To add insult to injury, Sam Gagner will not start the 2018-19 with the Vancouver Canucks or with their fellow depth options on their AHL team, the Utica Comets. Gagner, who cleared waivers today, has been loaned to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, the Canucks announced. Vancouver retains the right to recall Gagner, but normally a reassignment like this is an indication that ties have been cut between the player and the organization.
To be clear, this loan is a favor to the veteran forward. While it stings that Gagner, 29, is not in the Canucks’ plans moving forward, they did him the courtesy of sending him home to Toronto, where he and his wife are raising a young family. A reassignment like this is rare, but not unheard of; for the second season in a row, the Buffalo Sabres sent forward Matt Moulson to the Ontario Reign of the AHL, the Los Angeles Kings’ affiliate, to be closer to his family in California. There is no exchange of assets and no financial strings attached in such a move, as Gagner will simply log his AHL minutes for the Marlies instead of the Comets while counting for $2.125 against Vancouver’s salary cap as a buried player, as opposed to his full $3.15MM cap hit.
Gagner was the biggest surprise of this fall’s preseason waiver wire. The talented forward just signed a three-year contract with the Canucks last summer and registered 31 points in 74 games in his first season. His production was not incredible, but it was far from egregious. He managed to maintain a top-nine role and was one of Vancouver’s top shot-producers, with a 6.1% shooting percentage that was the worst of his career and was bound to regress positively. Gagner has proven throughout his up-and-down career to be perhaps the most system-specific player in the NHL. In the right role in the right scheme with the right mix of players, Gagner has been a potent play-maker and offensive asset. He set a career high of 50 points with the Columbus Blue Jackets just two years ago and was a perennial 40+ point player to begin his career with the Edmonton Oilers. Yet, his production tailed off in Edmonton as the team’s composition began to change and he struggled mightily with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2015-16, managing just 16 points. The remains of his current contract are not an attractive attachment, but it still remains a bit of a surprise that Gagner was unclaimed on waivers given his history of having a high scoring ceiling in the right system.
This very well might not be the end for Gagner, though. At just 29, he still has the potential to play for a lot longer. Like Moulson, he very well could be one of the top scorers for his on-loan club but, unlike Moulson, maintains value around the league and could use his minor league performance to his advantage. The defending champion Calder Cup winners will give Gagner the chance to show off his ability and, with or without an uptick in shooting luck, should be able to dominate at the AHL level. Meanwhile, the Canucks would have little reason not to entertain trade offers. Even in a potential trade with retained salary, Vancouver stands to benefit rather than his current cap hit as a buried veteran. Gagner will remain an intriguing name permanently on the trade block until there is a resolution to his current situation.