Canucks’ Gagner, Del Zotto back together and ready to surprise

Vancouver Canucks defenceman Michael Del Zotto talks to reporters about free agency, overcoming adversity early in his career, and preparing himself for an upcoming leadership role with the Canucks.

They’re nearly the same age, have played together before, signed very similar contracts this summer and can’t wait to start a new career phase with the Vancouver Canucks.

And when they’re talking to each other, which happens pretty often, Michael Del Zotto and Sam Gagner can easily find even more common ground.

“We’ve both been through some ups and downs,” Del Zotto said.

Down has become a familiar place for the Canucks the past couple years, as the once-mighty club tries to redefine itself while eschewing a full-scale teardown. As part of the push to improve, Vancouver snapped up both Gagner and Del Zotto as soon as it was officially able to do so on July 1, inking Gagner to a three-year deal worth $3.15 million annually, while Del Zotto agreed to $3 million per season for the next two years.

“It’s exciting,” said Gagner, who is in Toronto this week with Del Zotto as part of the Power Edge Pro Hockey skills camp. “We’ve got a group that can surprise some people. We’ve just got to come to camp ready and hopefully get off to a good start and go from there.”

Gagner, who turns 28 next week, is already off to a solid beginning of sorts just by virtue of knowing where he’ll be come September. Last summer, Gagner went the entire month of July twisting in the wind before signing a one-year deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets worth $650,000 on Aug. 1. That barely above-the-minimum salary represented an enormous pay cut and came on the heels of a miserable season in Philadelphia, where Gagner struggled to stay in the lineup on a team that also featured Del Zotto enduring challenges of his own.

In Columbus, Gagner found new life thanks largely to the opportunity he received on the man advantage. Though he averaged fourth-line minutes with 13:43 of nightly ice time, Gagner was always part of the first trio over the boards as soon as the Blue Jackets went on the power play, producing 18 of his 50 points in that situation. Overall, his 2.70 points per 60 minutes paced the Blue Jackets and demonstrated an ability to succeed in all situations despite limited 5-on-5 exposure.

“I got a chance to play in an offensive role,” said Gagner, who was drafted sixth overall by the Edmonton Oilers in 2007. “Even at even strength, I was playing with offensive players and then on the power play, being on that first unit and getting a chance to play some really important minutes. When you get that added responsibility, it really gets you excited.

“Hopefully, in Vancouver, I’ll get a chance to play some important 5-on-5 minutes along with the power play and help the team get to another level.”

Del Zotto, a 20th-overall selection by the New York Rangers in 2008, would also like to see more of the ice this upcoming season than in years past. A mix of injuries and a few healthy scratches limited Del Zotto, who turned 27 on June 24, to just 51 games with the Flyers last season. In fact, the offence-minded blue-liner hasn’t missed fewer than 15 games in a season since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.

Del Zotto, who had a 37-point season as a 19-year-old rookie with the Rangers in 2009-10 and put up 41 points two years later for the Blueshirts, says his lay-it-on-the-line style can sometimes leave him prone to injury. With his ninth NHL campaign on the horizon, he’s trying to keep the tank topped up.

“A big thing I’ve been working on, more rest and treatment this off-season, not trying to push myself too much so I can last a little bit longer in the season,” he said.

If that means he, along with Gagner, can be at their best, this season might feel a touch shorter than recent ones for Canucks fans.