“He’s obviously a skilled player. He had a tough year last year — a tough couple of years — and we’re hoping the change of scenery is going to do him good.”
That’s Arizona Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett talking about the club’s big offseason acquisition, former Edmonton forward Sam Gagner. Acquired in a three-team trade involving the Oilers, Coyotes and Lightning, Gagner comes to Arizona as one of the NHL’s more unique stories — he doesn’t turn 25 until August, but has already played nearly 500 NHL contests and is one of just 13 players in league history to score eight points or more in a single game.
But he’s also fallen on hard times.
Last year, specifically, was a nightmare — Gagner suffered a ghastly broken jaw during the preseason that derailed his campaign. He finished with just 10 goals and 37 points in 67 games (not to mention a ghastly minus-29 rating) and, in what was an annual rite of passage in Edmonton, had his name appear in a number of trade rumors, even though he was in the first of a three-year, $14 million deal.
Now though, things start anew.
In Arizona, Gagner joins a more veteran and experienced group and will face stiff competition for minutes at center with a pair of very good two-way guys in Martin Hanzal and Antoine Vermette. He’ll also get some coaching stability in the form of Tippett. To say Gagner’s time in Edmonton was rife with change is an understatement — since breaking in with the Oilers in 2007-08, Gagner had five (Craig MacTavish, Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, Dallas Eakins) different bench bosses; Tippett, meanwhile, has been with the Coyotes for five straight years and is fifth among active NHL coaches in terms of longest tenure.
In short, Gagner is going to a team well honed in the style its head coach wants… as opposed to a team that changes its philosophy more than its underwear. So he’s going to have to get on board with playing Coyotes hockey.
“He’s gotta come in and establish himself as a real good NHL player,” Tippet said. “Use his skills to the best of his ability, but be able to play a real tight-checking game.”