2007 prospects: Sam Gagner

By Jason Menard

In French, the verb gagner means to win. The addition of Sam Gagner to the London Knights roster has helped the team to continue its winning ways despite the loss of a number of marquee players – with Gagner playing a significant role in the club’s success.

“You don’t know how kids are going to adapt to the league – especially a 17-year-old. To say I expected him to lead the league – no,” said Dale Hunter, the Knights president and head coach. “[Sam]’s adapted very quickly to all situations. He’s having success on the power play and at even strength. Some kids just learn quicker than others and he picked it up right away and that’s why he’s having a great year.”

Gagner was part of the Hunter brothers’ (Mark is the club’s Vice-President and General Manager) summertime coup that netted them three top prospects who have truly enabled them to reload following the loss of Dylan Hunter (BUF), Dave Bolland (CHI), and Rob Schremp (EDM).

To the shock and chagrin of many in the OHL, the Knights were able to convince Gagner, Pat Kane, and Phillip McRae to leave the U.S., forgo their college options, and join the Canadian junior club. A fourth member, Kevin Montgomery, was expected this summer, but he delayed his arrival until December 2006 – after a half-season in the U.S. collegiate ranks.

“I think it was a good situation for him,” Hunter said of Gagner. “If I was him I would have realized that we lost our top three guys and you’ve got room to go right in on the power play, play on one of the top lines, and get lots of ice time.

“Credit to the kid, you can get lots of ice time but you have to take advantage of it – and he’s taken advantage of it.”

It was that opportunity that played a significant role in Gagner deciding to back out of his non-binding verbal commitment to the University of Wisconsin to play there following another season with Sioux City of the USHL. Gagner was a fourth-round selection of the Knights in the OHL priority draft back in 2004. Most teams shied away from the talented center due to the fact that it was assumed he was going to go the U.S. collegiate route.

“When I first signed, that was one of the reasons I signed,” Gagner said. “I knew that I was going to get a chance to play and to really prove myself. The loss of those guys was so huge that I wanted to come in and do the best that I could to try to fill that void. I think with some other returning guys and some newcomers that we’re on the right track and we just have to keep going.

“It was a really tough decision, though. This is such a great option, but there was nothing negative about my other options. Obviously Wisconsin won a national championship last year and Mike Eaves is a great coach — and the USHL is an awesome league and it was great for my development. But London’s got great fan support and it’s a world-class place to play hockey. The Hunters know what they’re doing and they’ve been through it all just like my dad has. They know what it takes to make it to the next level and so far I’ve just really enjoyed being here.”

While Kane received all the preseason ink and was the more highly-touted prospect, Gagner’s play has catapulted him into the forefront of NHL scouts’ eyes – and to the top of the OHL scoring race. Recently his teammate Kane has passed him on the leader board, but the two rookie forwards are one-two in scoring. In 29 games, Gagner has tallied 17 goals and 46 assists. However, as confident as Gagner may be, not even he was prepared for the start to the season he’s enjoyed.

“I’m pretty surprised about it. I came in with not really great expectations. I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself, but at the same time I didn’t want to limit myself,” he said, before deftly deflecting the credit to his teammates. “I think that’s the key so far, I’ve had the chance to play with a lot of skilled players: Pat Kane, [Dave] Meckler (LA), [Sergei] Kostitsyn (MTL), [Rob] Drummond – I mean, the list goes on and on.

“That’s been a huge key along with the fact that our power play’s been clicking. Well, it seems that London’s power play is always clicking – but that’s been another key.”

Of course, sharing the ice with heady company is nothing new for Gagner. He played on the same midget squad as highly-touted 2008 prospect John Tavares, but as the 2007 draft approaches, Gagner will be looking to make the first mark in the hearts and on the draft sheets of NHL clubs.

Gagner’s outstanding opening to the season has seen him rocket up the pre-draft charts. Once an after-thought, he’s now finding his name mentioned in the same breath as the Angelo Espositos, Logan Coutures, and Jakub Voraceks of the world – and in some cases before them. The NHL’s Central Scouting, in their preliminary rankings released in November 2006, have Gagner ranked first amongst OHL skaters, ahead of both his friends: Couture and Kane. International Scouting Services has Gagner ranked sixth overall behind Couture, Esposito, and Voracek, but ahead of Kane.

