TORONTO – Sam Gagner was back in NHL and felt great.
Playing an important role with Vancouver Canucks – first line minutes, No. 1 power play – after a surprise ban on minors before the season, his family had also been reunited on the west coast.
The 29-year-old defender was all smiling at the team's competition competition earlier this month, accompanied on the bench by one of his two young sons wearing Daddy's Blue No. 89 sweater.
Although Canucks fought, Gagner had a goal and two assistants, and was regularly taken late in the game.
There was reason for optimism.
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A few days later Gagner got his second professional shock for two months when Canucks returned him to AHL Toronto Marlies, resuming their loan agreement.
"I played really well when I was in Vancouver – that's the surprising part," he said after his first game back with Marlies on the weekend. "Both (Canucks GM Jim Benning and main trainer Travis Green) said the same. They thought I played well.
"It's therefore hard to take."
A veteran of 770 NHL games on his way into this season, Gagner was demoted despite playing over 18 minutes at night during the two week stretch.
His average 3:14 power play was tied third with Bo Horvat, afterwards only Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson. Gagner also had the best straight shot differential of 58.21 percent, while his other advanced measurements indicate that he was unlucky that he had not scored more often.
It was not enough to hold him up with the big club.
"We did not find any winner," says Gagner. "But that stack drove it home to me that I can play at that level and be effective."
An eyebrow training camp cut – he signed a three-year, $ 9.45 million contract in the free agency two weeks ago and chose Canucks over a number of other suitors. Gagner was loaned to Marlies in October instead of being awarded Vancouver affiliates in Utica, NY, after removing exceptions.
And while Gagner, who had seven goals and eight assisted in 15 matches with Toronto before being revoked on November 18, said he would never ask for a trade, a step would clearly be welcomed at this time.
"I want an NHL opportunity," says Gagner, whose rights are maintained by Canucks. "I would like it to be in Vancouver, but it does not seem as if I'm in their plans.
"I have proven that I belong."
Gagner, who produces US $ 3.5 million this season, regardless of where he plays, has 153 goals and 283 helps in parts of 12 NHL campaigns.
The sixth election in the 2007 Edmonton draft said he was told by Canucks that the reason for this reduction was simple – unlike some other veterans on the roster, he did not need to renounce another time.
Caught in a speech game with a reconstruction franchise, Gagner skid around the question when asked whether he enchanted signing in Vancouver after his 50-point season with Columbus in 2016-17.
"I had jumped around," said Gagner, who, like many Canucks, had a hard 2017-18 with only 10 goals and 21 assists. "They seemed to be very excited about having me there. It's a kind of surprising part. It's the same coach and management.
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Maple Leaf's Center John Tavares, who grew up with Gagner in the suburbs west of Toronto, said he was surprised to see his close friend back in minors.
"It's a good test of his character and his will to dig in," said Tavares, who spoke to Gagner after he was dimmed. "I always tell him he's someone for me to look at because I have not been in that situation and I can not imagine how difficult it is."
Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said how Gagner has treated the opposition is a lesson to his young players.
"You should make the most of it," Keefe said. "He has quit and returned to work."
"His career is what any of us wish we could have," added Marlies veteran center Chris Mueller. "He is not down here to be negative or angry with the world. His presence, his leadership will go a long way, so as to show these kids how it's to be a good professional.
"I'm not too familiar with Canucks' situation, but I know he's a hell of a hockey player and deserves to be up there."
That is what Gagner hopes for, especially with his wife and children who have stayed in Vancouver since September.
"You go from playing first line minutes and on the first power play one night. You're with your family and Christmas is around the corner," he said. "The next day you go back to minors – definitely a shock.
"You just keep pushing and hopefully there's another option."
Either with Canucks or anywhere else.