Sam Gagner knows he needs to be better.

Expectations were high on the Edmonton Oilers centre heading into the year having taken his game to a new level last season.

But a stick in the mouth did more than just break his jaw and rearrange his teeth. It set Gagner back and left him chasing a season he’s been able to catch up to.

“I think he’s better than from when he first came back,” Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins said. “I think it’s a bunch of dominos with him. When he came back we were in such a horrible place, he felt like the team needed him and we did. I think he rushed getting back maybe before he was quite ready or quite comfortable for the good of the team.

“If you’re not quite ready physically or mentally — and it doesn’t have to be much in this league, you just have to be a little bit off and it’ll show in your game — when you’re off that little bit, it’s easier to go into a deeper hole. I think he’s been slowly getting better.”

Gagner had been playing well during the preseason before taking a vicious one-handed slash in the face from Vancouver Canucks winger Zack Kassian.

The incident earned Kassian a five-game suspension and cost Gagner nearly a month of the season.

With the Oilers thin up the middle and stumbling out of the gate, Gagner rushed back to the lineup, in hindsight, perhaps too soon.

“I don’t know,” Gagner said. “I think regardless it’s hard coming back when you’ve missed the first part of the season. It would have taken me some time no matter when I was coming back.

“I think there was a little hesitancy with the jaw, that’s not an excuse for me. I think there was a stretch for me where I was producing I was playing well and I was helping the team win. I can do that again. I can’t use any of those things as an excuse.”

Heading into Monday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets, Gagner has four goals and eight assists in 25 games.

More concerning, however, is his minus-16 rating, which is among the worst in the NHL.

Gagner has always had his defensive deficiencies, but in the past they’ve been offset with offensive production. Now both parts of his game are struggling with just a goal to show in the Oilers current six-game losing skid.