VANCOUVER — Being a sixth-overall draft pick comes with a tonne of freight, and if you’re not careful the weight will crush you.
There are immense expectations and scrutiny, and constant comparisons to the 200 players drafted after you. The sixth-overall pick who falters is greeted not so much with criticism as derision.
Jake Virtanen? We’ll see. But we’re talking in this case of Vancouver Canuck teammate Sam Gagner, who probably saved his National Hockey League career last season with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“There isn’t a playbook,” Gagner, 28, said about navigating the violent turns in his career the last three years. “If someone had told me at 18 that when I’m 26, I was going to clear waivers and go to the minors, I wouldn’t have been happy about it. But having gone through it and come out the other side, and now being back, I wouldn’t trade it. It has really allowed me to grow as a person and a player and allowed me to handle the adversity of the season. Even in your best season, there will be some adversity.”
So imagine what it’s like in the bad seasons.
Gagner, who is from London, Ont., appeared on his way to becoming one of the great, young playmakers in the NHL when the sixth pick of the 2007 draft made the Edmonton Oilers two months after his 18th birthday and posted 36 assists and 49 points as a rookie in 2007-08.
But until last season, when he contributed 50 points for Columbus, Gagner never eclipsed his freshman mark over a full season.
Sure, he kept posting 40 points a year for the aimless Oilers, who proved team-building requires a lot more than accumulating young players and showering them with ice time and money.
Although Gagner’s points flat-lined and his team continued to be dreadful, the Oilers kept raising his salary and in 2013 signed him to a three-year extension worth $4.8 million a season.
A year later, the Oilers dumped his salary on the Tampa Bay Lightning, who in turn shuffled it on to the Arizona Coyotes.
One season later, the Coyotes upgraded the salary dump by taking Chris Pronger on their payroll in a multi-component deal that sent Gagner to the Philadelphia Flyers.
In 53 games in the final season of his lucrative three-year contract, Gagner contributed so little to the Flyers (16 points in 53 games) that Philadelphia waived him and assigned the veteran to Lehigh Valley of the American League.
So, at age 26, Sam Gagner made his minor-league debut. The Blue Jackets gambled a one-year, $650,000 contract on Gagner before last season.
“When you play on a team like we had a few years in Edmonton — we were out of the playoffs (race) pretty early — and you’re expected to kind of carry the load as a young guy, it can be a tough environment if you’re not mature enough to handle it,” Gagner said before the Canucks opened training camp here today. “You learn a lot about yourself.
“I’m at a point now and look back on the last few years, and I can kind of enjoy everything that’s happened to me. But at the time, there are things that go on and you wonder: ‘Why is this happening?’ But when you look back on it, you get a lot of strength from it and learn a lot about yourself and what it takes to be successful.
“I feel I’m a better player, a better person, for some of the things I’ve been through hockey-wise. I know there’s going to be adversity this year, as well. I think I’m better equipped to handle it that I was in the past.”
Gagner parlayed his salvation season in Columbus, where coach John Tortorella deployed him on the fourth line but gave him first-unit duties on the power play, into a three-year, free-agent deal with the Canucks worth $3.15 million per season.
Gagner is a bridge player, a guy with experience and versatility who will help the Canucks as the organization rebuilds. Then he will likely move on when some or all of Virtanen, Brock Boeser, Nikolay Goldobin, Jonathan Dahlen, Elias Pettersson and others develop into NHL forwards.
Ironically, Gagner, who briefly lost his way in the NHL, is being counted upon by Canuck coach Travis Green to help steer Vancouver’s kids in the right direction.
“What I like about him after talking with him is I think he’s learned the value of playing to win, and not necessarily for yourself,” Green said. “I like that he’s gone through some adversity and come back.
“He’s a guy that’s gone through a lot of different scenarios in the league, and I can see how he would help not just young guys, but guys that have played a few years in the league (when) maybe things aren’t going so well.”
Gagner practised Wednesday at left wing beside Brandon Sutter and Derek Dorsett. He could play anywhere among Green’s 12 forwards when the season starts.
“I don’t think you can say: ‘I wish I knew this when I was 19 or I wish I knew that,’” Gagner said. “You just have to go through it. You have to find ways to affect the game in a lot of different ways. And the way I play now, it doesn’t just have to be with offensive numbers that I affect the game. I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to feel good every day and be a true pro.”