Former Ducks draft pick Chris Wagner has stuck with Bruins
ANAHEIM, Calif. — For six years, he tried to carve out a role in the NHL while skating on this ice sheet. Those memories came flooding back Thursday for Chris Wagner.
“First development camp, all the training camps, a lot of long, hard hours,” he said after the Bruins skated at Anaheim Ice, a few miles from where they’ll face the Ducks at Honda Center on Friday night. “Coming back here, you think about all those times, from when I was 19 until now.”
The present is a gift for the hard-working forward from Walpole, Mass., a 2010 Ducks fifth-round draft pick. In his time in that organization, he was called up four times, waived and claimed twice (from Anaheim to Colorado and back in 2016), and traded to the New York Islanders last Feb. 26.
“We have a great line rolling right now, have a role we’re doing well at, shutting teams down,” said Wagner, who again will skate with Noel Acciari and Sean Kuraly on Friday. “It means a lot. I think about the waivers, the trades, being in the minors. I still think about that a lot. I’m grateful to be in this spot.”
Wagner said the same in Anaheim, even though the challenges were greater.
“He took everything with a smile on his face,” said New Jersey Devils winger Kyle Palmieri, a fellow Ducks draftee (first-rounder in 2009) and summer training-and-golf buddy of Wagner’s. “In Anaheim when you get sent down, San Diego’s not the worst place to go.”
But there’s no place like home, especially on a two-year, $2.5 million deal he signed with Boston last July 1 that nearly doubled his previous salary. He has provided significant bang for those bucks.
Wagner, who finished third in the NHL last season in hits (253), is on track to get close (with 190 this season he ranks sixth). However, among players with 600 or more five-on-five minutes, Wagner leads the league in hits per 60 minutes (17.9). The 6-foot, 198-pound winger provides more value than that.
Coach Bruce Cassidy has settled on a line with Wagner, Kuraly (left wing), and Acciari (center) that shutters opponents not just with physical play but puck possession in the opponents’ end. It has led to Wagner, according to Natural Stat Trick, averaging 9.32 scoring chances per 60 minutes. That is the best hourly rate of anyone on the team, ahead of Brad Marchand (9.15) and Patrice Bergeron (9.05).
Even though he scored a skillful breakaway goal last month against St. Louis, Wagner isn’t likely to challenge for a top-six role. But Cassidy believes Wagner is still evolving as an offensive player, and that his raw stats (six goals, five assists) could be more substantial with more offseason training. Similarly, Wagner reported his confidence with the puck and on-ice vision have improved since October.
“He probably will be double digits [in goals] this year,” Cassidy said. “If he keeps getting the minutes he’s getting [12:57 per game] and responsibility, he should be . . . I think he understands his value to the team, the expectation. He’s delivered there. It was just a little feeling-out process for him.”
When Cassidy was a Blackhawks teammate of Bob Murray, under Mike Keenan in the 1980s, neither believed he would be a coach.
But there they were Thursday, two NHL bench bosses chatting after Boston’s practice.
Murray, the Ducks GM who went into management when he finished his playing career in 1991, became a first-time coach after firing Randy Carlyle on Sunday. More than 20 years ago, Murray counseled Cassidy when the latter faced the end of the road, knee injuries sidelining with IHL Indianapolis in 1996.
“Bob Murray helped me a lot,” said Cassidy, now 100-44-21 with the Bruins. “I asked him, ‘I want to stay in hockey, what do you think of coaching?’ It’s funny, because I was a fairly laid-back guy. Now I don’t think it’d be described as laid-back by the players when the puck drops.
“He said, ‘You don’t know until you try.’ I got a call two weeks later to go coach in the East Coast League [with Jacksonville] . . . they were letting go of their coach. Off I went. He helped push me in that direction. Always grateful.”
Halak gets call
Jaroslav Halak will start in net against the Ducks, five days after allowing one goal on 36 shots in a win over Colorado. Tuukka Rask will face the Kings on Saturday . . . Defenseman Matt Grzelcyk (lower body) and call-up winger Karson Kuhlman will be scratches Friday, but Cassidy suspected both will be in his lineup in Los Angeles. Grzelcyk, Cassidy said Thursday, was “very close, if not ready.” . . . In its last 10 games, rivals Boston (6-1-3) and Montreal (7-1-2) were running about even. Among East teams, only Philadelphia (8-1-1) has more points in its last 10 than those two . . . Anaheim won its first game under Murray, beating Vancouver, 1-0, here on Wednesday night. Jakob Silfverberg, a potential deadline-day addition for someone, scored the only goal (his 13th), but rookie goalie Kevin Boyle, ex- of UMasses Amherst and Lowell, stole the two points in his first NHL start (35 saves). Boyle’s appearance wasn’t a result of Murray making a Greg Goldberg-for-Julie “The Cat” Gaffney strategical switch; top tender John Gibson and backup Chad Johnson are on IR . . . Before Wednesday’s win, the wounded Ducks had lost their previous seven games — outscored, 37-8, in the process — and 19 of their prior 21. Gunnar Stahl would snicker at Anaheim’s offense, which ranks worst in the league in several major categories: goals per game (2.19), goals during five-on-five play (87), shots per game (27.4), power-play success at home (11.6 percent).