Anything one sees on Day One is subject to change, of course. But training camp starts with a declaration by Sam Gagner that he has subjected himself to a change.
“(Arizona coach) Dave Tippett was hard on me and I think it helped me,” Gagner said. “By the end of the year I thought I had proved to him I could do what was necessary to be a good player in this league.
“I think I played hard there and showed during the second half of the year that I can be a good, two-way, player in tough circumstances.”
Nevertheless, when the Coyotes traded him to the Flyers for Nick Grossman, GM Don Maloney shoved this foot into Gagner’s back on the way out the door: “At the end of the day we didn’t think he could play center at the National League level for us,” said Maloney.
Since the Coyotes’ level in 2014-15 was 29th in a 30-team league, the end of the day sounds perilously close to the end of an NHL career. But Gagner has pedigree – he was the sixth player taken in the 2007 draft -- and the Flyers require secondary scoring. So he is not here only because the Flyers had too many defenseman and the Coyotes wanted to dump a salary.
At 5-10, Gagner seems best suited to play center, the position at which he was drafted, but training camp begins with him playing on the wing with R.J. Umberger and Vinny Lecavalier. This is because 1) Lecavalier has been a duck out of water on the wing 2) the Flyers have too many centers even though they surely could use one more creative one to boost their secondary scoring and 3) Another set of good hands on the wing is another priority.
Putting together three disappointing and disappointed veterans who last year were either hurting or hurting for opportunity essentially announces they must earn their way onto the team. New coach and a clean slate notwithstanding, there likely will be minimal initial experimentation by Dave Hakstol with combinations that worked for Craig Berube. The Flyers need to get off to the fast start that has eluded them the last three seasons, when they missed the playoffs twice.
Of course, there is always room for some hunger, which is what Gagner, a clever playmaker if a slightly substandard skater who averaged more than a half-point a game for non-playoff Oiler teams through the 2012-13 half-season, knows he must bring to Philadelphia.
Dr. Rachel Gagner – she just finished her residency in Alberta before giving birth August 19 to their first child, Cooper – didn’t marry no dummy. Her husband knows this a critical year to his career.
Having gone a few days after the trade waiting for GM Ron Hextall to confirm the Flyers had cap room to keep him, Gagner hardly needs a wake-up call. Actually, the next few months, he’ll get plenty of those from Cooper, and besides, Dad’s contract is up at the end of the season.
Gagner has skill or he wouldn’t be here. Now, he needs to make himself a good fit with holdovers who could have used more skill around them a year ago.
“Sam has a lot of skill,” said Hextall. “Sam is capable of plying good hockey in the NHL and he has shown up in good shape.
“But I think he is at the point where he has to show it on a nightly basis.”
Wanted: One forward, preferably two, on the same wavelength, required not only by Gagner but by any number of Flyer second-through-fourth line forwards who couldn’t get much going at even strength a year ago. This guy can make a pass, perhaps raise somebody else’s offensive level.
“I’m a lot better than I have shown, especially the last couple of years,” Gagner said. “Until the lockout year, I was having a really good [career]; I think that’s the level I can be at every year.
“I’m hard on myself and I think it has to be that way. It has to get to another level. I’m looking forward to the challenge, think it’s going to go well.”