TORONTO – When you sign a three-year, $9.45-million NHL contract one season, the last place you imagine starting the next is living at your parents’ house, three time zones away, and skating for some other franchise’s farm team.
Yet here Sam Gagner is.
Property of the Vancouver Canucks through 2019-20, Gagner is leading the Toronto Marlies in goals (three), points (five) and shots (11) after riding the buses for three games in three cities over a whirlwind four days and trying to wrap his brain around why Vancouver no longer wants him.
“I was shocked,” Gagner told Sportsnet after Tuesday’s practice.
“I didn’t expect it. I didn’t see it coming. I felt like I had a good enough camp and I’d shown enough in my 11 years that I was able to make the team.”
Waived last week when Jim Benning had to submit the Canucks’ Opening Night roster, the 29-year-old forward was part of a six-pack of experienced free agents the GM brought to Vancouver in the summer of 2017 who’ve fallen out of the organization’s good books.
In addition to Gagner, Patrick Wiercioch, Alex Burmistrov and Thomas Vanek are gone. Goaltender Anders Nilsson has yet to see action this season, and defenceman Michael Del Zotto is being healthy-scratched Tuesday.
“With these young kids coming, this could happen more and more,” Benning told reporters upon waiving Gagner. “We’re going to have to make tough decisions.
“We were hoping he would produce points.”
Management’s message to Gagner?
“Basically that I didn’t make it. They have a lot of bodies, and they feel the forward group they have can get it done,” Gagner said.
A deep exhale.
“So I was surprised by it based on the fact they signed me last summer. I came to camp prepared, I had a really good summer of work, I did well on the [fitness] tests, I thought I played pretty well in pre-season, but you just… you try not to worry about it. I’m still playing hockey.”
And if that’s not in Vancouver, the Ontario native is grateful it’s in Toronto.
For one, the Utica Comets are pressed near the AHL’s five-veteran limit, which might’ve spelled AHL scratches.
More important, Gagner’s young family — wife Rachel and sons Cooper, 3, and Beckham, 1 — have remained back in Vancouver, and Gagner requested they keep within a direct flight away.
Cooper just celebrated his first day of school, but Sam expects he’ll be flying east to cheer Dad on at Coca-Cola Coliseum and visit his grandparents’ in Oakville, a short drive from the Marlies practice facility.
“We have a lot of afternoon games here. That helps,” Gagner said. “He’s not able to get to a lot in Van because they’re nighttime games.”
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If Gagner outgrows life at Mom and Dad’s, childhood friend and Maple Leafs centre John Tavares has extended an open billet invitation.
“I might. He’s offered up a room,” Gagner said. “I don’t know what the future holds, so I’m taking it day by day.”
Albeit curious — one team dressing an opponent’s asset — the Gagner-Leafs relationship is a symbiotic one. There is an agreement that should the Canucks recall and return Gagner, his AHL landing spot will remain the Marlies, not the Comets.
In Toronto, the player can extend his private summer skating lessons with Leafs skating guru Barb Underhill into fall and take advantage of all the funding Toronto pumps into its development and sports-science programs.
“The way they treat the guys and the resources we have, it’s pretty incredible for an American League team,” Gagner said.
“That’s obviously great of them to welcome me. It’s not something they had to do. I’m very thankful to the Leafs organization for allowing me to come here and just play hockey and show that I’m capable of playing at a high level.”
In turn, the Leafs expect Gagner’s work habits, drive and professionalism to serve as the model for their forward prospects.
It’s no accident that Gagner has been placed on a line with highly touted left wing Carl Grundstrom, or that he and Jeremy Bracco could be spotted in a Coliseum hallway chatting as they sprayed down their stick blades prior to Monday’s home opener.
“We didn’t think twice about it,” Marlies GM Laurence Gilman says. “The veterans that comprise your roster are so critically important to the culture of your organization.”
Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe says Gagner has been an easy fit. He credits Gagner’s versatility to play wing or centre and is impressed by his positive response to abruptly being cut 770 games into his NHL career.
“Even today on the ice, he’s very engaged. Wants to learn. He’s listening. That’s all we really can ask for,” Keefe said. “All things considered, he’s happy to be here.”
Gagner jumps at the chance to play role model here, although he does note that he was embracing that same function with rebuilding Vancouver.
Being thrown directly into games has helped Gagner adjust to hockey purgatory. The goals don’t hurt either.
“You feel good about yourself,” said Gagner, who managed 10 goals and 21 assists for offence-deprived Vancouver last season. Not enough by Benning’s standard.
“There’s an opportunity for me here to show I can play at a high level. I played well on the weekend, but there’s still another level I can get to in terms of growing my overall game.”
Considering there’s two full seasons on Gagner’s contract, this experiment thrusts Keefe into an tricky spot. How do you give valuable ice time to an opponent’s player when the Leafs’ own prospects need game action to develop?
“I think the easy answer is, I’d just approach Sam like I would any of our other veteran people,” Keefe says. “We’re trying to win games and create a winning environment, but we’re well aware of what our No. 1 priority is here, which is to produce big-league players.”
So as Gagner could aid in, say, Grundstrom’s ascent to the NHL, strong performances by youngsters like Grundstrom could also assist the 2007 first-rounder claw his way back.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Can this contract-free investment between Sam Gagner and the Toronto Maple Leafs lead to a real deal?
“You hope to make an impression on everybody. I take pride in my work habits and my professionalism and coming to the rink every day trying to get better. Being in an organization, they’ll be able to see that on a day-to-day basis, so hopefully that rubs off on them,” Gagner responds.
“At the end of the day, I want to show that I’m capable to every team — and the Canucks as well. I feel like I can be a productive, effective NHLer, not just a guy who plays in the NHL.
“I feel I can be a really good player, and I’ve shown that at times in my career. When I’ve gotten the opportunity to do so, I’ve been pretty productive.”
Gagner has an AHL opportunity, a shot to claw his way back, somewhere, anywhere. And one weekend in, man, he’s been productive.
So, now what?
“Keep moving forward, I guess.”