WINNIPEG - Sam Gagner knows he wasn’t brought in to be an offensive dynamo.
Nor was he signed by the Winnipeg Jets late in the off-season to be a physical force.
But what the veteran forward of 967 NHL regular season games (and counting) does bring is a high level of professionalism and consistency that should allow him to move comfortably into the Swiss Army knife role that coaching staffs - and teammates - value a great deal.
“I came into the league as more of an offensive-minded player and played a lot on the power play and in offensive situations,” said Gagner, who inked a one-year deal with the Jets on Sept. 2. “I don’t think I’ve lost that mentality, but I’ve evolved in the sense that I played a lot on the penalty kill last year and I played in more defensive situations.
“I’ve had to learn during the course of my career how to be effective in those situations and I think I’m a player that can play in any situation and find a way to have success.”
You don’t find the longevity Gagner has enjoyed without being able to add multiple tools to the toolbox and that’s an area the sixth-overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft has taken a great deal of pride in over the years.
Given that aforementioned evolution in his game, it’s easy to forget Gagner once produced an eight-point game (four goals, four assists) in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks as a member of the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 2, 2012 and finished third in team scoring (with 50 points) as an 18-year-old rookie during that 2007-08 season.
The 33-year-old is about to suit up for his seventh NHL organization (he played for the Oilers on two different stints) and while some may use the term well-travelled in a derogatory fashion, it should be viewed as a badge of honour.
This is a player who clearly loves the game and is willing to do whatever it takes to stave off the long line of folks trying to steal his job.
“I've learned over my time in the league to just be flexible with anything,” said Gagner, who has recorded 184 goals and 505 NHL points. “There's situations that go on through the season that you have to be ready for. I've played every forward position on every line throughout my career and sometimes all in the same year. I think you have to learn to be adaptable. You have to show up every day and do your job and let the chips fall where they may.”
That circuitous path for Gagner included several stints in the American Hockey League late in his career, including one in 2015-16 with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, one in 2018-19 with the Toronto Marlies and another in 2019-20 with the Bakersfield Condors.
A demotion of that magnitude could sink the spirits of an individual who had not spent a day in the minors before that, but it simply provided some additional fuel and perspective for someone who seems very comfortable in what he brings to the table.
But even having a father (Dave) who played nearly 1,000 games in the NHL and is his “No. 1 sounding board” didn’t prepare Gagner for all the ups-and-downs he’s endured to this point.
Reflecting on many of the rocky moments helped Gagner appreciate the journey he’s been on.
“You start to understand it's an everyday league. Nothing is given and there's different circumstances that happen throughout a year. Different challenges that test you. That's, to me, what makes it special,” said Gagner. “Like you've said, I've been on the high end of things, I've been on the low end of things, and when you take a step back to reflect, you enjoy it all. You enjoy the process. You enjoy coming to the rink and trying to get better. I have a blast doing it and I want to do it as long as I can.
“With some of the struggles I've had - you get sent down to the minors. It happened to me in Philadelphia, it happened to me in Vancouver, and again in Edmonton - you start to look at the fact that it can be over at any time. I love to play the game. I love coming to the rink trying to get better. And you really don't want to take any of that for granted. Being part of a team and being able to compete, it's all so much fun. Regardless of when you go through those roadblocks and adversity, it's challenging, but every time I've looked back on it, it's made me a better person, a better player, and you have to enjoy those moments as well.”
Part of being a guy with some tread on the tires means that it can be a bit easier to transition to a new team and a new coaching staff.
You know what to expect and you have a clear idea on the best route to fitting in.
After the departure of veteran Paul Stastny to the Carolina Hurricanes as a free agent, there’s a steady dose of both production and leadership that needs to be filled.
But thanks in part to his vast array of experience, Gagner wasn’t making any bold proclamations about where he might fit into either one of those scenarios, though it’s already apparent he will be helping to fill the void on both fronts.
“I think you just have to show up and compete every day. Bring that preparation and work ethic to the ice,” said Gagner. “That's how you build respect among your teammates and you start to have a voice in the room. I think that's the main thing. I try to take care of myself, I try to be professional and work hard, and hopefully over time you build that trust and respect among your teammates and become a bigger part of things.”
Gagner has started camp on the Jets' fourth line with centre David Gustafsson and Dominic Toninato (Morgan Barron could factor into the equation here, but he’s yet to participate with the main group as he deals with an upper-body injury) and that’s not to say he won’t be used in an enhanced role at some point.
Like the recently retired Mathieu Perreault before him, Gagner is the type of guy who can move easily up and down the lineup, depending on injuries or if a line might need a spark.
“He’s a veteran guy, hangs on to the puck and makes plays,” said Jets head coach Rick Bowness. “I talked to Sam when we got him and said ‘I remember you as an 18-year-old kid in Edmonton.’ You come in as an 18-year-old and you think you’re going to play forever, you’re going to be a top player forever. It’s a tough league. The guys that don’t make an adjustment to their games, don’t last very long. They don’t play 1,000 games like Sam is going to do.
“He’s adjusted. He’s accepted the role. So all of a sudden he’s not a top six on some teams, he never complained, he kept working on his game. They needed him to kill penalties last year in Detroit. He stepped in and did a great job. He couldn’t have done that 10 years ago. He’s smart enough to figure out how to survive in the league. You make adjustments to your game the older you get. Your role changes and you can accept it or fight it. If you fight it, you’re not going to keep playing. So give him credit for that.”