TORONTO – Sam Gagner was back in the NHL and feeling great.
Playing a major role with the Vancouver Canucks – first-minute power play, # 1 power play – after a surprise ban for the minors before the season, his family had also met on the West Coast.
The 29-year-old striker was all smiles in the team's skills competition earlier this month, accompanied on the bench by one of his two children wearing his father's blue 89 sweater.
Although the Canucks were fighting, Gagner had a goal and two assists, and was regularly placed at the end of the games.
There was cause for optimism.
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A few days later, however, Gagner had his second professional shock in two months, when the Canucks returned him to the AHL's Toronto Marlies, resuming his loan deal.
"I played really well when I was in Vancouver – that's the surprising part," he said after his first game with Marlies over the weekend. "The two (GM Canucks Jim Benning and trainer Travis Green) said the same thing. They thought I played well.
"That's why it's hard to accept."
A veteran of 770 NHL games coming this season, Gagner was relegated despite playing more than 18 minutes a night during that two-week period.
His average of 3:14 in the power game was tied for third with Bo Horvat, behind only Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson. Gagner also had the best shot differential with 58.21% strength, while his other advanced metrics suggest he was unlucky to have scored more often.
It was not enough to keep him with the big club.
"We did not find victories," Gagner said. "But that boundary took home for me that I can play at that level and be effective."
An eyebrow-lifting training cut – he signed a three-year contract of $ 9.45 million in free agency two summers ago, picking the Canucks over several other suitors – Gagner was loaned to Marlies in October instead of being appointed to Vancouver Affiliate in Utica, NY, following the release of waivers.
And while Gagner, who had seven goals and eight assists in 15 games against Toronto before being called on Nov. 18, said he would never ask for an exchange, one move would be clearly welcome at the moment.
"I want an NHL opportunity," said Gagner, whose rights are held by the Canucks. "I wish it was Vancouver, but it does not look like I'm on your plans.
"I proved that I belong."
Gagner, who is making $ 3.5 million this season, no matter where he plays, has 153 goals and 283 assists in parts of 12 NHL campaigns.
Edmonton's sixth draft pick said that he was informed by the Canucks that the reason for this demotion was simple – unlike other veterans in the cast, he did not have to cancel the resignation for the second time.
Trapped in a numbers game with a rebuilding franchise, Gagner joked with the question when asked if he regretted signing in Vancouver after his 50-point season against Columbus in 2016-17.
"I had jumped around," said Gagner, who, like many canucks, had a tough match in 2017-18 with just 10 goals and 21 assists. "They seemed very excited to have me there.That's the amazing part.It's the same coach and manager.
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The Maple Leafs center, John Tavares, who grew up with Gagner in the western suburbs of Toronto, said he was surprised to see his close friend back at the kids.
"It's a great test for his character and his willingness to dig," said Tavares, who spoke to Gagner after being demoted. "I always tell him that he's someone for me, because I was not in this situation and I can not imagine how difficult it is."
Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe said that the way Gagner dealt with adversity is a lesson for his young players.
"You have to make the most of it," Keefe said. "He dusted off and went back to work."
"His career is what any of us wish we could have," added Chris Mueller, a Marlies veteran. "He is not here negative or angry with the world. His presence, his leadership will go a long way to show these children what it is to be a good professional.
"I'm not very familiar with the Canucks situation, but I know he's a hockey player and deserves to be up there."
This is what Gagner expects, especially with his wife and children having stayed in Vancouver since September.
"You're going to play first-line minutes and the first power play one night. You're with your family and Christmas is coming," he said. "The next day you're coming back for the smallest – definitely a shock.
"You just keep moving forward and hopefully there's another opportunity."
Or with the Canucks or somewhere else.