to be able to develop quickly."

Good genes. Nice contract. A fair chance. The rest is up to Gagner.

"It was a great feeling to be drafted, but one thing my dad said to me was being drafted is not a spot in the NHL, it's just an opportunity to try out," he said.

"I really took that to heart this summer and improved my game as much as possible. I think so far I've done a good job, but there's still a long way left to go."


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