If the St. John’s IceCaps had been a Broadway show Wednesday, they would have universally panned by the critics. But reviews would have probably been much kinder for Aaron Gagnon ... and not just out of pity.
For what it’s worth, Gagnon was the best player on a team that was very bad in a 4-0 loss, even as he remained pointless on the season and saw his career-worst scoreless streak stretched to 18 games. But the 26-year-old centre from British Columbia was at his finest long after the game was over, after his skates had come off and his gear had been hung up.
That’s when Gagnon, the poster boy for the woes of an IceCaps team on a franchise-worse five-game losing streak, stood before reporters for nearly eight minutes and answered questions about what he and his teammates are going through.
The weight of importance of character on sports team is often debated, but if character is of more than cursory significance, then there may be hope for Gagnon and the IceCaps.
His eight-minute pitch and catch was not exactly revealing, beyond what you would expect. Apparently he is not sacrificing anything in an effort to change his or St. John’s fortunes. He has not built a grotto in his backyard. He is not citing the NHL lockout or pointing to an ever-lengthening IceCaps’ injury list or blaming the positioning of the stars this autumn.
He just politely and patiently listened, then politely and patiently answered, even managed a little bit of humour as he discussed his current grim state.
“I think I was saying that after my third game,” Gagnon replied when asked if he thought it might take a greasy, off-his-behind sort of goal to break through the glacial freeze that’s gripped his game.
“But it’s been dragging on, so you try not to look at stats and just look at other parts of your game that you can work on.”
Those numbers show no goals, no assists, 12 penalty minutes and a minus-two rating. This from a player who scored 63 goals and added 88 assists in 260 games in his last four AHL seasons; a player who once had 42 goals as captain of the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds; a player who had earned a one-way NHL contract this season, meaning somebody on the parent Winnipeg Jets expected him to make the big club this fall had there not been the lockout.
Instead, he finds themselves in unfamiliar territory with no guidebook, no past experience to draw on.
Yes, he had just one assist in 25 games for the Iowa Stars after a promotion from the ECHL in 2007-08, his first pro season. But that, says Gagnon, was then, and nothing like now.
“I can’t say I’ve been in a rut like this before,” he said. “My first year, I was in and out of the lineup, so that was different. Since then, I’ve earned my stripes and I’ve put up points and been a big part of teams.
“There’s no excuse for it.”
So he puts in extra work after practice, “trying some things,” looking for a way to turn that rut into a groove. He spends extra time going over video with the coaching staff. And he refuses to give up on himself.
“You can’t sit around and expect it to get better,” he said. “You have to ... do something different when what you’re doing is not working. You have to put in extra effort and bear with it.”
That’s a tougher proposition considering that his slump continues as the IceCaps, who have been mostly been no better than a .500 team this season, slide well below that median mark.
“Obviously, it hasn’t been the start of the year I wanted or the team wanted,” said Gagnon. “(But) I’ve been on teams where you go through things like this.”
Still, maybe never this bad health-wise.
On Wednesday, the IceCaps had 10 scratches, every one an injury case.
“But you can’t blame injuries. Bottom line is we haven’t been good enough,” said Gagnon. “
“The (injured) guys are there ... always around, so you know what’s going on, but we’ve (still) got a lot of good players here ... a lot of good forwards capable of playing this game well and making a good team.
“Getting better is about fundamentals. It’s hard work. It’s execution. Right now, it seems like one of those things is missing every time out. We’ve had good fundamentals, but no execution. We worked really hard the last few games (prior to Wednesday), but we can’t break through and get that extra goal we need.
“Then we have good chances, but the work ethic is not there.”
Gagnon had a great chance to end his slump Wednesday during a first-period penalty kill, when he burst into the Hershey zone, squeezed past a check along the boards and sent a pass to linemate Ben Maxwell, alone in front of an open Bears’ net.
But the puck bounced over the stick of Maxwell, another struggling player. He has 60 shots this season — second-most on the team — but just one goal.
It was a play that was very representative of how things have been for St. John’s this fall.
And the spotlight is even hotter as it shines on struggling players like Gagnon who had 27 goals for the Texas Stars in 2009-10 and Maxwell, who had 142 points, including 49 goals, in a 177-game, three-season stay with the Hamilton Bulldogs now that so many key performers are missing due to injury, and the team, as a whole, is struggling to score.
“We’ve got a group of guys who are — quote, unquote — offensive guys,” said IceCaps’ head coach Keith McCambridge, “guys who have been struggling to find their games for a good portion of the season.
“We need them. We need those guys.”
“Gags ... I thought his last two games, I’ve seen some positive things there. (On that play) he drives it down the wall, gets the puck to the middle and it hops over Maxy’s stick.
“He’s frustrated. We’re frustrated. But I’m tired about talking about crossbars and posts and pucks hopping. We’ve got to find ways to get those pucks in the net.”
The IceCaps’ next opportunity to do so and to change their fortunes comes tonight as they open a road trip in Springfield against the Falcons.
The same goes for Gagnon, whose desperation to erase the goose eggs on his stats line means that he’d have no problem celebrating an assist on an empty-net goal, especially since that kind of tally would almost certainly be part of an IceCaps’ victory.
“I’ll take anything right now,” he said.