ST. PAUL, Minn. — When young Sam Gagner arrived in Edmonton back in 2007, the Oilers were rebuilding.
“Attention Toronto Maple Leafs,” advised this reporter, in a March 2008 piece in the National Post. “If you must rebuild, then this is the way to do it.”
“You feel it in the room,” gushed head coach Craig MacTavish. “I feel it and sense it, and normally if the coach feels it, you’re the last guy to feel the optimism of improvement.”
General manager Kevin Lowe, awash in money in the NHL’s new economy, issued a seven-year, $50 million Group 2 offer sheet to Buffalo’s Tomas Vanek that summer. When the Sabres matched it, the money still burning a hole in Lowe’s pocket, he settled on UFA defenceman Sheldon Souray at $27 million over five years.
“We’re building that foundation for the future: a great group of core guys,” a young Gagner said that autumn. “We’re getting better as a team and enjoying every moment.”
For Gagner, as for the Oilers, the future did not unfold quite as it seemed it would that fall. The sixth overall selection in the 2007 draft, Gagner would become the first of the rushed-into-the-rebuild Oilers first-rounders, playing 79 fairly productive NHL games as an 18-year-old.
“When it happened originally, I didn’t feel rushed,” he said on Sunday, freshly called up from the minor leagues by the 2019 Oilers, a team he ash circled back to after stops in Arizona, Philadelphia, Columbus and Vancouver. “I had a good first season (13 goals, 49 points), but when you go through some of the struggles, some of the losing, it affects everybody. Especially if you care.”
That’s the thing about Gagner, says 2007 teammate, Andrew Cogliano. He cares.
Lots of guys say they care, that they love the game. But with certain guys — like Gagner, whose father Dave played 946 NHL games — there’s another level.
“We’re still really good friends,” begins Cogliano. “What I see around the league that is needed, and he has, is very strong character and care. That strong passion and desire to play.
“It’s not that other guys don’t,” Cogliano explains. “Guys play the game, and they love it. But Gags, what he has is so important for a team. When you see a guy who is fully committed every single day, no matter what’s going on. Winning or losing… He’s committed, man.”
As it turns out, Gagner, who was farmed out to AHL Bakersfield at the end of training camp and called up by Edmonton on the weekend, is going to need every ounce of that commitment if he is to revive his NHL career. He has been in the minors in three of the past four seasons, an assignment that never gets easier.
“No. No it doesn’t,” he admits. “But, you’ve just got to take the punches as they come, and keep trying to get better.”
Cogliano came into the league as a scoring centre, but transitioned to his role as a speedy, penalty-killing depth guy upon being traded to Anaheim four seasons later.
Today, at age 30, Gagner has reached that spot in his career that many a top-six forward has stared down. He once had eight points in a game for the Oilers, but today Gagner doesn’t skate well enough to play top-six, offensive minutes.
He is no longer a centre, and now Gagner is trying to extend his career by playing a steady defensive game as a third- or fourth-line winger.
Seriously, who re-invents themselves at this age?
“Why not?” Gagner asks. “I think you can always add different layers to your game.”
“I was talking to the (Bakersfield) coaching staff about penalty killing, got a few reps there. I hadn’t penalty killed at the NHL level since Ralph Krueger was our coach. The penalty kill is a huge part of having a successful team, and any way you can help the team, chances are you’re going to be in the lineup more often than not.”
When GM Ken Holland sent Gagner down, he advised him to keep his eyes open in Bakersfield. Watch how player development works. See how a minor league operation is run.
Basically, he was telling Gagner that the next career may not be far away. So use his time wisely.
“There are a lot of guys who have trouble when their career ends, not having a vision for what they want to do next,” said Gagner, who will make an excellent front office type one day. “But at the same time, I’m 30 years old. I have a lot of good hockey left, and I feel like it’s going to be in the NHL.
“When you go through these ups and downs, it’s easy to get down on yourself. You just have to keep pushing forward. There are a lot of examples of guys who spend time in the minors, make their way back, and have another few years at the NHL level.
“I still feel like I can be a really important part of things here, and help this team grow. Things are going really well here. I want to come in and help that out.”
The circle is complete for Gagner, who may or may not get into the lineup Tuesday night in St. Paul versus the Wild, depending on injuries. The rebuild he was so high on back in 2007 may have finally — finally — taken hold. Now, he’s just looking for a seat on the bus.
He won’t earn that seat as a first line centre, the way he once did. Today, grisled by 47 AHL games in the past 13 months, he’ll make the Oilers as fourth-line winger.
“I think I’m a lot calmer than I was earlier in my career,” he said. “I understand that it’s not always going to be an easy road.”