Sam Gagner struggled in consecutive years heading into 2016-17, but the adversity helped him get tougher and his belief he could still contribute has led to a bounce back season in Columbus.
There was a point during the 2015-16 season where it looked like Sam Gagner’s time in the NHL could be over. On a middling Philadelphia Flyers squad, Gagner was mired in the bottom-six, demoted to the AHL for a stint and finished the campaign having been in and out of the lineup while producing the worst point total of his big league career.
Worst of all, Gagner, 26, was supposed to be in his prime. The sixth-overall pick in the 2007 draft, Gagner had consistently been a 40-plus point player and everything looked as though it was coming together in the lockout-shortened year when he scored 14 goals and 38 points in 48 games for the Oilers. But having followed that up with a 37-point campaign in 2013-14, Gagner found himself out of Edmonton, the only NHL city he had known, and on his way to Arizona come 2014-15.
Gagner’s points per game dropped for the second-straight season during his year with the Coyotes, and when he was shipped to Philadelphia ahead of the 2015-16 season, it was seen as another chance at a fresh start. Instead, it was one of the most difficult seasons of his career.
“It’s always hard to go through those struggles,” Gagner said of the consecutive down years in Arizona and Philadelphia. “But I truly believe that if you handle them the right way, the adversity can help shape you and help make you stronger. I feel like coming into this year I’m a lot stronger mentally than I maybe have been in the past.”
And if mental strength has been the biggest change in Gagner’s game, the 27-year-old might want to think about entering his brain into a strongman competition because the changes in Gagner’s play — and, most notably, his production — have been remarkable.
Entering the off-season as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, he landed a one-year, show-me deal with the Blue Jackets. It pays $650,000, which is more than $4 million less than Gagner had earned during the 2015-16 campaign. Gagner couldn’t care less about that, though, because he only wanted the shot at showing his game hadn’t gone anywhere.
“I still felt like I had a lot to give as a player and if I was able to get some opportunity, that I could help a team be successful,” Gagner said. “I think coming into Columbus, I got the chance to do that, I’m playing some really important power play minutes and in a lot of different situations. It’s definitely helped me add another level to my game, and it’s been a good fit.”
Good fit? There’s an understatement. The Blue Jackets, looking for someone to produce in the bottom-six and possibly push some of the youngsters to earn their place in the top-six, called on Gagner and he’s been dynamite. Through 45 games, his 14 goals and 33 points have him on pace for the best offensive season of his career. It’s been eye-opening for those thinking Gagner’s time as a productive player int he NHL was over. Least surprised of anyone, though, is Gagner, who said he expected this of himself and knew he put the work in to make it a reality.
“I feel confident in my game,” Gagner continued. “Obviously there are ebbs and flows during a season in terms of offense and whether the puck goes in the net or not, but it’s just a matter of staying consistent with it and having a proper mindset. A lot of the struggles in the past help you with that mindset.”
Gagner’s focus is shifting as the season progresses, however. While maintaining consistency in his game, he wants to help the Blue Jackets take the next step forward. For the organization, that’s going to mean not just a playoff appearance, but actually winning a round. And a Blue Jackets team that went on an unthinkable 16-game win streak has designs on a deep run.
Going on a month-long winning streak has no bearing on playoff success, to be sure, and there has been bumps in the road since Columbus’ win streak ended. Though if there’s anyone familiar with turning a tough time into a period of success, it’s Gagner.
“You learn a lot about your team in a streak like that, and I think all that pressure that comes on you when you start to build up those wins, that only helps you come playoff time,” Gagner said. “I think it was a good thing for us, and now you go through a little adversity and fight your way through it. It’s all part of an 82-game schedule, and you learn from everything.”
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.