In the world of professional hockey, few stories have been as polarizing as Sam Gagner’s tumultuous journey in the NHL. Some hail him as a symbol of unwavering determination, while others question whether his return is blocking the path for younger, potentially more promising players.
Gagner, now 34, has demonstrated an unparalleled ability to defy the odds. Gagner’s tumultuous career has taken him through various teams and leagues, each chapter more intriguing than the last. He made his AHL debut during the 2015-16 season, a surprising twist in a career that never quite reached the NHL heights. Since then, he has fought tirelessly to maintain his spot in the most prestigious hockey league in the world.
One could argue that Gagner found a semblance of security when he signed a three-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks in the summer of 2017. However, just over a year later, he was sent back to the AHL and loaned to the Toronto Marlies. His career took another twist when he returned to the Edmonton Oilers, the team that initially drafted him. Yet even this reunion couldn’t prevent another AHL stint during the 2019-20 season.
His whirlwind tour continued as Gagner ended the season with the Detroit Red Wings, signing not one, but two different one-year contracts worth $850,000 with the team, raising questions about whether his constant return to the NHL is fair to other deserving prospects. He then embarked on a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Winnipeg Jets in 2022-23. During this period, he managed to exceed 50 NHL games and accumulate 15 points only once, during a successful 2021-22 season with the Red Wings.
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As the 2023-24 season approached, Gagner found himself settling for an AHL contract with the Bakersfield Condors, determined to keep his dream alive. This commitment paid off in just eight days as he secured a two-way contract with the Edmonton Oilers.
The story of his tooth-and-nail grind reached another thrilling chapter on a memorable Thursday night when Gagner stepped onto the ice with the Oilers, marking his 17th consecutive NHL season.
But it wasn’t just his return that stirred controversy; Gagner played a pivotal role by scoring two goals on his return, helping to keep his team in the game. While these goals were far from the most elegant, they constituted a significant portion of the team’s offense that night, a surprising feat, especially given the presence of stars like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Edmonton’s current challenges and Gagner’s impactful return have ignited a fierce debate in the hockey community. While some argue that his resilience is commendable and adds depth to the team, others question whether his presence limits opportunities for fresh, emerging talent.
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Gagner’s career hasn’t been marked by super-stardom; he has never scored more than 18 goals or accumulated over 50 points in a single NHL season, despite being known for his offensive skills. Yet, his capacity to find a spot in the NHL, year after year, is a divisive topic.
It is this very uniqueness that sets him apart. While many players ride the coattails of past accomplishments, Gagner is different. He has worked relentlessly, day in and day out, for years, earning his place in the league without relying on past glory. Few players demonstrate such unwavering commitment.
Gagner’s career has never been about untapped potential or past glories; it’s all about the present. He has proven time and again that he still has something valuable to offer, and the Edmonton Oilers recognize that, signing him for the third time.
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As we await the unfolding chapters of Gagner’s remarkable journey, one thing is certain: this veteran deserves the admiration and respect of hockey fans for his unparalleled passion and determination to compete with the best in the world, even when nothing is ever offered to him. Sam Gagner is an inspiration to us all as he is the NHL’s ultimate “cockroach.”
The question remains: Is Sam Gagner’s enduring presence in the NHL a symbol of never giving up, or is it preventing the emergence of new hockey stars? The answer likely depends on one’s perspective.