By Tim Panaccio , Philadelphia Inquirer --- December 30, 2000
TAMPA, Fla. - As usual, the defenseman was backing off as Simon Gagne came roaring up the right side, cut to the outside and came to a quick stop at the right circle.
Gagne surveyed the situation, then wristed a tough shot on net that Rick Tocchet rebounded past Florida goalie Trevor Kidd.
Just another assist, another point, another fine play by Gagne, the Flyers' sophomore left wing, who happened to be on the right side during that shift.
No matter where he plays - left wing, right wing or center - the 21-year-old has become an impact player with the Flyers in less than two years.
"He gets stronger and stronger and has been a terrific force for us this year," teammate Mark Recchi said. "He's learning more about playing left wing and you can see the results now. Tocchet gets speed going through the neutral zone and that's a great combination with him."
Since being paired with Daymond Langkow and Tocchet six games ago, Gagne has four goals and four assists for eight points.
Gagne leads the Flyers in goals (15) and points (30) and is plus-12, second on the team. That is pretty impressive stuff for a kid who was drafted with the 22d pick in the 1998 draft. That draft turned out to be perhaps the strongest first round since 1993, when players like Chris Pronger, Chris Gratton, Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott, Adam Deadmarsh, Jason Allison, Saku Koivu and Rob Niedermayer were taken.
"We had our fingers crossed from 10 on down that Simon might be there," said Flyers assistant general manager Paul Holmgren, who oversees the scouting department and the draft.
"When we got Simon, he was under 6 feet and not even 170 pounds. We had no idea how he'd fill out and what kind of player he'd turn into. He caught a lot of people's eyes. His speed continues to be his greatest attribute. He really makes people back off.'
A dozen players from the 1998 draft have made an impact in the NHL. They are Vincent Lecavalier, taken first overall by Tampa Bay; David Legwand (2d, Nashville); Brad Stuart (3d, San Jose); Vitali Vishnevsky (5th, Anaheim); Alex Tanguay (12th, Colorado); Martin Skoula (17th, Colorado); Dimitri Kalinin (18th, Buffalo); Robyn Regehr (19th, Colorado, now with Calgary); Gagne; Milan Kraft (23d, Pittsburgh); Jiri Fischer (25th, Detroit); and Scott Gomez (27th, New Jersey).
Others, such as Manny Malhotra (7th, Rangers) and Mathieu Biron (21st, Los Angeles, now with the Islanders) have become role players.
"That was a pretty good, strong year," Holmgren said.
Of that group, only Tanguay (34 points) and Lecavalier (31) have more points than Gagne this season. None has more goals than him.
"Sometimes, I look at my draft," Gagne said. "Like Tanguay and Lecavalier, to see how I rank myself in the league. I felt a lot like Tanguay. I have to challenge those guys, like Gomez. Every night I play against those guys and I feel I have to challenge because they play the same style as me."
Of the six drafts in the 1990s under Flyers general manager Bob Clarke, it's safe to say that Gagne figures to be the player who blossoms into an NHL superstar. Some might say he's the sleeper of the '98 draft.
"I don't know if I am," Gagne said. "I know I was 22 and [there were] some good guys before me. Some people thought I was a little bit too small. And they didn't believe I could play. Right now, I just want to prove to those people that I can play in the league."
Biron, a defenseman, reportedly was the player the Flyers had their sights on in that '98 draft. When he was taken by the Kings, the Flyers' Quebec scout, Simon Nolet, argued hard in favor of Gagne and won the debate at the draft table.
"Simon liked both Biron and Gagne, and he probably saw them play more than anyone," Holmgren recalled. "I'm not sure what we would have done if Biron had still been there at 22. We got into the same thing the next year with Ouellet."
Indeed, Nolet's judgment won out again the following year when he swayed the Flyers into taking goalie Maxime Ouellet (22d) after Boston had snapped up Nick Boynton with the previous pick. Boynton was another player the Flyers liked.
As a winger, Gagne is making the adjustment to getting the puck across the ice to his linemates, handling himself along the boards without being trapped, and using his speed to complement Langkow's agility and Tocchet's knack for getting to the net.
Gagne's ability as a playmaker suggests that down the line, center might be his best position.
"Center is a very, very tough position in terms of responsibility," Flyers coach Bill Barber said. "I think it is important for a young player to mature at the position he feels more comfortable with. When he goes onto the ice, he is reacting and not thinking what I am supposed to do. He's more natural. Maybe later on [move to center], who knows?"
Gagne said the biggest difference between his rookie season a year ago and now is confidence.
"Confidence - sometimes, it is easy to say that," Gagne said. "When you've got that, you are not scared to try the play you're not supposed to do in hockey. You have to play safe but sometimes, you have to make a dangerous play to score a nice goal. When you have confidence, you are not scared to try that."
A year ago, Gagne would not have surveyed things and tossed a wrist shot on net from the circle like he did against Florida. He would not have pulled up. He would have merely passed the puck on the fly.
"This year," he said, "I'm saying I'm more selfish, but maybe I will shoot the puck more."
He says it began in this past training camp when he felt like he "belonged" on the team.
"I knew right away I would be a big part of this team," Gagne said. "I was bigger, stronger and more comfortable with everything, and that gave me confidence."
Right now, that confidence is carrying the Flyers at a time when Recchi is slumping badly, there is no Eric Lindros and no John LeClair.
"He has three more levels," Tocchet said. "That's how good this kid can be."