There are 19 different individual awards listed in the NHL's official guide and record book, but none for comeback player of the year, a curious omission for a league that loves its shiny trophy case.
Too bad, because while there may be lots of viable candidates this year, few would qualify the way the Columbus Blue Jackets' Sam Gagner does.
Gagner is the comeback player of the year on the comeback team of the year, the astonishing Blue Jackets, who are after their 16th consecutive victory on Tuesday night against the Edmonton Oilers, the team that drafted Gagner sixth overall in 2007.
The NHL record for consecutive wins is 17 – established by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1993 – and if Columbus can win its next two, it will go for the record 18th on Saturday against the New York Rangers, coach John Tortorella's old team. And if that delicious bit of serendipity doesn't appeal to you, consider what Tuesday's date with the Oilers means for Gagner, who has rebounded in a meaningful way from two mostly lost seasons since leaving Edmonton.
Gagner was traded twice on the same day back in June, 2014 – from the Oilers to Tampa and then from the Lightning to the Arizona Coyotes, largely for salary-cap reasons. A year later, he – but more precisely, his contract – was traded again, this time from the Coyotes to the Philadelphia Flyers, as part of a salary-cap circumventing deal that landed Chris Pronger's rights in Arizona.
Gagner had become a financial liability, an unwanted charge on the balance sheet, and last year made it into only 53 games for the Flyers and nine more for their Lehigh Valley AHL affiliate.
Gagner needed a change of scenery in a meaningful way and this is how life can sometimes come full circle.
Back in 2006-07, in his final year of junior hockey, Gagner played with Philip McRae for the London Knights. McRae's father, Basil, was the Knights GM last year when they won the Memorial Cup, and this year moved on to join Columbus as their director of player personnel. The McRaes had a personal connection to the Gagners – Basil McRae played with Sam's father, Dave Gagner, in Minnesota and their paths have crossed frequently since.
Philip McRae knew something others didn't: This past summer was the first time in forever that Sam Gagner hadn't spent the off-season rehabilitating from injury. He was healthy, motivated and had an opportunity to train instead of convalesce – to get ready for what might have been his last good chance at regular NHL employment.
Gagner signed with Columbus for the bargain-basement sum of $650,000 (U.S.) and the results have been nothing short of remarkable.
As of Monday, he was tied with Alex Ovechkin and three others for 42nd in the NHL scoring race, with 28 points, including 14 goals. And he's done it mostly as a winger on the fourth line at even strength and as a key member of the Blue Jackets' league-leading first power-play unit. Tortorella takes no credit for how they've come to deploy Gagner, noting they arrived at the solution through a system of trial and error.
"We wanted Sam as a centre because we thought we needed more plays made out of the centre of the ice," Tortorella says. "I don't think he's a centre. I don't think he played well as a centre. I had him out of the lineup as a centre. Then we put him on the wing and it just seemed to work."
Gagner, now 27, still has a boyish look about him, even though he has almost 700 games of NHL experience on his résumé.
He says of his resurgence, "I've had a few setbacks the last few years, but I do believe if you frame it the right way, adversity can shape you and help you."
Gagner scored only 16 points last season; his career high was 49, recorded in his first pro season with the Oilers. At this rate, he is on pace for a personal best.
Blue Jackets team president John Davidson praised Gagner for his professionalism, which he described as "really impressive. It's been a terrific marriage. You just love players who are zero maintenance."
Gagner is frank about the path that led him to Columbus.
"Honestly, I didn't have many options," he said. "We were talking to a few teams, but nothing much was going on. When Columbus entered the picture, I liked what they had to say about me as a player and what they felt my potential could be within this group.
"I felt I learned a lot about my game last year. I'm getting an opportunity to play in some important situations and I'm enjoying playing on a winning team. That makes everyone feel better and play better. It's been a lot of fun."