TORONTO — Sam Gagner was back in the NHL and feeling great.
Playing an important role with the Vancouver Canucks — first-line minutes, No. 1 power play — following a surprise banishment to the minors before the season, his family had also been reunited on the West Coast.
The 29-year-old forward was all smiles at the team’s skills competition earlier this month, accompanied on the bench by one of his two young sons wearing dad’s blue No. 89 jersey.
Even though the Canucks were struggling, Gagner had a goal and two assists, and was regularly deployed late in games.
There was reason for optimism.
A couple of days later, however, Gagner got his second professional shock in two months when the Canucks returned him to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, resuming their loan agreement.
“I played really well when I was in Vancouver — that’s the surprising part,” he said after his first game back with the Marlies over the weekend. “Both (Canucks GM Jim Benning and head coach Travis Green) said the same thing. They thought I played well.
“That’s why it’s hard to take.”
A veteran of 770 NHL games heading into this season, Gagner was demoted despite playing more than 18 minutes a night during that two-week stretch.
His average of 3:14 on the power play was tied for third with Bo Horvat, trailing only Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson. Gagner also had the best even-strength shot differential at 58.21 per cent, while his other advanced metrics suggest he was unlucky not to have scored more often.
It wasn’t enough to keep him up with the big club.
“We weren’t finding wins,” Gagner said. “But that stint drove it home for me that I can play at that level and be effective.”
An eyebrow-raising training camp cut — he signed a three-year, US$9.45-million contract in free agency two summers ago, choosing the Canucks over a number of other suitors — Gagner was loaned to the Marlies in October instead of being assigned to Vancouver’s affiliate in Utica, N.Y., after clearing waivers.
And while Gagner, who had seven goals and eight assists in 15 games with Toronto before getting recalled on Nov. 18, said he would never ask for a trade, a move would clearly be welcomed at this point.
“I want an NHL opportunity,” said Gagner, whose rights are maintained by the Canucks. “I’d like for it to be in Vancouver, but it doesn’t really seem like I’m in their plans.
“I’ve proven I belong.”
Gagner, who is making US$3.5 million this season no matter where he plays, has 153 goals and 283 assists in parts of 12 NHL campaigns.
The sixth pick in the 2007 draft by Edmonton said he was told by the Canucks the reason for this demotion was simple — unlike some other veterans on the roster, he didn’t have to clear waivers a second time.
Caught in a numbers game with a rebuilding franchise, Gagner skated around the question when asked if he regretted signing in Vancouver following his 50-point season with Columbus in 2016-17.
“I had bounced around,” said Gagner, who like many Canucks had a tough 2017-18 with just 10 goals and 21 assists. “They seemed to be very excited about having me there. That’s kind of the surprising part. It’s the same coach and management.
Maple Leafs centre John Tavares, who grew up with Gagner in the suburbs west of Toronto, said he was surprised to see his close friend back in the minors.
“It’s a great test of his character and his willingness to dig in,” said Tavares, who spoke with Gagner after he was demoted. “I always tell him he’s someone for me to look up to because I haven’t been in that situation and I can’t imagine how difficult it is.”
Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said the way Gagner has dealt with the adversity is a lesson to his young players.
“You have to make the best of it,” Keefe said. “He’s dusted himself off and got back to work.”
“His career is what any of us wish we could have,” Marlies veteran centre Chris Mueller added. “He’s not down here being negative or mad at the world. His presence, his leadership is going to go a long way as far as showing these kids what it’s like to be a good pro.
“I’m not too familiar with the Canucks’ situation, but I know he’s a hell of a hockey player and deserves to be up there.”
That’s what Gagner is hoping, especially with his wife and kids having stayed in Vancouver since September.
“You go from playing first-line minutes and on the first power play one night. You’re with your family and Christmas is around the corner,” he said. “The next day you’re going back to the minors — definitely a shock.
“You just keep pushing forward and hopefully there’s another opportunity.”
Either with the Canucks or elsewhere.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press