His rise to the top of the charts has come as a welcome surprise to Gagner. However, his coach felt the recognition was well warranted – and, in some ways, predictable.

“We’re not surprised. Mark saw him play last year in the States and I saw him play as a midget with the Marlies. He was an outstanding player. He sees the ice well,” Hunter explained. “That’s why we were so happy to get him – his vision, he passes the puck, and has great moves to score goals. When you have the whole package like that I’m not surprised that he did what he did in being a No. 1 overall this year.”

Gagner, for his part, is taking a more measured and cautious approach to the honor. “There’s a lot of depth in the Ontario Hockey League and I was a little surprised. It’s an honor, but at the same time it’s really early. A lot of things can change come draft day and I’m trying to not think too hard about that,” Gagner said. “It’s always in the back of my mind, but I’m just trying to take it day-by-day, have fun, and help the London Knights win.”

Having two potential top-10 draftees on the same team, even the same line most of the time – a rarity for the notoriously line juggling Hunter — means that London’s John Labatt Centre is often littered with NHL scouts. It’s a fact of life in one’s draft-eligible year that Gagner can’t help but notice.

“With that always comes added pressure. But I just try to play my game and have fun with it,” he said. “When I do that I’m playing relaxed and I’m playing my best. Hopefully if I can continue to do that, things will work out for the best.”

The fact that Gagner is essentially auditioning for a job each and every night means that he knows he’s got to bring his best to the ice each and every night, his coach explained. “He puts pressure on himself to go out and perform every night because that could be the one night that the GM for whichever team is there,” Hunter said. “You have to be consistent and come play every night. Let’s say you have an off night or a bad game because you were unprepared, then you’re going to have a black tick against you.

“He’s got to be ready to come every night and by his stats you can see what he’s done for our team.”

The 17-year-old Oakville native has taken a circuitous route to London. His youth was spent following his father Dave around the NHL. And lately, as the younger Gagner’s prodigious talents have continued to bloom, he’s bounced from Oakville to Sioux City and now to the Forest City en route – hopefully – to the NHL.

The younger Gagner joined the Knights after a season in the USHL with the Sioux City Musketeers. Scouts agree that the switch to the freer-flowing OHL was a solid move for the long-term development – not to mention, the short-term draft prospects – for the young center. In addition, one scout indicated that his sojourn in the USHL might not have been the worst thing that could have happened to Sam.

“First of all the key thing with any young guy is his development as a hockey player. I suppose if you’re in Sioux City you’re a little more under the radar than if he were here [in London] last year as an underager,” he said. “But maybe his development was better getting to play a lot last year in Sioux City. The key is not where you’re ranked early in the year, the key thing is how good of a hockey player is he going to become.

“Clearly where he was last year didn’t do him any harm.”

That rougher, clutch-and-grab style didn’t totally impede the then 16-year-old Gagner as he was able to account for 11 goals and 35 assists in 56 games. Although the fact that he’s exceeded those numbers at just past the quarter pole of the OHL season suggests the new league is a good fit for his style of play. That and being closer to home cooking – his father Dave is an assistant coach with the Knights – helps raise that comfort level notably.

The Knights are a notably family friendly organization (both Hunters have had or have sons and other relatives who have passed through or are currently in the Knights organization and co-owner Basil McRae is the father of the aforementioned Phillip), but that doesn’t mean any player’s getting preferential treatment.

“I think I look at all the other kids the same way that I look at Sam. If anything I think I may be a little harder on him,” Dave Gagner explained. “He’s always been so easy to talk to, that’s one of his best qualities is that he’s so coachable. He wants to listen and he genuinely listens.

The elder Gagner admitted that perhaps his NHL experience, with over 1,000 NHL regular season and playoff games under his belt, might have aided his son’s development. But Dave credits Sam for any benefit he may have received.

“We discussed hockey a lot and the various situations — even game preparation and recovery, a lot of the little things that I learned from experience and from my teammates and coaches,” Dave Gagner said. “He listens, he’s a sponge. He loves to learn about it.”

Conversely, the son gives his father much more credit than Dave was willing to accept. “He knows so much about the game and has been through so much that he’s been able to pass it on to me,” Sam said. “He’s been coached by some great coaches and I think from his experiences is able to teach me so much. He knows so much about the game and so much about the situations that can go on and he just passes it all down.”

