Versatile Gagner a steal of a deal

Jets’ savvy vet contributing in all areas of the game

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Sam Gagner is the same dog up to his old tricks.

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Sam Gagner is the same dog up to his old tricks.

The 33-year-old forward, playing in his seventh different city, has three goals through his first six games with the Winnipeg Jets. He appears to have seamlessly filled the hole left behind by Paul Stastny, who joined the Carolina Hurricanes in free agency over the summer.

Starting the year on the fourth line, Gagner quickly showed he still had a knack for tucking the puck in the net. An injury to Nikolaj Ehlers meant a promotion to the top trio for Mason Appleton, creating a spot for Gagner on the third line while maintaining a role on the second-power play unit.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Having scored three goals in his first six games, veteran forward Sam Gagner has turned out to be a sound free-agent signing by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff this summer.

The 16-year journeyman has displayed the versatility that’s kept him around the NHL for so long and proved to be a sound free-agent signing by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff this summer, as Gagner agreed to return north of the border for the league minimum salary.

“One of my captains early on in Edmonton, Shawn Horcoff, he started as a fourth-line left winger and ended up being a first-line centre on a (Stanley) Cup-contending team,” Gagner said Wednesday morning after a 45-minute skate at Canada Life Centre. “So, I think you learn from guys like that, how to be adaptable, how to fit in different situations. I’ve had the opportunity now to play on the power play, on the penalty kill, all different positions on all different lines, so you learn as you go along how to adapt and how to be better in different situations.

“And I think mentally I’m a lot better at handling that than I was probably earlier in my career.”

Gagner is matched with Adam Lowry and Morgan Barron on a line that is the sum of its parts. What looked to be a bruising checking line to start the year with Appleton in the mix (all players are at least 6-2), is now a line providing the Jets some of the scoring depth the team has longed for in recent years. The trio has a combined four goals, seven points on the season.

“They’re both big, strong players that forecheck really well and hang on to pucks and I think it complements what I bring,” Gagner said. “So, I think it’s been really good.

“I certainly like the look of the line and, hopefully, we can continue to help the team win games.”

The Jets (3-3-0) are fresh off a 4-0 beatdown of the St. Louis Blues on Monday and have made their way south to kick off a three-game road trip Thursday (9;30 p.m.) against the Los Angeles Kings (4-4-0). The Kings downed the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 in their last outing Tuesday.

The third line combined for two goals and three points against the Blues, led by a marker from Gagner, who’s averaged 11:11 of ice time this season.

“He’s a good veteran,” said Jets associate head coach Scott Arniel of Gagner. “He’s been around a long time and knows how to play in different situations. It’s kind of funny, he was a penalty killer in Detroit the last couple years and we’ve been using him on the power play. When you have that versatility, a veteran guy, it helps so much.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Sam Gagner (left) scored his first of three goals this season against the New York Rangers in the Jets’ home-opener.

“He’s been really good with our young players in passing along information. I know he talks to (Cole) Perfetti lots and Barron. It’s just, when you have those guys it’s like an extension of the coaching staff.”

While Gagner didn’t know exactly how the Jets would use his versatility entering the season, Barron, who scored his first goal of the season against the Blues, came into the year with a clear sense of his standing on the roster.

It’s helped the 23-year-old winger — acquired in a trade-deadline deal last season that sent Andrew Copp to the New York Rangers — ease into the season despite getting a late jump on his first training camp in Manitoba’s capital.

“He had a different circumstance,” Arniel said. “He had to play golf with (Jets head coach Rick Bowness) down in Halifax in the summertime. They got to go head-to-head right away. He was told then that he was going to start on that line with (Lowry) and (Appleton). I know it’s changed a bit with Ehlers being out, but he was going to start in that role. That’s a big role. He’s going to see a lot of the opposition teams’ best players. It’s a two-role responsibility. We need you to defend and then we also need you to contribute offensively.

“He’s grasped it. He’s been learning on the fly. We’re showing him stuff. He’s still a young player and he hasn’t been in this league very long. He has a lot of qualities. Big, can skate, plays heavy, still has a skill set that can play and finish like he did the other night.”

Barron, a fourth-year pro who stands at an imposing 6-4, 220 pounds, hasn’t taken his role as a two-way contributor lightly and is proud of the impact the third line has had through six games.

“You look at all the teams that contend for Stanley Cups year in and year out, and it’s four lines, three (defensive) pairs and two goalies,” Barron said. “It’s a pretty consistent thing across the league. To be able to contribute a little bit offensively was good and we need to keep it going.

“I’ve always been confident in myself. I felt I could come in and make an impact. I felt like I had done some good things in the first few games, but I still didn’t feel like I was where I wanted to be. And to be honest, I still think I have a little ways to get to, to continue to build.”

***

FRED GREENSLADE / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Morgan Barron scored his first goal of the season Monday against the St. Louis Blues.

Head coach Rick Bowness isn’t on the three-game road trip (L.A., Arizona and Las Vegas). The 67-year-old bench boss suffered a “setback” in his bout with COVID-19, explained Arniel.

His next chance to rejoin the team behind the bench is Nov. 3, when the Jets host the Montreal Canadiens.

Defenceman Dylan Samberg was a full participant in Wednesday’s skate after returning from a lower-body injury and could face the Kings. Fellow defenceman Logan Stanley was missing from Wednesday’s skate while tending to an injury he sustained while blocking a shot against the Blues. Stanley will join the team on the road trip but his game status is in question.

Meanwhile, Nikolaj Ehlers is “progressing,” said Arniel, adding the speedy forward will join the club on its road trip, but won’t play.

jfreysam@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jfreysam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam
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Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.

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