The Vancouver Canucks likely won’t be very good this year, but the franchise is building through the draft. As those youngsters begin to take on roles, veterans will be key to making the transition smooth and that’s where a player such as Sam Gagner comes in.
A high pick himself, drafted sixth overall by the Edmonton Oilers in 2007, Gagner is about the enter his 12th NHL season. He has two years left on a very manageable contract and is excited by the influx of veterans Vancouver brought in this summer with the likes of Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle.
“They’re guys that bring a lot of character,” he said. “They play the game hard and the way we’re trying to play, they’ll fit in well: fast-paced, in-your-face hockey.”
Of course, if the Canucks are truly going to get back to the level the franchise was at near the beginning of the decade, when the team made the Stanley Cup final, it will do so on the strength of youngsters such as Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Thatcher Demko and Adam Gaudette. Some of those players have NHL games under their belts already, while others still need to percolate. Nevertheless, Gagner has been impressed with the kids he has played with already and sees the path Vancouver is heading down.
“It’s important to have young guys grow into roles and push veterans to be better,” he said. “It’s a different animal at the NHL level, but you see what Boeser was able to do this year and we got a little taste of Gaudette at the end of the year. We’ve got Pettersson coming and the list goes on – it’s an exciting time to be a Canuck and for us veteran guys, we have to come in ready to go and ready to lead the way.”
Coming into the league as a teenager himself, Gagner knows all about learning the ropes and making a quick impact. He posted a very respectable 49 points for the Oilers in 2007-08, which was good for third in team scoring.
“I learned a lot from veteran guys when I started and it’s more about being a pro day to day,” he said. “Trying to impart words of wisdom whenever you can, being a good example and making sure your work habits are right. That’s an important thing to teach players coming up.”
Of course, one of the reasons the Canucks are heading into a new era is the recent retirement of Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Two of the most important players in franchise history, the Sedins were integral in that 2011 run to the final and they racked up trophies and accolades during their NHL careers. With them gone, Vancouver will be searching for new franchise faces and though that’s not something that is expected to happen overnight, it will happen eventually.
In the meantime, the legacy of the twins is still fresh in the minds of those who played with them.
“It’s really their professionalism and their class,” Gagner said. “When you get a chance to be with them on a day-to-day basis and see how them carry themselves, how nice they are to people, how hard they work – they’re great leaders and great people.”
It’s going to a long time before Vancouver is ready to compete with the titans of the Western Conference again, but the process is underway. Players like Gagner will serve important roles in these tenuous times, where a rebuild can take hold fast or go on forever. But with all the experience Gagner has accrued already in his career, he knows how to play his role.