I’ve always been a sucker for stories about underdogs made good or unexpected comebacks. That holds especially true for former members of the Edmonton Oilers because they tend to be young men you get to know a bit along the way when you hang around the dressing room long enough.
A lot of good people have come and gone here over the years because that’s the nature of the game and part of the business, and Sam Gagner is one of those people for me. Gagner spent 481 games over seven seasons here as a member of the Oilers until it was time for him to move on. Great kid. Good player.
I’m getting a kick, then, from the comeback story he’s scripting this season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who come calling on the Oilers at Rogers Place Tuesday. Coming off the worst season of his career, a campaign in which he struggled mightily with the Philadelphia Flyers, Gagner has easily been the comeback story of this season with the Blue Jackets.
Gagner, 27, is off to the best start of his career with 11-8-19 in 25 games with the Blue Jackets after being snapped up at the bargain basement price of $650,000 as a free agent last summer. Like former Oiler teammate Devan Dubnyk in Minnesota, Gagner has gone from looking like he might play himself right out of the NHL to finding his game again with the Blue Jackets.
THE RIGHT PLACE
While Gagner certainly had his flaws as a player here – something made more obvious by having to play higher in the line-up on bad teams than he was capable of – I never had any issues with his character. Gagner was a team player, not a me-first guy. I never once saw him point a finger or talk badly about a teammate during some truly dreadful days here when there was plenty of blame to go around. He was easy to like.
With the Blue Jackets, Gagner is producing more and playing less than he ever did in Edmonton. Sam averaged 17:13 of ice time per game here and produced .61 PPG. Under coach John Tortorella, Gagner is being used further down the line-up and is averaging just 13:37 per game. That’s ninth among Columbus forwards. Right now, he’s averaging .76 PPG, thanks in large part to a red-hot 16.9 shooting percentage. He has 3-4-7 on the power play.
Gagner, like the Blue Jackets as a whole, is exceeding expectations by leaps and bounds right now. I don’t see any way Gagner will continue to score at the rate he has, but, for me, that doesn’t matter. At the very least, he’s shown he’s far from done and unless he falls off the map, he’ll likely earn another contract – not that he needs it with more than $20 million in career earnings – somewhere.
As was the case with Dubnyk, not to mention other players like Daniel Cleary and Kyle Brodziak I’ve come to know over the years, it’s rewarding to see good people overcome adversity, find the right fit and bounce back when it doesn’t work out here after they move on – there’s been a lot of guys like that during this decade out of the playoffs. Good for Sam.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- Still with former Oilers, after getting off to a good start with the St, Louis Blues this season, Nail Yakupov has fallen off the map. Yakupov, who had 2-2-4 in his first six games under coach Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis, has been a regular healthy scratch and has just one assist in his last 11 games. He’s been in single digits in terms of ice time in his last five games.
- Connor McDavid, leading NHL scorers with 12-27-39, is averaging 1.26 PPG. That puts him on pace for 103 points this season. The Oilers haven’t had a 100-point player since Doug Weight had 104 points in 1995-96. They haven’t had an Art Ross Trophy winner since 1986-87 when Wayne Gretzky won his seventh scoring title with 183 points.
- With Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets, the Oilers are 15-11-5 for 35 points after 31 games. They didn’t reach 35 points until Jan. 2 last season (16-21-3), 39 games, and until Jan. 29 (13-27-9), a total of 49 games, the season before.
- Leon Draisaitl has scored 13-13-26 through 31 games. He has a shooting percentage of 18.8 for the season and he’s 25.0 per cent in seven games so far this month. His career shooting percentage now sits at 13.5.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.