Gagner’s current offensive production isn’t unprecedented. He exploded in the 2004-05 season playing for the Toronto Marlies’ minor-midget A squad, tallying an outstanding 180 points. That season he was also named MVP of the 2005 OHL Cup as he guided his squad to victory. However, his performance this year has resulted in him, at 17 years old, being one of the younger players to receive an invitation to the Canadian World Junior Championship squad. Accompanied by fellow teammate Steve Mason (CLB) and meeting up with old friend Tavares, Gagner is hoping to parlay his early OHL success into a chance to strut his stuff on the international stage.

“It’s pretty exciting to even have my name recognized for something like that. It’s something everybody dreams about growing up and at the same time I’m still young and I have a couple of more opportunities at it,” he said. “If I weren’t going to get picked, it’d be fine for me, but at the same time it’d be a real thrill to get picked. I’ll just go into camp and try to play a solid two-way game and limit the scoring chances against. I just have to play as solid defensively as I can because if I do that the scoring chances will come.”

Gagner’s also relishing the idea of facing off against his teammates: Kane, who will suit up for the American squad, and Kostitsyn, who will again lead the Belarusian squad into action. “I know first-hand how skilled they are. I think it would be fun to play against them and if I get that chance, that’d would be awesome,” Gagner said. “There’d be bragging rights at stake for that.”

If it seems that Gagner has come out of nowhere this season to dominate, it may be because he has. Even his father admits he’s a little surprised by how convincingly his son is making a case for his first-round draft status.

“For his age he was always pretty good. He was never the biggest or the fastest or anything, but he’s always been an intelligent player. He just loves to play and he’s just gotten better and better each year,” Dave Gagner said. “But no, I don’t think there’s ever a time when I – I think this year’s the first year where I can say, ‘well, maybe he’s pretty good.’

“He’s never been a kid that’s can’t miss, but he has a love for the game that I think really is going to benefit him going forward because he loves to practice and he loves the thought of getting better.”

It’s that intelligence and willingness to learn that makes him so appealing to NHL scouts. “He’s a smart player,” one scout indicated. “He’s going to be an average-sized guy – maybe even a below-average-sized guy so he’s going to have to make up for it by being above average in other attributes. He’s clearly got hockey sense and puck skills, the question is going to be how quick and powerful he can make himself.

“Three things are important if you’re that size: you’ve got to display quickness, you’ve got to display hockey sense, and you’ve got to display a little bit of strength.”

All parties agree that there is still room for improvement.

“I’d like to see him get in better shape. I mean, he’s in good shape, but being in NHL shape is a totally different thing,” Hunter said. “These kids at this age still have the kid’s body at 17, so he can work on getting in shape. Shooting the puck. But he basically does everything very well, but his strength is his smarts on the ice.

“He’s a great kid. Works hard. Spends a lot of time on the ice and wants to be a player.”

The younger Gagner said he agrees that he has to get in better game and physical shape. “To get to the next level you’ve got to be faster and stronger and that’s what I’m trying to work on,” he added. “But really all facets of my game need to be improved and I’m working on everything this year.”

Gagner’s also finishing up his last four high school credits this season and is taking advantage of a special program that allows secondary students to complete a university level course at the University of Western Ontario. As heady as he is on the ice, his long-term view and sense of perspective seem to indicate that this player is rock-solid off ice as well.

“I want to get as much done [educationally] as I can while I’m still playing junior. I want to go back in the summers and work towards finishing my [business] degree,” he said. “I know not a lot of players have long careers and even so there’s still a lot of life left after hockey. If I end up having a career in the game I want to have some options available to me when I come out.”

The old adage states, father knows best, so it seemed only appropriate to give Dave the last word on what his son needs to do to join his father as an NHLer.

“He’s just got to keep developing in all areas. He’s just got to get bigger, stronger, faster…,” Dave explained. Noticing that his son had just come within earshot, he added – cracking a smile, “Smarter, nicer.

“He knows, he knows what he has to do. Like he says, it’s not about how he’s doing now, but rather how good does he have to be to be where he wants to be when he’s 25-26. That’s the way he looks at it and I’m pretty proud of that.”

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.

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