Sam Gagner looks to fit into Hakstol’s system

“At the end of the day we just didn’t think he could play center at the National Hockey level for us,”

That’s what the Arizona Coyotes general manager, Don Maloney had to say about trading Sam Gagner. While that doesn’t mean he thinks Gagner can’t play at another position, it doesn’t make you very optimistic. For a short while after acquiring Gagner from the Coyotes it kinda seemed like Ron Hextall agreed. Hextall’s initial plan was to immediately buy out Gagner’s contract for more cap space. After thinking about it a bit, Hextall decided to give Gagner a chance to prove himself. Of course, Arizona’s criticisms came as a bit of a shock to Gagner who thought he had improved his two-way play toward the end of the season.

“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.”

This Flyers training camp has had a “show me” narrative. More than a few players have a lot to prove to the organization. Sam Gagner is among players like Vinny Lecavalier, R.J. Umberger, the Schenn brothers and to a much lesser extend Matt Read and Sean Couturier who are all looking to have bounce-back seasons to prove they should stay on this team.

We don’t need to worry about Gagner’s ability to play at center, we have enough of those. So far this season Gagner has been placed on the left wing. Gagner has said that he’s comfortable with playing any forward position, but Hakstol is giving him some extra left wing practice time. In training camp and in the Flyers first pre-season game, Gagner was on the left wing centered by Vinny Lecavalier and paired with Umberger. Last season this line was a death sentence for younger players.  This season, their debut was impressive based on your expectations.

That’s Gagner getting a nice pass over to a breaking Vinny Lecavalier while Umberger narrowly avoided going offsides.

On Tuesday night’s game against the Rangers, Gagner was placed on the left wing of the Simmonds and Couturier line, temporarily replacing Matt Read. During that Game Gagner had one assist and one goal.

What really gives Gagner a bit of an edge in Philadelphia is his minor improvements in two-way play when his time was ending in Arizona. It may not have been enough to be an obvious difference, but when developed more, say by a coach who emphasizes defensive responsibility by forwards, Gagner may not be half bad at getting back. It’s no secret by now that Dave Hakstol puts emphasis on the forwards helping out defensively, so he may be able to build on whatever Gagner started in Arizona.

In the first few preseason games, we’ve seen the defense be very aggressive offensively. They were getting low in the offensive zone during puck cycles and pinching often. Over the last three games, the defense contributed 4 of the 12 Flyers goals overall. This aggressive style is a major part of Hakstol’s system. And he’ll be teaching the forwards to cover for them.

In Broad Street Hockey’s post game write up about the game vs the rangers we get an idea of Hakstol’s system and accountability for the forwards.  “They were good pinches that, as forwards, we didn’t cover and reload above quickly or well enough. So those are things that we have to work through, and this is the time of year where we want to work through those things. Encourage our defensemen to have a little bit more motion and movement in the offensive zone.”

Hakstol is also making drastic changes on how the Flyers play in the neutral zone. Nick Schultz commented on Hakstol’s neutral zone ideas to the media after the second day of training camp. “The neutral zone is different than what we were doing, … [Hakstol] wants the defenseman over the top in the middle instead of a forward there. It’s a little bit different. So, the D’s got to get up and make sure you’re in position. It’s the responsibility of the winger on the wide guy.”

The forwards have to be aware of their surroundings and play a good two-way game. Gagner’s time on the Coyotes (a team lacking in offensive production) has forced him to learn to play more defensively. “I felt like I took huge steps forward in my defensive game last year,” Gagner said. “I think Tippett helped me with that. He was hard on me throughout the year and it helped me become a better player.”

Gagner could be a much-needed piece on an offense that wasn’t particularly great at getting back to help the D last season. If it all works out, Gagner may have finally found a situation where his talents can bring him, and the team, some success.

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