When it comes to parsing through the pros and cons that come with suiting up for your hometown team, Chris Wagner doesn’t dwell too much on the negatives.
And to be fair, have there been any?
Signed to a two-year, $2.5 million contract this summer to fill in as a fourth-line grinder, Wagner has seen his number called more and more during third-line shifts over the past month — a byproduct of the Walpole native’s breakout season in the offensive zone with career highs in goals (12) and points (18).
Off the ice, a quick commute down the Pike to Warrior Ice Arena is one of many small perks that the 27-year-old winger has enjoyed in his first year with Boston (especially when driving against the usual traffic congestion, as he’s quick to note.)
“Yeah I try to take it in as much as possible,” Wagner said. “You know I try to go home; my parents come to every game. My brother comes to most every game, so I already talked to them. … And then a bunch of other perks too. It’s pretty cool. You know, you don’t know if it’s ever going to set in and how cool it is until probably it’s over, but yeah I’m enjoying it right now.”
One of the many deserving candidates for the Bruins’ 7th Player Award, Wagner — dubbed by many as “The Mayor of Walpole” — has already become a fan favorite in Boston through just 74 games, a distinction that is not always doled out to local players returning to the friendly confines of TD Garden.
While the Bruins currently boast four players with New England ties (Noel Acciari, Matt Grzelcyk, Charlie Coyle and Wagner), Bruce Cassidy noted that playing for a hometown team can serve as a double-edged sword for certain athletes.
“I think this market can be hard on the local guys if it doesn’t go well for them,” Cassidy said. “Guys are doing well, (people say), Ah, my buddy, he’s playing in Minny and then he comes here and Now my buddy is not scoring? It’s like, C’mon, I’ve been talking about you.
“So I think they’re a little tougher on the locals, I do. Just my brief experience here. So it takes a certain type of person to handle that. Some I think have done well here and others, maybe it’s gotten to them or bothered them. … I imagine Toronto is difficult, Montreal to certain guys. It’s probably a little bit easier to get by easier in Carolina or somewhere else, it’s just the way it is.”
For every Wagner, there’s a Jimmy Hayes — and the pressure to perform is often even greater for a player added at the trade deadline for a potential playoff push. Looking at you, Coyle.
Tasked with reviving a third line that has failed to gain traction for most of the 2018-19 campaign, Coyle has already taken some flak for his scoring production (five points over 16 games played) — even his puck-possession metrics (56.89 CF%) have made a sizable impact in giving Cassidy another functioning bottom-six option to regularly roll out.
Still, most fans aren’t here to find silver linings by way of shot attempts or Corsi for Percentages. As such, it’s to be expected that a South-Shore product like Coyle will find himself in the crosshairs at times.
Thankfully, there’s where Wagner can provide an assist off the ice for the Bruins.
“I think Wagner is going to help Coyle,” Cassidy said. “Because he’s been through it. Six months ahead of him in that regard. Coyle has been in the league a little longer, but they’ve played together. So I think that part of it, yes, he can probably give him a few pointers on what’s the best way to go about it.
“And they probably skate together in the summer. So it’s natural, those two have played together with the South Shore Kings, years ago. So I assume there is a certain age, with that level of camaraderie where they can handle it better."
While both Wagner and Coyle will have to fine-tune their on-ice production together (35.94 CF%, minus-2 goal differential in 39:37 of 5v5 TOI), Boston’s decision to scoop up Wagner during the offseason is proving to be a bargain. Not just for his efforts on one of the top fourth lines in the NHL, but his value in the locker room.
“It's gone very well,” Cassidy said last week of the addition of Wagner. “We knew he could play in the league. We figured he'd be an energy guy that could replace a (Tim) Schaller type of player. Kill some penalties, add a little it of offense. Hopefully grow his game and like Timmy, he had some time in the national league, probably a little more than Timmy, if memory serves me well. But a guy that wanted to establish himself and add to his resume — I think Chris has done that.
“He started the year, probably more of a fourth line guy that's growing and playing some extra minutes. Even though we characterized him, Noel and (Sean) Kuraly when they were going as a fourth line, it's truly probably our third line in terms of how many minutes they've played. So he's done that. Offensively, I think he's had a career best so far with goals. That will always help you move up the food chain.”