Gagner keeps up battle for spot

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:06 AM ET

Here's one of the most important lessons Sam Gagner has learned from his father Dave about life in the National Hockey League:

You never really make a team; you just earn the right to keep trying out for a longer period of time.

That's what it's all about for the former London Knight and now Edmonton Oiler.

"I look around and you know that you have to prove yourself every day," Sam Gagner said in Detroit after his game Monday against the Red Wings. "I'm having a lot of fun obviously. It's a dream come true that I'm getting the chance to do this. But you've got to continue to work hard and get better and learn. I'm learning something very day."

The idea that Gagner -- 18 and with only one year of Ontario Hockey League experience under his belt -- would be wearing an Oiler uniform at Joe Louis Arena for a regular season NHL game is still surprising to many people.

He had a remarkable first year with the Knights, was drafted sixth overall by the Oilers and was named the most valuable player in the recent Canada-Russian under-20 series. From there, he parlayed a great training camp into a contract and a stint with the big team.

He has two assists in three games with the Oilers. Against the tough Red Wings, he looked like what he is -- a young player still learning to play against men. That isn't a surprise to the men who run the Oilers.

The player he's most often compared to is Team Canada teammate Andrew Cogliano. Cogliano is two years older and much stronger.

"The Red Wings are indicative of most teams in the league -- the level of experience and their level of play . . ." Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe said. "These are two tough games on the road (Minnesota Wild tonight on TSN), playing these guys, experience and level of play. (The Wild) are a tough defensive-minded team. That will give us an indication of where he is and where our team is right now."

Coach Craig MacTavish is happy with what Gagner has brought to the table.

"Sam's playing fine," MacTavish said. "He's seldom in the wrong position on the ice. Generally, he's shown us plenty of game.

"What I like about him is when he does find himself out of position, he knows and is accountable for those things. That leads me to believe that they are correctable. He's a smart kid. He's going to figure this game out in a hurry."

Does Gagner have all season or does he have until Game 10? When he plays in his 10th game, the first year of his contract kicks in.

"We evaluate him from week to week," Lowe said. "We want to be careful. We want to be a good team, now but we also want to be a good team in the future. We don't want to hurt his development."

Gagner is a smart young man on and off the ice. He knows the score when it comes to pro hockey.

"You have to produce," he said. "I'm just taking it a day at a time. I realize every day is a day to improve and get better. The same with every game. You have to prepare every day like its the biggest day.

"So far, it's all positive. I'm getting an opportunity to play in the best league in the world. I'm just trying to do the little things well. If I continue to do that, the opportunities will come."

MacTavish is going to give Gagner a chance to show his skills by getting him some power-play time. That will be a litmus test. No one expects him to beat anyone up in the corner or muscle people off the puck. But they need him to produce points. It's something Gagner will have to do with far less ice time than he's ever had in his career.

"We want to get into a position where we're getting him some power-play time," MacTavish said. "I think that's obviously an area of strength in his game. Based on what we've done in the first three games on the power play, we could use some experimentation in that area. He'll be fine there."

All ifs and buts aside, Gagner is going to get a shot at sticking with the Oilers.

"No matter what role I'm asked to play, I have to be prepared for it," he said. "That's where my mindset is. I'm just going to run with every opportunity I get."

In what's been a year of highlights, he lived a special one in Detroit. Father Dave, who had a 15-year NHL career, watched his son play professionally for the first time.

"It was a special moment having him watch me," Gagner said. "He's the reason I'm here. He's been so influential in my life. He taught me so much about the game. Sharing this moment with him was pretty special."


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