EDMONTON _ At the tender age of 23, Sam Gagner has already become one of the Edmonton Oilers’ “old guys.’’
Heading into his sixth NHL season, the shifty forward has reason to look at himself as one of the team’s veterans and leaders. Only four players in camp have been with the club as long as him Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky and Ladislav Smid.
“I want to look at it that way,’’ said Gagner, a soft-spoken native of London, Ont., “I’ve been here long enough. I want to be in a leadership role. I think I’m ready for that and I’m excited for that challenge.’’
Since joining the Oilers as an 18 year old, Gagner has helped welcome a series of even younger players: No. 1 draft picks Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, first-round pick Jordan Eberle and now free-agent defenceman Justin Schultz and another first-overall draft pick, Russian forward Nail Yakupov.
Through the first two days of training camp Gagner has been centring Yakupov and Hemsky, a trio the team is looking to for offensive production to back up the top line of Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle.
Gagner is excited about playing with Hemsky and Yakupov if head coach Ralph Kruger sticks with his lines, and with just a six-day camp that seems likely.
“They obviously have a lot of skill and a lot of speed,’’ he said. “For myself, I just have to make sure I’m pushing my legs every night and doing my best to help them out. And they can help me out and we should have great chemistry.
“(Yakupov) has got a lot of speed. Going first overall there’s a lot of pressure that goes with that but he seems to be handling that very well. He’s got a lot of skill and it should be fun playing with him.’’
Kruger sees a lot of potential in the trio.
“Hemmer’s really a setter and Nail’s got one of the best one-timers I’ve seen from a young player, ever. And a hard wrist shot to boot,’’ he said. “Ales, with his movement is excellent at finding players. And Sam can augment both of them.’’
Yakupov comes to the Oilers after two high-scoring seasons with Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League, 22 games this winter in the Russian KHL and a bronze medal with Russia at the world junior championship.
He comes with a reputation of being a speedy forward with great hands, but Kruger says he’ll face some big adjustments to the NHL.
“He’s coming from a Russian KHL league that is very passive in its forechecking systems a where everything happens very slowly,’’ Kruger said. “It’s not a very high pressure forechecking league. It’s more a transition league so he’s got a lot of adjustment to make to the speed we want in transition. But he’s very open, he’s been excellent the first few days.
“He’s got other adjustments as well but we’re a very patient coaching staff so we’re just going to do it piece by piece. We don’t want to overload him, lets let him do what he does best here early. Everyone needs to be patient with teaching him.’’
That could include Gagner, who says he’s willing if the coaching staff is looking for him to help mentor Yakupov.
“Nail has a lot of talent and he’s coming into the league at 18,’’ he said. “I came into the league at 18 and I feel I’ve learned a lot over my five years, there’s been a lot of ups and downs and I want to take my game to another level and if I can help him make the transition then so be it.’’
NOTES: Kruger announced Tuesday that Horcoff will remain the team captain with Hall, Eberle and Nick Schultz his assistants. Eberle will be a full-time assistant while Schultz and Hall will alternate game by game.