Sam Gagner revitalizes career with NHL-best Blue Jackets
Ex-Oiler credits coach, 'great leader' John Tortorella for team’s 16-game win streak
It's mid-October, the NHL season has begun and a well-travelled Sam Gagner is eager to impress his new boss.
The veteran forward found hope and a new opportunity this past fall with Columbus, his fourth NHL team in as many seasons, after taking a pay cut of more than $4 million US to play for John Tortorella, a prickly head coach at times with what some would describe as a sneer-and-fear approach to handling talent.
Gagner, who has learned to have an open mind about coaches in nine-plus seasons of professional hockey, didn't have to wait long to experience Tortorella's hard-ass style as he was a healthy scratch for the Blue Jackets' third regular-season game.
- Blue Jackets have 'Torts' feeling good
- Jackets approach top win streaks in sports history
- Blue Jackets upend Oilers for 16th straight win
"It was a matter of overthinking. I felt I had a good [training] camp but when the puck dropped to start the season I was trying to do too much," Gagner, 27, told CBC Sports over the phone Wednesday while awaiting a flight to Washington.
"He gave me his reasons [for sitting me] and I knew where I stood. That's all you can ask as a player is to have the respect of the coach. Guys respond to that."
Gagner entered play Thursday with 14 goals and 28 points in 35 games since he was benched and is on track to surpass a career-best 49 points from his 2007-08 rookie NHL season in Edmonton.
Last season, the London, Ont., native posted career lows in goals (8), assists (8) and points (16) in 53 contests with Philadelphia, where he was a healthy scratch, placed on waivers and spent time with the Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate before playing 34 of the final 36 games with the parent club and making all six playoff starts.
Looking for a contract after making $4.8 million in the final year of his three-year, $14.4-million deal signed originally with Edmonton, Gagner saw potential in a Blue Jackets outfit fresh off its first losing season in four years so he signed a one-year deal worth $650,000, a little more than the NHL's $575,000 minimum.
"We've tried to approach every game trying to get better, try to win and before you know it, you have a nice streak going," said Gagner, who along with his teammates fell short of matching the longest win streak in NHL history in Thursday night's 5-0 loss to the hometown Capitals. The 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins won 17 in a row.
Gagner, who endured three losing seasons with the Oilers not long ago, pointed to Tortorella for the Blue Jackets' success and NHL-best 27-6-4 record.
"He's a great leader, treats us with a lot of respect and, in turn, we've played some good hockey," said Gagner, who played in Austria during the NHL lockout before returning to Edmonton early in 2013 until he was traded to Arizona the following year. "We come to the rink with a business-like attitude, not worrying so much about the results but about the process and what you can do to help the team win. We've been able to mature as a group and get better because of that."
Gagner, who has played centre and wing in his NHL career, is skating on the right side of the fourth unit with left-winger Scott Hartnell and centre Lukas Sedlack, making the most of his 13 minutes 30 seconds of average ice time (down from 17:13 with Edmonton).
He's also a fixture on Columbus' league-leading power play with Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, Alexander Wennberg, and either Seth Jones or Zach Werenski at the point. Thirteen of Gagner's 28 points have come on the power play, which is consistent with his play in Edmonton, where 87 of his 295 points with the Oilers were collected with a man advantage.
"He's got confidence and is a dangerous, dangerous player and you can see that, especially on the power play," said Jordan Eberle, Gagner's former teammate in Edmonton, which lost 3-1 to the Blue Jackets on Tuesday. "Sam's a sixth overall [draft] pick [from 2007] so I knew he was going to get going again [offensively]."
'A perfect match'
When Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen sought a centre or winger last summer with a right-handed shot, he thought of Gagner, whom he had watched shine alongside Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane in junior hockey with the London Knights during his days as a player evaluator.
"He was a perfect match," said Kekalainen of Gagner. "We needed skill … and he needed an opportunity to play in a role that would complement his skills and talent.
"We knew he was a hard-working guy, a good person and wanted to prove to everybody he's a good NHL player. We felt he was going to bounce back and he's had a good year so far."