When the Edmonton Oilers brought him into training camp a month ago on a professional tryout, Sam Gagner was a 16-year NHL veteran.
When he steps onto the ice to make his season debut Thursday at Rogers Place, it will officially mark a 17th season for the 34-year-old, who was originally drafted sixth overall by the Oilers in 2007.
He is now back for a third stint with the team after sitting out the pre-season in order to continue working his way back from double hip surgery.
“Really good,” he said of his rehabilitation progress that involved going down to the American Hockey League farm in Bakersfield, Calif. “I played three games, two of them on a back to back and played a good amount of minutes and they held up really well. I’m really happy with how it’s come along.
“It was more just kind of getting my timing back and getting the feel of playing in games, but the hips feel great and I’m excited to go.”
Gagner had a goal and four assists in those three games with the Condors before signing a one-year, two-way contract Tuesday with the Oilers at $775,000.
“This is where you want to be and I’m feeling good. It’s nice to play some games and get back to just playing hockey,” Gagner said following Wednesday’s practice at Rogers Place. “And I’m excited to get going here.”
His first post-surgery NHL test will come Thursday against the visiting Dallas Stars.
“I’m definitely more mobile not having to deal with pain, it’s something that’s really helpful,” he said. “I think when you go through your summer training and even just being able to stay on the ice late to work on things and work on your speed, it just becomes more and more difficult.
“So, I’m really happy with how they feel and now it’s just a matter of going out there and playing as hard as I can and helping this team win some games.”
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He’s done it before, on occasion. Almost single-handedly, in fact. Who can forget the night he had a point on all eight Oilers goals in an 8-4 doubling of the Chicago Blackhawks at the old Rexall Place on Feb. 2, 2012?
He and Mario Lemieux are the only players who can say they’ve done that.
Sure, it was a dozen years ago and these days Gagner is well on to the backside of his career. But the Oilers don’t need him to be Lemieux, or even a younger version of himself. They are looking for his veteran experience to help ignite a bottom six that has become stagnant.
“That grouping of five or six players in the bottom part of our forward group, we’re looking for more,” said Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft. “We are looking for more.
“And can Sam come in and make a play? That’s what our hope is. We’re about to find out.”
‘He’s an elite thinker’
Woodcroft isn’t simply taking a flier on a veteran who has been well-established in the league, either.
“I got to know Sam a bit through training camp a few years ago and then he ended up in Bakersfield for a little bit,” Woodcroft said. “I think Sam’s a professional. Sam has good experience in this league, 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.
“He has a skillset about him, I think he’s an elite thinker.”
One with 1,015 NHL games over 16 prior seasons, recording 192 goals and 327 assists for 519 points while averaging 15:46 of ice time per game.
“For him to come in, he’s an accepted member of that locker room, people respect his experience level and his skill level and we’re excited he’s here,” Woodcroft said.
Defenceman Mattias Ekholm is also in his 17th season of professional hockey and has proven a solid addition to the Oilers roster after being picked up at last year’s trade deadline.
“He’s just a good guy, overall just really nice to have around and he’s just a positive influence,” Ekholm said of Gagner. “He’s got a ton of experience, obviously, playing over 1,000 games and I think he still has a lot left in the tank — especially in his head.
“He’s so energetic, just wants to be out there and work hard and knows that it’s coming toward the end of his career, but he’s still embracing it. So, it’s great to see him up here and I’m excited to play with him.”
While it’s not all on Gagner to make the difference offensively, he is certainly looking to provide a spark.
“It’s always been a part of my game trying to create offensive chances, having some poise with the puck and making plays,” Gagner said. “Ultimately, I think you have to play hard at 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 to create some chances. 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 O-zone.”
E-mail: [email protected]
On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge