Sam Gagner said all the right words in January at the end of the 113-day National Hockey League lockout about how healthy and in shape he was and the importance of this season.
For Gagner, the sixth overall draft pick in 2007, it has always been about building on a rookie season in which he posted 49 points for the Edmonton Oilers.
The centre came close in the 2011-12 campaign, scoring a career-high 18 goals and adding 29 assists for 47 points.
“I felt like I made big steps last year, but I’m nowhere near to being the player I want to be,” Gagner told reporters prior to the start of the current 48-game season. “I think with the way we’re set up here, it’s an opportunity for a lot of guys to have some success.”
Gagner, 23, has delivered through the team’s first 15 games this season, his sixth with the Oilers, as he leads the club with 16 points on five goals and 11 assists entering Thursday’s date with the visiting Minnesota Wild (7:30 p.m. MT).
At that pace, Gagner would reach 51 points, in 27 fewer games than a year ago, giving him some leverage in contract talks. Gagner signed a one-year, $3.2 million US deal last July and will be a restricted free agent this summer.
“I’m trying to make sure that every night my mindset is the same, regardless of how I feel,” he said of his goal for consistency. “There are going to be times throughout a shortened schedule like this that you’re not going to feel one hundred per cent, but you have to find a way to produce either way."
Gagner has done that, collecting points in all but two of Edmonton’s 15 games including its first 10 starts playing alongside right-winger Ales Hemsky and centre-turned winger Nail Yakupov, a line that produced 10 of the Oilers’ first 19 goals this season. Yakupov, sporting a team-worst minus-8 rating in his rookie season, has since been moved to the third unit.
A native of London, Ont., Gagner will have his consistency put to the test Thursday. He has managed one goal in 25 career games against Minnesota along with nine assists and a minus-10 rating.
Gagner fared much better in the Austrian league during the NHL lockout, recording 20 points for Klagenfurter AC, and has seen the benefits of skating on a bigger ice surface.
“It really forced me to push my legs,” he said.
It has also helped Gagner excel as part of an Oilers penalty-kill that ranked fourth in the 30-team league entering play Wednesday.
Edmonton is 11th in the Western Conference with a 6-6-3 record and looking for its first playoff berth in seven seasons.
“We want to turn things around here and I want to be a big part of that,” said Gagner, the subject of trade rumours in recent years. “There’s a lot of motivation that comes with that. We feel that we’re capable of winning in this league.”
The chances likely improve with a consistent Gagner.