Detroit — Sam Gagner has been through rebuilds before, including with the Edmonton Oilers before being traded to the Red Wings in March 2020.
The Oilers are playing in the Western Conference Finals next week. The Red Wings just completed their sixth season out of the playoffs.
Still, Gagner would love to stick around and be part of that Wings team that eventually does make the playoffs.
“It would mean a lot,” Gagner said this month during his end-of-season media call. “I’ve been through a rebuild in Edmonton and wasn’t able to see the other side of it. When you look at what’s happening here and with some of the young guys that have come into the lineup this year and are coming into the lineup in future years, I’d like to help them navigate their early pro careers and take it to another level.”
Whether Gagner, 32, gets that chance to stay remains to be seen. Gagner can be an unrestricted free agent on July 13, when NHL free agency opens, but Gagner has made no secret about his desire to remain with the Wings.
Given his leadership, versatility and his 13 goals and 31 points last season, there are reasons general manager Steve Yzerman could likely bring Gagner back.
Gagner signed a one-year extension worth $850,000 before this past season, in a scenario similar to this one.
“This team has an opportunity to do some special things going forward,” Gagner said. “I’m 32 now and I’d like to continue to play as long as I can, and I feel with the way I play my game, it won’t age like some games do. That’s what I’m, hoping at least.”
Gagner felt this Wings roster was a close group — and that was exemplified in the final game of the season, when teammates were attempting to secure Tyler Bertuzzi’s 30th goal, which Bertuzzi eventually scored in the final minute.
“It’s a great group of guys, we have fun together and we want to see each other succeed,” Gagner said. “There are so many things to play for, and playing for each other is one of them. You saw the reaction of guys when Bert was able to get his 30th. It’s a great thing; guys are pulling for each other.”
Being a veteran who is only 33 games away from 1,000 in his career, having gone through the pressures and expectations of being a first-round pick (sixth overall) by Edmonton and evolving as a player are all experiences Gagner had, that former Wings coach Jeff Blashill always felt were vital to the Wings’ locker room.
Gagner could relate to and assist, said Blashill, with many of the Wings’ young players and what they were going through.
Gagner feels he can help this roster in a variety of ways.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time here and I feel like I’ve grown with this group,” Gagner said. “I still feel, even though I’m a veteran, I have some years left and I can help this group continue to grow. I’d like to be back. I don’t feel like it’s a year-to-year thing; I feel like I have a lot of games left and I feel like I had a good year this year, and given my role and responsibility and those types of things, I feel like I helped the group move forward.
“I’d like to be part of things, but I understand there’s a lot of things that happen and they have options. I’ll just go about my business and try to be ready for day one of training camp.”
That training camp, at least with the Wings, will have a new face leading the group, given Yzerman’s decision to not renew Blashill’s contract.
In his two-plus years with the Wings, Gagner was impressed with Blashill and his staff, particularly the dedication they showed.
Blashill, assistant coach Doug Houda and goaltending coach Jeff Salajko, all of whom weren’t retained for next season, worked passionately, Gagner said, to make the team better.
“I just know from experience and getting the chance to work with them, working with (Houda), specifically, on the penalty kill and Blash with just overall team play, they really cared about us players and wanted us to succeed,” Gagner said. “They tried to help us right to the end, and as a player, you really appreciate that.
“Personally, I think about the game all the time and I’m always trying to think of ways to get better and improve upon my game. When you have coaches that take the time to try to develop you as a player and person, and you talk about the development of young players, I still feel like I have a lot of room to grow as a player, too. You want coaches that are going to try and help you and I felt they did a great job of that.
“I’m thankful for the time I got to spend with them and I feel like I’m a better player and person for it.”