All five of us agreed that Sam Gagner is the best Oiler under age 25 and I would imagine that this is pretty close to unanimous among Oiler fans in general. The reasons for the selection are numerous but there are two that stick out when you compare Gagner to everyone else in this exercise. The first and most important: Sam Gagner is helping his NHL team win games right now in a significant role. The second, which is still important: he's still getting better. After the jump, we'll take some time to look at, not whether or not Gagner will be good, but at how good he might become.
The first thing I wanted to do is establish that Gagner is in fact improving with time. His rookie season saw him score 13 goals and 36 assists for a total of 49 points in 78 games. He followed that with 41 points in 76 games last year and 36 points in 58 games so far this season. A quick look at the boxcars paints the picture of a guy who's running in place. So where is the evidence that he's improving? Let's take a look at some of the other ("underlying") numbers that help to provide context for his boxcars:
A few notes of explanation for the chart. The second column is the number of times Gagner started in the offensive zone subtracted by the number of times he started in the defensive zone. So that -4 number means he's had four more defensive zone starts over the course of this season, the most difficult ratio of his young career. The next three columns all talk about "Corsi." Corsi is goals + saved shots + missed shots + blocked shots while a given player is on the ice. Corsi + are shots for, Corsi - shots against (for a longer explanation of Corsi, Kent Wilson did a great writeup about a week ago). As you can see, Gagner is in the black by this measure for the first time in his career, despite a more difficult ratio of zone starts. That's good news because it means Gagner is getting better at driving possession as his career progresses. The last three columns are "Quality of Competition" measurements. The first one is based on the +/- of Gagner's opponents. The second is based on the Corsi number of his opponents and the third based on the Corsi of this opponents relative to their teammates. Personally, I'm partial to the last one, but I think it's helpful to use all three. The score (i.e. "10th") is where Gagner ranks relative to the rest of the Oiler forwards who played at least 20 games. So, for example, this season Gagner is ranked 10th, 7th and 12th among Oiler forwards by these three measures. What this tells me is that Gagner has been facing pretty easy competition all three seasons though I expect his gap from the top is smallest this season given the tendencies of Craig MacTavish (hard-matching most of the time) and Pat Quinn (rolling lines most of the time). All in all, when I look at these numbers, I see a player that's improving at a nice clip and I expect that improvement to continue through Gagner's early twenties. I also need to acknowledge both Gabe Desjardins and Vic Ferrari who have provided access to the information posted in the above chart.
So if Gagner is improving, why aren't his boxcar totals also going up? And for this we need to look to the vagaries of shooting percentages in the game of hockey as well as the kinds of opportunities that Gagner has been afforded. Which means, of course, that it's time for another chart!
Now, it's been demonstrated on more than a few occasions that shooting percentage, while not entirely random - some players really do shoot the puck better than others - varies widely from season to season. And as we can see by the chart above this season happens to be Gagner's worst at EV both for himself personally and for the team while Gagner is on the ice. The take home here is that this change is completely out of his control. In some seasons the puck is going in for you, in other seasons it's not. The fourth column about (EV Point %) is the amount of time Gagner received a point for a goal scored while he was on the ice at even strength. Again, this number tends to vary widely. The 84% number Gagner put up in 2007-08 really isn't sustainable and was bound to come down. I'll have another post later this week on EV Point % that looks at a broader range of players but, suffice to say, again Gagner is at his lowest ebb in this season with a number that tends to fluctuate a lot.
The other thing I mentioned is opportunity and I've expressed that largely with ice time in the chart above. Gagner has had slightly more ice time at EV than he's had in the past but not really a lot. At times he's had better linemates than years past (he's spent a fair bit of time with Penner) but at other times this year his linemates haven't been quite as good (Moreau and Stortini to start the season and he's been with Brule - I'm not a fan - quite a bit). On the whole, I think that's probably close to a wash. The other thing that's happened is a decrease in power play time this year, which isn't something I would've guessed. It's only 10 seconds off his first season but it's close to 30 seconds off his last season, which will put a dent in your boxcar numbers for sure. As we saw in the first chart, Gagner is also being fed the most difficult minutes of his career. Given that context, the small improvement in points-per-game this season should be seen as a plus.
Finally, I wanted to talk a little bit about projection. When I tried projecting Gagner's numbers before, I got it wrong, largely because I didn't factor in the high percentages in that he had in his first season. Nonetheless, I continue to agree with Lowetide that Vincent Damphousse probably represents the best comparable for Gagner going forward but would also like to look at Tim Connolly who had similar junior totals to Damphousse at 17 but played in the NHL at 18, like Gagner:
I think it's worth noting that Damphousse put up 2.25 PPG at 18 in junior, a very good match for Gagner's 17 year-old season. It's also worth noting that Gagner is about 8 months older for his "19 year old" season than Damphousse was for his (and so on) so it might make more sense to compare Gagner at "19" to Damphousse at "20," so, for what it's worth, Damphousse had 0.85 PPG in his 21-year-old season. Either way, Gagner seems to be tracking with Damphousse pretty well and is ahead of Tim Connolly who, when he's not injured, is an awfully good player. I remain very (VERY!) optimistic about Gagner, to the point that it is not an automatic that whoever the Oilers draft first overall will leap ahead of him.