Sam Gagner’s versatility, experience make him key to Wings’ development

Detroit News

Detroit —  Sam Gagner has only played 46 games in a Red Wings uniform since arriving at the trade deadline last season.

It’s not a large body of work, but certainly enough time for Gagner to show his importance and impact on a younger hockey team.

With injuries mounting and much of the Wings’ leadership unable to play, Gagner was tabbed an alternate captain.

For a 14-year veteran who understands what the NHL is about, Gagner was humbled.

“It means a lot,” Gagner said, discussing wearing the ‘A’. “It’s a storied franchise and some of the guys before me that have had the opportunity to wear a letter on their jersey, the list is pretty incredible.

“Obviously with the guys we have out, and the injuries, they mean a lot to our group. The fact I’m looked at in that kind of light, as a leader among this group, is certainly a responsibility that I don’t take lightly.”

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This hasn’t been the type of season Gagner hoped for.

Like many Red Wings, he hasn’t scored as expected (six goals, seven assists) in 40 games.

When Gagner arrived from Edmonton last season in the Andreas Athanasiou trade, it was expected Gagner could spark the power play. But he has no power play goals this season.

Yet delve deep into the analytics and Gagner has driven offense. His shifts have been effective. He’s been one of the better defensive forwards. And, again, his leadership can’t be overstated.

You’d like more offense. But Gagner has been a player who has been a positive more nights, than not.

“If you look at most of the underlying statistics that we keep, generally, he wins his shifts,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “His expected goals for when he’s on the ice is better than expected goals against on a consistent basis, night in and night out.

“Wherever he’s playing in the lineup he’s done an excellent job, both in his play and his example.”

Blashill watched a teen-aged Gagner play in the United States Hockey League. At that time, Gagner, now 31, was an elite offensive talent, and had the skills to play in the NHL.

More than a decade later, Gagner has expanded his game to be a player trusted in either end of the rink.

“You have to learn to be committed to the 200-foot game and he’s certainly done that, he’s been excellent for us,” Blashill said. “It’s something he said to me he wanted to take a lot of pride in and he’s done an excellent job in that.

“Because of that, he’s also earned penalty-kill time and he’s done real good on the penalty kill.”

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As someone who consistently produced 10-to-18 goals per season early in his career, and was thought of as mostly an offensive player, gaining a spot on the penalty kill is something many wouldn’t have predicted for Gagner.

But he believes any veteran in today’s NHL has to make himself valuable in a variety of roles.

“I’ve had some penalty killing early on in my career but it’s never really been a huge part of my responsibility,” Gagner said. “But it’s something I really enjoy and I’ve grown in that area and greatly improve and our penalty kill has been a lot better over this last bit.

“I’ve taken a lot of pride in that responsibility and it’s another area, part of the game, that you want to consistently build.

“You have to adapt in this league if you want to play a long time. I’m just trying to figure out different ways and help the win, that’s the main thing.”

Then there’s the defensive side, where Gagner has evolved and improved. Much like the Wings have as a team this season as compared to last season’s fiasco.

“We’ve had a lot of growth defensively, and it’s really important,” Gagner said. “You need to be a good defensive team if you’re going to win in this league.”

What Blashill also has appreciated is Gagner recognizing when there is an opportunity to make a play – and when there isn’t.

“He’s a great example of having poise with the puck, and also taking what is given,” Blashill said. “It’s a real hard balance to try to get through to guys, to not be careless with the puck and not turn the puck over, but try to make plays at the same time. That’s hard balance.

“He’s been our best example and that’s a huge thing for young players.”

Gagner signed a one-year contract worth $850,000 last offseason as general manager Steve Yzerman gathered veteran complementary players to strengthen the Wings’ roster.

Yzerman has lengthy list of unrestricted free agents to deal with this summer, Gagner being one. But it wouldn’t be shocking to see the two sides reach some sort of agreement.

Gagner can help the Wings, and t a fair price. He doesn’t think the rebuild will last long.

“We’ll see what happens after the season but I really enjoy it here,” Gagner said. “I feel like my responsibility has grown over my time here. I really like my role and that we’re closer (to being competitive) than a lot of people would project.

“(There were) a lot of injuries this year. The division we’re in, we have an opportunity to turn things around quicker than people expect and I’d like to be part of it.”

Twitter: @tkulfan

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