Helene St. James| Detroit Free Press
Sam Gagner has known the expectations of being a high-round draft pick; he’s been traded half a dozen times, he’s been up and down and back around. A year ago he landed with the Detroit Red Wings, where his experience was welcomed by a team in rebuilding mode.
Gagner joined the lineup as a two-way forward and power play guy — and a reliable pro. He hasn’t had the numbers he’d like this season, but Gagner is noticeable on most of his shifts because of the good work he does in both the offensive and defensive zones.
“I think that early in my career when I wasn’t producing, I probably wasn’t making an impact,” Gagner said Wednesday. “I’ve tried to evolve my game to a point where I can have an impact on the game regardless of I’m producing or not. But, if you want to be a good two-way player, offense is part of that. I’m going to keep trying to get to the net, keep trying to create chances, and they are going to start going in, and hopefully, when they do, they are going to go in in bunches.”
Gagner had two assists and a plus-two rating after 11 games. He missed six games dealing with COVID-19, quarantining at home away from his wife (who is a doctor) and their children and trying to recover as quickly as possible.
“I did have some symptoms that knocked me out for a few days,” Gagner said. “Once I got the go-ahead to start getting going physically, I tried to push it as much as I can. The first few games there were some ill effects, but I feel good now.”
Gagner, 31, was a throw-in at last year’s trade deadline when general manager Steve Yzerman sent Andreas Athanasiou to the Edmonton Oilers for second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. Gagner appeared in six games, producing one goal. But Gagner wasn’t just a fit as an inexpensive forward who was the sixth overall pick by the Oilers in 2017 — he was also a valuable addition in the locker room.
“The first example is how he takes care of himself, the way he prepares,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “And then just as important is his self-accountability. He’s not a guy who is looking for excuses, either for the team or for himself. He looks inward if he’s struggling and he looks inward if our team is struggling. He knows that they — they being the players — that they have the best chance to fix things and I think he does a good job with that. That’s an important example to the rest of our team.”
Yzerman liked enough of what he saw to extend Gagner’s contract for one year, $850,000, last September. For Gagner, the Wings provide stability after he bounced from the NHL (Vancouver and Edmonton) to the AHL (Toronto and Bakersfield) the previous two seasons. He likes the chance to impart what he has learned since breaking into the NHL in 2007. Even with the pandemic limiting player interaction off the ice, Gagner has stressed being a role model.
“You can still go about your business and be a good example,” he said. “I think that’s been the way I’ve tried to lead over the course of my career. I’ve tried to be an example to follow. You can do that regardless of what is going on. And in our room, there’s still opportunity to have discussions among our group and make sure everyone is on the same page.”
Gagner has expanded his passion for setting a good example, joining forces with Toronto Maple Leafs star John Tavares to help operate the Toronto Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League. The two were teammates with there in 2003-04.
“My minor hockey experience was incredible,” Gagner said. “I want to help create that experience for the next generation of players. I think we can create ways to allow everyone to have that experience and create advantages for those kids and help different kids in different ways. We are excited about that opportunity and looking forward to helping out there.”
Having made it to the highest level of hockey, Gagner understands the importance of winning. But he doesn’t believe it should consume young teenagers, or their parents.
“More and more it’s becoming the be-all, end-all at the minor level,” he said. “I think it’s important to establish a winning culture, but at the same time, we’re there to help develop people and have them enjoy the game and enjoy their experience. That is going to be the main thing for us.”