Sage advice for Oilers' dismantled Kid Line
Former NHLer Dave Gagner weighs in on struggles of son, Cogliano, Nilsson
As Edmonton Oilers fans anxiously await the return of the "real" Sam Gagner, his father, Dave, sits two time zones away in his London, Ont., home confident that better days are ahead for the promising forward.
The elder Gagner knows all about scoring slumps, having been through them "a hundred times" in the 1980s and '90s during his National Hockey League playing career.
"I don't think there's a player that's ever gone through stretches where things didn't go the way they wanted," Dave Gagner told CBCSports.ca. "As long as [Sam] continues to play the right way, things will eventually turn for him. I think he's handling it fairly well."
Through Nov. 13, young Sam had two assists and one goal in 16 games this season after finishing fifth in rookie scoring last year with 49 points as an 18-year-old.
His father didn't establish himself in the league until he was 23, splitting three of his first four seasons with the American Hockey League's New Haven Nighthawks and the NHL's New York Rangers, who drafted Dave 12th overall in 1983.
"I was a first-round pick of the New York Rangers and never panned out for them, so I felt like I had failed," said Dave, now the Vancouver Canucks' director of player development. "I ended up getting traded [to Minnesota] after I got passed in the waiver draft by everybody, and the next year, I scored 35 goals."
However, without the support from then-Nighthawks head coach Robbie Ftorek, he might not have spent the next 12 years in the NHL with four other teams and racked up 318 goals and 719 points in 946 games.
'Never take things for granted'
"He told me to quit worrying about the New York Rangers and just become a hockey player," said Dave Gagner of Ftorek, who later spent 10 years in the NHL as a head coach and assistant.
"I struggled with things for four years. I didn't really know who I was, how I was going to get [to the NHL] or whether I was going to get it done. You can never take things for granted.
"I think Sam understands that he's capable of [succeeding in the NHL]. It's just a matter of developing those good habits and maintaining them."
Late last season, Gagner and his linemates Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson carried an Oilers offence decimated by injuries to regular forwards Shawn Horcoff, Ethan Moreau, Raffi Torres and Fernando Pisani.
The trio, quickly dubbed the Kid Line, combined for 50 points in the last 20 games in Edmonton's failed bid to secure a playoff berth.
Through the first 15 contests this season, they combined for 12 points and a minus-9 rating. Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish dismantled the unit during a five-game losing streak in late October and again prior to the final two games of the team's recent seven-game, 12-day road trip.
"Forty years ago you'd have the same line for 10 years but now it's interchangeable every day," said Dave Gagner. "I don't think anybody expected they [the Kid Line] would be together all the time and I'm sure they'll be back together at some point. Right now, there's maybe a bit of chemistry that's better elsewhere."
So what happened to cause the Kid Line to lose its chemistry and fall off the rails this season amid high expectations?
A reduction in ice time, both at even strength and on the power play, was a contributing factor, Cogliano told CBCSports.ca during the recent road swing. The Toronto-born centre also said the line was checked more effectively by the opposition earlier this season than a year ago.
"There are a number of [scoring] chances we would probably want back," said the 21-year-old Cogliano, who last endured a similar slump in his first of two years at the University of Michigan in 2005. "You have to maintain confidence and believe in yourself that you can play well. You can always turn it around."
Added Sam Gagner: "I feel like I'm getting mentally stronger as the season goes on. It's a learning process and it helps that we have a lot of younger guys to go through it with."
Oilers coaches offer support
Cogliano credited MacTavish and the Oilers coaching staff for being supportive and offering encouragement to the club's younger players.
But like for Gagner, nothing tops a few words on the phone with his father, Carmen.
"I talk to my dad a lot," Cogliano said. "He knows my game and when I'm playing well and when I'm not, so he'll give me feedback."
Former Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe, while surprised all three members of the Kid Line have struggled at the same time, realized it could happen.
"I've seen [Wayne] Gretzky go on prolonged scoring droughts," Lowe, now the team's president of hockey operations, told reporters. "In those days [the 1980s], it might have been five games, but that's like 10 games today. It's not unique to them."
What's important, said Dave Gagner, is how players attempt to work their way out of a slump. Getting the necessary rest between games and eating properly are paramount, along with not forcing your game on the ice.
And because there is a thin line between success and failure at the NHL level, players must avoid distractions and be sharp physically and mentally.
"Sam has had a number of chances where he could have four or five goals right now, and he just didn't finish," said Dave, who along with his wife, Jo-Anne, talks to his son on a daily basis either by phone or text messaging.
"Those are the things he could practice a little bit more to build his confidence. That's also part of the enjoyment of being a hockey player, putting in that work and then getting rewards for it.
"The last few games I've watched, he's played very smart. He's making good decisions with the puck; he's creating things; he's making the right plays; his positioning is good; and he's winning faceoffs.
"If you're doing the little things well, it will lead to big things eventually."
In this case, the Oilers faithful are hoping father knows best.