The Vancouver Canucks have been fairly active around the fringes of the trade market this season, making several small deals, the biggest bringing in Josh Leivo. On Saturday, they swapped players that had previously cleared waivers with the Edmonton Oilers: Sam Gagner and Ryan Spooner.
It really seemed like the Canucks didn’t know what to do with Sam Gagner this season. After signing him to a three-year, $9.45 million contract back in 2017, the Canucks suddenly found that they didn’t have a spot for him this season, cutting him in the preseason and putting him on waivers.
When Gagner cleared waivers, the Canucks decided they didn’t want him in Utica, taking a spot in the lineup that could be filled by a young prospect. So, they loaned him to the Toronto Marlies, where he’s been one of their leading scorers, putting up 37 points in 43 games.
You could make the argument that the Canucks could have used Gagner in Utica, where he could have been a playmaking centre for their winger prospects, but I digress.
Apart from a brief call-up when the Canucks faced some serious injury woes, Gagner has spent the entire season in the AHL, where he’s repeatedly proven that he doesn’t really belong there. For all his defensive issues, Gagner is still an NHL-caliber forward and deserves another shot at playing in the NHL. He’ll get that shot in a familiar place: Edmonton.
Gagner was drafted 6th overall by Edmonton in 2007 and spent seven seasons with the Oilers, where he consistently put up 40+ points per season and famously became the first player in 23 years to score eight points in a game when he racked up 4 goals and 4 assists against the Chicago Blackhawks back in 2012.
The Oilers, however, saw Gagner as part of the problem in Edmonton, trading him to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who promptly shipped him to the Arizona Coyotes.
For Gagner, the Canucks get back Ryan Spooner, part of the continually-devolving trade tree for Jordan Eberle.
The Oilers traded Eberle to the New York Islanders for Ryan Strome, but after Strome put up just two points in 18 games to start this season, they moved him to the New York Rangers for Spooner. Unfortunately, Spooner wasn’t much better for the Oilers, putting up just three points in 25 games, so he was placed on waivers and sent to the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL when he cleared.
Eberle, meanwhile, had 25 goals and 59 points last season for the Islanders and has 13 goals and 26 points in 53 games this season.
Spooner is fairly similar to Gagner: he can play at either centre or on the wing, is primarily a playmaker, and has some serious defensive deficiencies. His cap hit is also very similar, as the Rangers retained $900,000 of Spooner’s salary when they traded him to the Oilers, so Spooner’s cap hit is $50,000 less than Gagner’s. Both are even signed for one more season after this one.
Looking at microstats, Spooner is an upgrade on Gagner when it comes to exiting the defensive zone and gaining the offensive zone, but does a lot less once he gets to the offensive zone. He’s arguably a downgrade overall on Gagner, but the Canucks clearly had no interest in calling up Gagner. Spooner has also played more on the wing than at centre over the last couple season, partly because he struggles in the faceoff circle, with a 42.8% career faceoff percentage.
Jim Benning is very familiar with Spooner from his time in Boston. While Benning was Assistant General Manager, the Bruins drafted Spooner in the second round in 2010, and he was on-hand to watch Spooner’s development in the AHL and first few seasons in the NHL. Spooner had a couple solid seasons on the Bruins’ third line, putting up 49 and 39 points in 2015-16 and 2016-17, then scored another 41 points in a 2017-18 season split between the Bruins and Rangers.
If Spooner can find that scoring touch again — it completely disappeared this season — he could be valuable to the Canucks. It’s also possible, however, that the Canucks could keep Spooner in Utica, using him as a playmaking centre for their prospect wingers. With Adam Gaudette proving that he belongs in the NHL, the Comets could certainly use another top-six centre.
The intention, however, is to call up Spooner to play with the Canucks, likely on the left wing. This may mean Sven Baertschi will be out for much longer than expected. Jake Virtanen is also currently out of the lineup with an upper body injury.
In order to call Spooner up, however, the Canucks will need to make a roster move. The most obvious candidate for demotion is Tim Schaller, who hasn't played since February 4th, even with the Canucks' injuries and recent losing skid. When he did play, it was regularly under 10 minutes. It wouldn't be surprising to see Schaller put on waivers.
EDIT: It turns out Virtanen's injury is a little worse than perhaps originally thought. He's been placed on IR, which frees up a roster spot for Spooner to get called up.
In Vancouver, there may be an opportunity in the top-six for Spooner, but it’s advisable to temper expectations: the Oilers desperately needed offensive help on the wing, but were still willing to put Spooner on waivers and send him to the AHL rather than have him in their NHL lineup.