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Sam Gagner's reappearance in Edmonton establishes him as NHL's definitive cockroach

Sam Gagner's NHL career is proving to be completely and utterly indestructible.

Sam Gagner's NHL dreams appear to be impossible to kill.

The 34-year-old made his AHL debut during the 2015-16 season after never experiencing the level on the way up — and since then he's been engaged in a constant fight to keep his spot in hockey's most prestigious league.

He appeared to find some security when he signed a three-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks in the summer of 2017, but just over a year later he was back in the AHL having been loaned to the Toronto Marlies. By the end of that season, he'd returned to the team that drafted him — the Edmonton Oilers — but he couldn't avoid an AHL stint in 2019-20, either.

Gagner ended that campaign with the Detroit Red Wings, and proceeded to sign two different one-year contracts worth $850K with the team before setting for a one-year $750K deal with the Winnipeg Jets in 2022-23.

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During that period of time, he topped 50 NHL games and 15 points just once — a successful 2021-22 season with the Red Wings.

Prior to the 2023-24 season, Gagner had to settle for an AHL contract with the Bakersfield Condors to keep fighting for his spot at the top of the hockey world — and that decision paid off within eight days in the form of a two-way contract with the Edmonton Oilers.

That tooth-and-nail grind added another feel-good chapter on Thursday night as Gagner made 2023-24 the 17th consecutive NHL season he's appeared in by suiting up with the Oilers.

Sam Gagner keeps fighting for and receiving opportunities long after his NHL career looked to be winding down (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)
Sam Gagner keeps fighting for and receiving opportunities long after his NHL career looked to be winding down (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Gagne didn't just participate, either. He played a significant role in keeping his team in the game with a two-goal effort.

Neither goal was a thing of beauty, but for one night he provided two-thirds of his club's offense — an impressive feat considering the Oilers employ Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Edmonton is a mess right now, and it would be unfair to expect Gagner to make a game-changing contribution for them. Those two goals will likely comprise a relatively large percentage of his entire season total in 2023-24. After all, Gagner has produced just one year with double-digit goals since 2017-18.

Though the veteran has an eight-point game on his resume, even at his peak he was never a superstar. He hasn't topped 18 goals or 50 points in the NHL even though offence has been his calling card. That's not a scathing indictment of his career. Any player who reaches 1,016 games played in the NHL has done a lot right.

In fact, it's part of what makes him so unique. The fact that his career can seemingly survive anything makes the cockroach comparison apt, but it might be more accurate — and certainly more flattering — to describe him as a unicorn. The reality is that as much as players will pay lip service to their love of the game, few are willing to earn their place in it day-in and day-out for years.

Most guys who hang on for as long as Gagner has are riding on the coattails of past accomplishments. His are solid, but not overwhelming. Gagner is long past the point when anyone is going to hand anything to him. If anything, teams might be inclined to rule against him if there's a younger alternative they perceive to have a brighter future — or just think is worth evaluating.

NHL teams haven't approached Gagner in recent years expecting untapped potential or hoping he can recapture former glory. They are appraising precisely what he can do in the moment, and they keep coming to the conclusion that he has something to offer.

The Edmonton Oilers seem to believe that. They wouldn't have signed up for the Gagner experience for a third time if they didn't.

It remains to be seen how much that faith will be rewarded, but whatever happens from here, the veteran deserves the admiration of hockey fans for demonstrating a passion to compete with the best in the world — even when nothing is ever handed to him.