Lost within the mass hysteria of last summer, surrounding All-Star John Tavares and “The Decision” to sign with his boyhood team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, was a low-risk, high-reward signing by Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney.
Chris Wagner, an unheralded journeyman of four seasons with 29 points in 174 career games inked a two-year, $2.5 million deal on July 1. The addition, in theory, would offset the loss of fourth-line right winger, Tim Schaller, who opted to sign with the Vancouver Canucks after a career season. He finished with personal highs in goals (12), assists (10), and games played (82).
Sweeney had filled in most of the lineup’s holes with more established names, including goaltender Jaroslav Halak, defenseman John Moore, and forward Joakim Nordstrom, the intended replacement of Riley Nash on the third line. Comparatively speaking, news of Wagner’s arrival was lackluster, despite his ties to Boston as a native of nearby Walpole, MA.
Nearly nine months later, the addition of Wagner may very well be the most underrated signing of the free agency period. Through a heart and soul style of play, he has secured a spot on one of the best fourth lines in the league. Here’s a look into the 27-year-old’s rewarding return to Boston.
Wagner Withstood a Winding Way Home
While Schaller was playing his way to a nice raise, Wagner’s status in the league remained in flux, a trend dating back to the 2015-16 season, when he was placed on waivers by the Anaheim Ducks and claimed by the Colorado Avalanche. After a 26-game stint and four goals, Anaheim was able to reclaim him off the waiver wire.
Wagner stuck around in Southern California throughout 2016-17, scoring six goals in 43 games in the regular season before suiting up in 17 playoff contests. He would equal that scoring output over 64 games the following season before being sent to the New York Islanders for Jason Chimera at the trade deadline. Wagner finished the season third in the league in hits with 253.
Now armed with a contract that likely assures him of the sweater he will be wearing next season, Wagner has played with confidence and a certain amount of swagger that has steadily grown throughout his first season with the Bruins, endearing him to their fanbase.
Wagner Following A Familiar Road to Success
The parallels seen between Wagner and Schaller are most noticeable in their eerily similar numbers in Black & Gold. With seven games remaining, Wagner has already matched Schaller’s goal total in his final season in Boston. With six assists, Wagner stands a chance of equaling the latter’s total while he sits just two shots on goal shy of Schaller’s 133.
Over the past two months, Wagner exploded with similar strings of play, which saw him double his goal-scoring total. He scored three times from Feb. 15-23, including a controversial game-tying goal against the San Jose Sharks. The Bruins won the wild affair, 6-5, in overtime. He would accomplish the same feat from March 5-12, before an ongoing drought of six games without
A slow start to the season, scoring wise, saw Wagner tally twice through November before upping his total to six by February. The surge in offensive production featured multi-point efforts against the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues.
Line Chemistry Has Paved the Way for Wagner
Much of Wagner’s success is due to outstanding chemistry with an alternating cast of linemates, including Noel Acciari, Sean Kuraly, and Nordstrom. The fourth unit was arguably the Bruins’ second-best leading into the Winter Classic, where Wagner assisted on Kuraly’s game-winner. Wagner followed up that performance with an emotional goal against the Buffalo Sabres.
Despite each individual, minus Wagner, having missed time due to injury throughout the season, the group has thrived alongside each other. As a unit, they feature a bit of everything, from the ability to find the back of the net, take the body or drop the gloves, as Wagner has willingly done on three occasions this season.
With the postseason only two weeks away, Wagner, whose play oozes with reckless abandon, stands to make a positive impact with Boston, in a much more physical and up-tempo environment. If all goes according to plan, he could very well be lifting his first Stanley Cup in his own hometown.