The Canucks bought high on Sam Gagner. He was coming off a career-high 18 goals and 50 points with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Canucks were hoping he could provide some scoring punch, along with some experience and leadership for their youth.
It didn’t quite work out. Gagner still managed 10 goals and 31 points, but that was the second-lowest point total of his career. Considering the prime offensive minutes he played, including extensive time on the power play, and talented linemates like Thomas Vanek, Brock Boeser, and the Sedins, it was disappointing. Add in his defensive woes and it starts to become understandable why the Canucks waived him before the 2018-18 season.
It was certainly a shock to Gagner, who never expected a stint in the AHL at the age of 29, particularly in only the second year of his three-year contract with the Canucks. To his credit, he immediately went to work for the Toronto Marlies, who he was loaned to, and scored 7 goals and 15 points in 15 games.
Now the Canucks have called on Gagner again, calling him up from the Marlies this weekend. It might be surprising to see him called up ahead of some of the young prospects in the system, but Jonathan Dahlen is still finding his feet with the Utica Comets, Petrus Palmu has struggled to stay in the Comets' lineup, and Zack MacEwen — well, it's unclear what MacEwen needs to do to get a call-up, given his seven goals and 13 points in 18 games, but perhaps the Canucks want a longer look at him in the AHL.
The bad news is that this might indicate Sven Baertschi and Brock Boeser will be out even longer than expected; the good news is that it’s another chance for Gagner to prove himself in Vancouver. The question is, how will Gagner be used in his second season with the Canucks?
In his first season, Canucks head coach Travis Green used him in an understandable way for a 50-point forward: he was in the top-six all season, either at centre with Thomas Vanek and Brock Boeser on his wings, or on right wing with the Sedins. His usual linemates were the top scorers on the team.
Contrast that with how he was used in Columbus. At 5-on-5, Gagner was on the fourth line, mainly with Scott Hartnell and Lukas Sedlak. The sheltered deployment, along with an experienced scorer on his wing in Hartnell, helped Gagner immensely. He posted the best corsi percentage of his career and racked up points at 5-on-5, finishing just behind Hartnell for third on the Blue Jackets.
On top of his sheltered minutes at 5-on-5, Gagner was used as a power play specialist, generally playing in the high slot on the first unit. It seemed to be an ideal spot for Gagner, who didn’t have to be the primary playmaker, but could use his passing ability and right-hand shot to good effect.
Gagner got plenty of power play time with the Canucks, playing on both the first and second units, but he was never really used in the same role as he was with the Blue Jackets. Instead, he frequently ended up at the point. He went from eight power play goals with Columbus to just three in Vancouver.
So, will the Canucks be able to put Gagner in a position to succeed? They might be able to give him sheltered minutes at 5-on-5 and prime power play time, if that’s the plan.
The way the Canucks are constructed this season, they have a distinct top-six/bottom-six structure. The plan heading in was to use veterans Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle to soak up difficult minutes against tough competition, freeing up the younger lines centred by Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson to score.
The injuries to Sutter and Beagle have complicated that deployment. Now Horvat takes almost all of the defensive zone faceoffs, sheltering players like Pettersson, Nikolay Goldobin, Brendan Leipsic, and Adam Gaudette.
Gagner would not be a good fit with Horvat and the Canucks have two-way wingers that can play in that defensive role, while still providing some offensive firepower. What’s more intriguing is the possibility of him playing in a sheltered offensive role with Pettersson or Gaudette.
While Pettersson has performed well alongside a two-way winger like Loui Eriksson, there’s something intriguing about matching him with a playmaking forward like Gagner. In the offensive zone, Gagner has the vision and creativity to keep up with Pettersson and provide a little more finish than Eriksson.
The trouble is that Pettersson plays big minutes now, and it’s harder to shelter him from the defensive zone. Pettersson doesn’t really need that sheltering, as he’s shown some excellent defensive play at times, even if there’s room for him to improve in that area. The issue is that Gagner has shown a need to be sheltered.
Another option would be to match him with Gaudette to try to get a little more offence out of the Canucks’ other rookie centre. Gaudette has been able to hold his own in a somewhat-sheltered role, but hasn’t provided much in the way of offence. He’s still without a goal in his NHL career. Perhaps adding a more skilled winger to his line, while continuing his sheltered deployment, would help.
As for the power play, the Canucks could still use some help in that area. With Baertschi and Boeser out, there’s an opportunity open on the first power play unit. The high slot, which is where Baertschi generally played before he was injured, would seem a natural fit, but Newell Brown, the Canucks’ power play coach, didn’t use him in that role all of last season.
There’s the rub: the Canucks could use Gagner in a similar way to his career year in Columbus, but they could well choose another route, similar to his struggles last season.
Perhaps Gagner will return to the NHL with renewed purpose and confidence after his 15-game stint in the AHL, and his deployment won’t matter that much. But it would seem to behoove the Canucks to get Gagner in the best possible position to succeed, particularly with one more season left on his contract.