Oilers give Gagner good shot

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 12:43 PM ET

DETROIT -- About the time Sam Gagner's former London Knights teammates were arriving by bus at the John Labatt Centre last night after yet another loss in Ontario Hockey League play, Gagner was on the ice just across the border at Joe Louis Arena, for the pregame skate before his Edmonton Oilers took on the Detroit Red Wings.

Oh how badly the Knights wished Gagner had been on the ice at Windsor Arena.

But he wasn't and probably won't be for a while yet.

While most people still believe he'll be returned to the Knights before he plays his 10th game with the Oilers, after three games he's getting 10 to 12 minutes a game and the Oilers are giving him every chance to make this hockey club.

"I think over the next few games, we'll look to give him some powerplay time," said Oilers coach Craig MacTavish. "With the way our powerplay has been, we could use some experimentation there and that's where Sam's skills shine through."

Last night, Gagner averaged four shifts a period as the Oilers were beaten 4-2 by the Wings. There were none of the signature moves he's become known for in junior hockey but then these are the Wings we're talking about.

They don't give up a lot of shots, let alone allow you to dipsy-doodle around the ice.

In the third period, Gagner tried to drag the puck past Niklas Kronwall. Gagner wound up on his back.

Welcome to the NHL.

"This is a good test for him. The next two games will be a good test for him," said Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe. "They are tough defensive teams."

On Wednesday, the Oilers play the Minnesota Wild.

"You can tell the pace has picked up. It's gotten tougher since the preseason," said Gagner. "But it's a lot of fun and I'm enjoying every minute."

Observers who have watched Gagner play have indicated the Oilers are being careful with their prized possession.

He usually plays on the fourth line with players like Andrew Cogliano, Marc Pouliot but he sees some time with the Oilers big line between Dustin Penner and Ales Hemsky depending on whether Shawn Horcoff has just come off a shift on special teams.

MacTavish is careful who he matches Gagner with.

You won't often see him playing against the oppositions top line or top defensive pair.

It's a pattern that was followed last night. In the first period Gagner saw four shifts.

Gagner showed his great anticipation on one shift almost embarrassing Red Wing netminder Dominik Hasek. He intercepted the puck and centred it in front of the net, just missing his teammate who would have had an empty net to shot at.

But Gagner, who was even on the plus/minus scale in his first two games, was on the ice for the Red Wings second goal. Defenceman Chris Chelios pounced on a rebound from goaltender Dwayne Roloson and fired it into the empty net. Gagner was furiously trying to reach the Red Wing blueliner but couldn't get there in time.

His frustration showed when he slammed his stick against the boards.

"You never want to be on the ice for a goal against, never," said Gagner.

He got the same number of shifts in the second period. His longest was more than a minute long and it was a good one for him. He stole the puck from Kronwall, when the puck went in the corner he won it and tried a wraparound on Hasek. Gagner then had to race the length of the ice backchecking to prevent a two-on-one break.

Gagner has two assists in two games. Whether Gagner stays will be determined on his body of work, not just on how he plays in certain games.

"We want to be a good team now but we also want to be a good team in the future," said Lowe. "We don't want to hurt his development. He hasn't given us any indication he doesn't belong."

It was a great storyline last night. Father Dave, an assistant coach with the Knights, got lots of television time as he watched Sam play for the first time as a pro.

It's a role that fits him like a glove.


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