Gagner keeps eyes on future, not past

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 2:48 PM ET

It’s easy to trip up when you’re constantly looking back, so Sam Gagner is making it his mission to forget about last year and keep both eyes glued to the ice ahead.

Coming off a brilliant rookie season in which he made the transition from a nervous 18-year-old to an NHL impact player, Gagner knows that everyone in Edmonton is expecting a bigger and better encore.

Oilers fans are expecting it, teammates are counting on it.

That’s a lot of pressure for a kid who still can’t get a drink in most of the U.S. , but he’s embracing the challenge.

“Nobody’s going to give me a free ride in the corner because I’m 19 years old,” the sixth overall pick in the 2007 NHL entry draft said. “My age doesn’t matter. I’m here and I’m being counted on every night. I have to push myself to consistent every night.

“I worked hard this summer. We all worked hard this summer, and I think we’re ready. I’m excited to start off where we left off last year.”

He left off in a pretty good place, moving into the first-line centre spot when Shawn Horcoff went down with a shoulder injury. Gagner, fellow rookie Andrew Cogliano and 23-year-old Robert Nilsson spearheaded a 14-5-1 stretch drive that saw Edmonton rally from 14th place to ninth, just missing the playoffs by three points.

Gagner had 17 points in that run (seven goals, 10 assists) and hopes/needs to maintain a similar pace for all 82 games this season.

“As much as points creep into your head, I try not to think about it too much,”he said. “You just have to prepare for every game the same way, come in with the same mindset and same focus.

“The work doesn’t get any easier. There’s still things Ihave to learn. I have to continue to push myself if I want to be a good player in this league. If you have good habits, results will happen.”

The son of former NHLer Dave Gagner has been around hockey all his life, so he’s well aware of the phenomenon known as the sophomore jinx. That’s why he spent all summer training with Oilers veterans, trying to make sure it doesn’t happen to him.

“They taught me a lot about what it takes,” he said of teammates such as Horcoff and Ethan Moreau. “They’re in the weight room every day. That’s not something I was used to, but I realized how hard you have to work. This past summer was great for me. I worked hard, got bigger and stronger and a little quicker.

“A lot of times the sophomore jinx comes from forgetting how hard you worked in the summer before your first season. I’ve tried to work as hard as I could so I’m ready.”

He knows he and his linemates aren’t going to sneak up on anyone this year. The elements of surprise and rookie adrenaline are gone. Now it’s all about preparation, determination, stamina and hard work.

“There’s no secrets in the NHL any more with all the film,” said the former London Knights star. “Even toward the end of last year, when we were playing well, we got keyed on a little more down the stretch. I think that was a pretty good learning experience for us. We have to have that same commitment every day, bring that same focus to the rink and really be consistent if we’re going to be threats in this league.”

It’s been a fast and wild ride so far, from London to MVP of the Canada-Russia junior super series, to first-round draft pick to starring role in the NHL. While most scouts looked at his genes, his work ethic, his head for the game and predicted Gagner would be a good NHLer, few predicted he would be this good, this fast.

Even Gagner admits it happened sooner than he ever expected.

“I’ve always envisioned this, I’ve always wanted this,” he said. “Playing in the NHL is everybody’s dream and you want it to happen as soon as possible. But to be honest I didn’t really expect it, as young as I am.

“But I don’t really want to look at it and let it soak in. I’m doing what I love, taking it day by day, having fun with it.”

SAM GAGNER

Age: 19

Born: Aug. 10, 1989, in London, Ont.

Position: Centre

Shoots: left

Height: 5-foot-11

Weight: 191 pounds.

Experience: Second season in Edmonton and NHL

Drafted: First round, sixth overall by Edmonton in 2007 NHL numbers: 13 goals, 36 assists for 49 points in 79 regular-season games; has yet to play an NHL playoff game.

Awards: Named to NHL Young Stars team; MVP of the 2007 Canada-Russia Junior Summit Series


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