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Oilers hope to tap into Sam Gagner’s skill set for additional scoring

Bringing Sam Gagner back for a third tour in the Edmonton Oilers lineup is along the lines of fishing a trusty, high-quality but worn appliance out of the recycle bin after the newer, cheaper one you got a deal on fizzled after just a few uses.

With tryout success Adam Erne failing to register a point in six games, the Oilers waived the seven-year veteran in order to sign and add Gagner — a 17-year NHL player originally drafted by Edmonton — to the lineup for a third tour of duty in blue and orange (and copper).

It’s one part familiarity, another part hope that even though Gagner’s days as a top-liner are well behind him, perhaps flashes of that high-end skill appear often enough to result in more Oilers goals.

“That grouping of five or six players in the bottom part of our forward group, we’re looking for more,” Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft said Wednesday after morning practice, the day before Edmonton hosts the Dallas Stars. “Can Sam come in and make a play? That’s what our hope is. We’re about to find out, but for him to come in, you know, he’s an accepted member in that locker room. People respect his experience level and his skill level.”

Gagner, like Erne and Brandon Sutter, signed a tryout agreement for Oilers training camp this fall but didn’t play in pre-season games because he was recovering from double hip surgery. He signed a minor-league contract last week with the Bakersfield Condors, the Oilers’ affiliate, and played in three games before signing a one-year, two-way deal with Edmonton on Tuesday.

Wearing his familiar No. 89, Gagner said after practice he’s always looking “to create offensive chances” when he’s on the ice.

“It’s always kind of been a part of my game,” said Gagner, the Oilers’ first-round pick, sixth overall, in 2007 who centred the team’s top ‘kid’ line his rookie season alongside Robert Nilsson and Andrew Cogliano, scoring 49 points.

“Ultimately, I think you have to play hard on both ends of the rink, do your best to be solid defensively and not give up anything, and then when you have the opportunity, you’ve got to try and create some chances.”

Over his time with the Oilers and beyond — Edmonton traded him to the Arizona Coyotes in 2014, with stops in Philadelphia, Columbus and Vancouver before returning in 2019 and leaving a year later for Detroit followed by Winnipeg — Gagner’s game evolved, settling into checking roles.

“Whether it goes in or not, it’s just an opportunity for your team to gain momentum and help the other lines coming on the ice by playing in the (offensive) zone,” Gagner said of his focus now back with the Oilers. “It’s something I’m going to try and focus on is creating and getting to the net and doing my best to help in any area that’s called upon.”

Woodcroft, who coached Gagner in Bakersfield for a four-game stint in 2019-20, said the team hopes to draw upon the 34-year-old’s varied experience.

“He’s been everything from a first-round pick to a first-line player to finding a way to stay in the league for as long as he has,” Woodcroft said. “He has a skill set about him. I think he’s an elite thinker.” 

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