In the end, all it took were six injuries, including the long-term absences of half the National Hockey League team’s centres and both first-line wingers, five straight losses, a power-play nosedive and point-per-game work by Gagner in the American Hockey League, where he was loaned to another club’s farm team.
Just seven weeks after he went unclaimed through waivers, Gagner is back with the Canucks. The 29-year-old forward has saved his NHL career once before, and he’ll try to do it again starting tonight against the Winnipeg Jets.
“I think you play to prove yourself every day,” Gagner said after Monday’s morning skate. “As long as the Canucks had my rights, I think I was expecting I had to play well to try to get back to the Canucks. At the end of the day, you want to be in the NHL. I signed here thinking I was going to be a big part of things in helping the culture and helping to move this team forward. And I still feel that way.
“Now that you have time to reflect on it, I don’t really see this as a negative. I think it allowed me to go down there and play in a lot of different situations and be an important guy for them. It allowed me to build some confidence. Anytime you go through situations like that, it just helps you become stronger. Adversity is a great way to help you become a better person and a better player, and I feel better for it.”
After being outplayed by younger players in the pre-season – as general manager Jim Benning and coach Travis Green explained it – Gagner was waived by the Canucks on Oct. 1, just 15 months after signing a three-year, $9.45-million contract. Benning said he was unable to find another team willing to take Gagner in a trade.
Unclaimed, Gagner asked the Canucks to loan him to the Toronto Marlies, the Maple Leafs’ minor-league team, rather than play for the Utica Comets.
A father of two toddlers, one of them in pre-school, Gagner wanted to play close to home in Toronto in order to see his wife and kids, who initially stayed behind in Vancouver.
Playing for the Marlies, Gagner produced seven goals and 15 points in 15 games and continued to play well even when the Canucks recalled other players after Jay Beagle broke his forearm on Oct. 13 and Brandon Sutter dislocated his shoulder on Oct. 29.
Green said the team considered recalling Gagner last week, but wanted to see if it could pull itself out of a losing streak that followed a 4-0-2 run. Vancouver couldn’t. The Canucks’ 3-2 loss Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens was their fifth straight (0-4-1) and the third time in two weeks the team has blown a third-period lead.
“We wanted to continue with the group we have and see how it went,” Green explained Monday. “I just feel like it’s good timing to bring him in right now, especially after an emotional loss the other day.
“I like Sam a lot as a person and as a pro. I’m excited for him to be back – for him. I think it’s good timing for our team. I don’t think I have to say a lot to him; he’s not a young guy who’s up and down. I just want him to play and play his best, and I think we’re going to get his best.”
Gagner’s NHL career appeared to be in jeopardy in 2015-16 when the Philadelphia Flyers sent him to the minors. But the Columbus Blue Jackets signed him for 2016-17 and Gagner delivered a 50-point season, earning his three-year deal with the Canucks, his fifth NHL team.
“Hockey is hockey and you just go down there and play and try to get better,” Gagner said. “It’s just the family stuff that becomes a little difficult. But my wife is so supportive and my kids are at an age where dad’s away sometimes, and they just kind of get used to it. That was the difficult part.”
Gagner is expected to play on one of the Canucks’ top two lines against the Jets, and get a look on a power-play unit that has sputtered without sniper Brock Boeser, who has missed nine games with a groin injury and doesn’t appear to be close to returning despite a brief solo skate on Monday.