One tough decision

Brendan McCarthy
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Gagnon’s struggles have provided an opportunity for Whitmore

St. John’s IceCaps’ winger Derek Whitmore (21), shown in an American Hockey League game against the Portland Pirates earlier this season, scored his first goal as an IceCap Sunday. It came in his seventh game with St. John’s and after he was inserted into the lineup in place of struggling forward Aaron Gagnon. — Telegram file photo

Because of injuries, St. John’s IceCaps head coach Keith McCambridge was left with just one lineup choice prior to the Icecaps’ American Hockey League game against the Providence Bruins at Mile One Centre.

But McCambridge says that call — which involved sitting struggling veteran Aaron Gagnon — was a tough one.

“Aaron Gagnon is a veteran American Hockey League player ... a bubble guy for the National league,” McCambridge told reporters after the IceCaps’ 6-0 win over the Bruins.

“It’s not (a decision) that I took lightly.”

If not for the National Hockey League lockout, there was every reason to expect the 26-year-old Gagnon would have been competing for a job with the parent Winnipeg Jets. He had already appeared in 28 big-league games with the Dallas Stars and Winnipeg and was entering the second year of a two-year contract, one which was becoming a one-way deal, a sure sign of prospective NHL status.

However, through 11 games with St. John’s this season, Gagnon — who had 14 goals and 34 points in 63 games with the IceCaps in 2011-12 — has yet to record a point. He continued to be a defensively capable centre — his plus-minus rating is minus one —  but for a player who once had 27 goals for the AHL’s Dallas Stars, more was expected offensively.

“When you get to that stage, you’ve already had meetings with that player to try to get his game turned around,” said McCambridge. “I’m sure he feels the same way, that his game is nowhere where it needs to be.

“We have players sitting, champing at the bit to play and I can’t sit around and wait for him to get his game.

“I waited and now he has to sit and in comes a player like (Derek) Whitmore to have his chance.”

Whitmore did pretty well with the opportunity, scoring his first goal for St. John’s (“I thought it was a goal-scorer’s goal,” remarked McCambridge about the tough-angle shot) and registering a half-dozen shots in the game. It amounted to a minor breakthrough for a player who totaled 55 goals for Buffalo Sabres’ AHL farm teams over the last couple of years.

 But Whitmore, who is with the IceCaps on a professional try-out contract, has struggled to break into the lineup, in large part because of the AHL’s veteran rule, which limits the amount of experienced players a team can dress in any game. Sunday’s was just his seventh game of the season, and came after he had watched four straight contests from the press box.

“It’s been tested a lot,” said Whitmore about his patience level this season. “I love my teammates here. It’s a great group of guys ... and practising is something I do enjoy. But it’s definitely not been an easy year for me.”

“From Day 1, Coach has told me to be patient and I’ve tried to be as patient as possible, but it’s not easy.”

Making it tougher are glimpses at the calendar. Whitmore’s PTO expires with the IceCaps’ 25th game on Dec. 11, at which time a decision will have to be made on whether to keep the 27-year-old left-winger on the roster.

Organizations: IceCaps, American Hockey League, Bruins National Hockey League Dallas Stars Winnipeg Jets Buffalo Sabres

Geographic location: Winnipeg

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