EDMONTON - After exceeding expectations with the Edmonton Oilers as the youngest player in the NHL last season, Sam Gagner is struggling to find his form in his sophomore campaign.
Fifth in rookie scoring with 49 points and seventh in voting for the Calder Trophy in 2007-08 as an 18-year-old, Gagner has just two assists through 11 games this season.
While Gagner is loathe to talk about the dreaded sophomore jinx, there's no question his start to the season has been disappointing after he set the bar so high a year ago.
"I don't really look at it too much," insists Gagner. "It's a long season. Guys go through slumps at different points of the season. Mine just happens to be now.
"I feel I'm playing well and I'm creating chances. If that wasn't happening, I'd be a little worried, but hopefully it's a matter of time and I can play solid hockey and put some points up."
After a 118-point season with the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights, Gagner was selected sixth overall in the 2007 NHL entry draft. He was not expected to land a roster spot in his first training camp with the Oilers.
Gagner stuck, then got off to a fast start with one goal and six assists in his first 11 games. By the time the Oilers hit the stretch drive to the playoffs in March, Gagner and linemates Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson - dubbed the Kid Line - were coach Craig MacTavish's most productive forwards.
While the Oilers fell short in their post-season bid despite a 14-5-1 finish, the Kid Line was nothing less than prolific. Only Ales Hemsky, with 20 points, was more productive than Gagner and Cogliano (both with 17 points) over that stretch.
Expectations were understandably high when training camp opened in September and MacTavish announced he'd keep the trio together.
"I think Sam is like any player, experienced or young. He needs something to go right offensively," MacTavish said. "He's a guy who has put up offensive numbers his whole career. He needs a break around the net."
Gagner picked up his first point this season with an assist in a 6-3 loss to Vancouver on Oct. 25. After a 4-0 start, MacTavish dismantled the Kid Line during a five-game losing streak, then put them back together for a slump-busting 3-1 win in Carolina last Saturday.
Gagner said he's confident his scoring touch will return.
"It's capable of happening any year if you forget how hard you have to work," he said. "People make a thing of the sophomore jinx, but a lot of guys have had bad fourth years or fifth years. It's just the way it happens."
Gagner has gone 13 games without a goal dating back to March 28 of last season.
"Sam's been playing fine," said Dustin Penner, who took a turn with Gagner and Cogliano on left wing when MacTavish juggled his lines. "Obviously, the puck's not going in, but he's had his chances.
"I think the sophomore slump thing is a cliche because it's got a nice ring to it. Everybody has to get going. The power play has to get going."
MacTavish has stuck with Gagner, giving him an average of 17:34 in ice time per game, almost two minutes more than the 15:40 he got last season. Gagner responded Sunday in Philadelphia by assisting on Sheldon Souray's power-play goal in a 5-4 win over the Flyers.
"We've got to get him some better offensive minutes where he can get something done," MacTavish said. "His game will grow because of that."
With eight goals in the last two games, maybe the Oilers' offensive woes are behind them. Likewise for Gagner, who is back alongside Cogliano and Nilsson, both of whom have four points, going into Columbus on Wednesday.
"I'm hoping I can turn things around here and I'm confident it'll happen," Gagner said.
"We're pretty competitive with each other. It's a healthy competition and we push each other. It's great to have them to push me and vice versa."
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