Sam Gagner is heading to the Columbus Blue Jackets next season on a one-year, $650,000 deal. It’s a pay cut — a big one — for the 26-year-old, but the contract is almost inconsequential given the Blue Jackets could provide Gagner the chance to get his career back on track.
Over the past two years, Gagner hasn’t been able to find solid footing in the NHL, which is bizarre considering he was a first-round pick in 2007 and has shown consistent scoring ability almost everywhere he’s been.
From June 2014 to June 2016, Gagner was traded three times, sent to the minors and forced to watch from the sidelines as a healthy scratch. He went from having consistent 15-goal, 35-point seasons with the Edmonton Oilers to being a fourth-line player with the Philadelphia Flyers this past season, scoring a career-worst eight goals and 16 points in just 53 games. Signing with the Blue Jackets, though, gives Gagner hope that he can right the ship as he enters what should be the prime years of his career.
“All I’m looking for is an opportunity,” Gagner told the Columbus Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline. “Last year was a down year. I played some pretty good hockey down the stretch, but overall, I feel like I’m a lot better player than my statistics showed last year.”
Columbus will provide more than just a change of scenery for Gagner. It also sees him potentially take on a bigger role and at a different position than he played last season.
The Blue Jackets aren’t thin, per se, at center, but they don’t have much in the way of veteran presence to take on the role. And so Gagner, who has played at all three forward positions during his career, will get the chance to move back into the middle. He could even potentially battle for the job on the second line, potentially scoring the top-six center role ahead of youngsters Alexander Wennberg and William Karlsson. According to Portzline, Gagner had offers from at least four other clubs, but the chance to have a consistent role and one that would push him in Columbus helped seal the deal for the Blue Jackets.
“It’s nice to have a solidified position that allows you to get comfortable,” Gagner told Portzline. “That’s one of the things Columbus could offer, a chance to play up the middle. That’s an exciting challenge for me. I’ve always enjoyed the responsibility of playing center.”
Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen has faith in Gagner bringing some of his scoring and playmaking ability to the team next season, even if he is coming off of a career-worst season. Kekalainen told Portzline he believes it important to get Gagner back in a role where he can play with “skilled players who can score,” and that Gagner can be an excellent set-up man as a right-handed pivot. The opportunity expands to the power play, too, where Kekalainen said he can see Gagner slotting in on the half-wall.
Kekalainen's gamble on Gagner could pay big dividends if he performs like he did during his days as an Oiler. In 481 games in Edmonton, Gagner scored 101 goals and 295 points, and 87 of those points came with the extra man. He's got the ability to be a perfect set-up man for the Blue Jackets' scorers, such as Brandon Saad, Boone Jenner and Cam Atkinson.
So if it was opportunity Gagner was after, it appears he’ll be getting it in heaps with the Blue Jackets. Considering he’s coming off of a season in which he had to fight tooth and nail to even see the ice, that’s a big thing for Gagner.
And even though he’s taking a more than $4-million pay cut to join the Blue Jackets, Gagner sounds ready to contribute in a place where he could “maybe be a long-term fit.”
"It wasn't about money for Sam,” Kekalainen told Portzline. “We didn't go back and forth. We just presented our situation and asked him if he saw the opportunity here with us to get the real Sam Gagner back on track.”
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