Gagner lighter, quicker, more mature

DEREK VAN DIEST, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:06 AM ET

Sam Gagner has done a lot of growing up in his first three years with the Edmonton Oilers.

Making the jump straight out of junior hockey, the native of London, Ont., had little choice but to mature quickly.

Once touted as a core of the Oilers future, Gagner, 21, heads into his fourth NHL season leaner, more determined and ready to take on a bigger leadership role with the club.

“I’ve realized over my first three years how much of a mental game it is,” Gagner said. “Obviously you feel physically ready but there are ups and downs and things happening and it’s how you respond to them that determines your success.

“That’s something that I can maybe teach the new guys coming in. You can’t be shy to play your game and have your voice heard. All the best players in the league don’t worry too much about what is said about them, they just go out and play. That’s something that you learn as you go on, and I’m glad I’ve been able to be here three years to learn that.”

A former first round pick, Gagner admits increased expectations may have gotten the better of him in the past.

He set the bar for those expectations by having an impressive rookie campaign, making the team out of training camp, then registering 49 points in 79 games.

It’s a total Gagner has been unable to match since.

“You talk a lot about just worrying about the expectations you put on yourself,” Gagner said. “The more games you play, the more you realize that you can’t really worry about outside pressures.

“Maybe I have too much in the past. Obviously these last two years going through that is going to help me moving forward. I feel great going into this year and it should be a fun year for everybody. There is a new atmosphere going on and there is a lot of excitement to try and turn things around this year.”

With the arrival of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, the spotlight at training camp has shifted away from Gagner. Yet his responsibilities have increased.

“Every year you sense turnover and change,” Gagner said. “But going into this year, you sense it more. Going into my first year and second year, you didn’t notice it too much, but this year you sense a huge turnover and it’s an exciting year for us.

“Everyone has grown, especially with the way last year ended. You go into the summer with a great sense of determination and hunger and you want to prove people wrong going into the next year.”

Having finished last in the league standings for the first time in franchise history last season, there is only one direction for the Oilers to go this year.

They’ll try to do it with a much younger squad having rid themselves of a number of veterans and underachievers from last season.

“It almost feels like when you’re back in junior there is not much of an age difference between the guys,” Gagner said. “For the last few years, other than Andrew (Cogliano) and then Gilbert (Brule) coming in, there hasn’t been a lot of guys around my age.

“I think we’ve always been a tight group, we hang out a lot even away from the rink and I think it’s just going to just get even better around here. There is just a positive atmosphere here and guys are looking forward to the challenge and hopefully we can turn things around this year.”

To facilitate that turnaround Gagner has come into camp lighter than he’s been the previous three seasons. He has not only matured mentally, but physically he’s come of age as well.

“I feel better, I feel quicker out there,” he said. “It’s one of things that I wanted to focus in the off-season in order to take that next step.”

derek.vandiest@sunmedia.ca


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