Sam Gagner is second. Of course Sam Gagner is second. How could Sam Gagner be anything but second?
He turns twenty-one in a week's time. He scored more points last season than the rest of the top six prospects have in their combined NHL careers. He was first in the winter and is only second now because we finished in the tank and drafted Taylor Hall, and that particular hopeful icon hasn't had time to suffer a debilitating injury yet. If I had polled every one of you to guess the top 25 under 25 before we started, almost every last one would have gone Hall first, Gagner second, and the rest would have been a tangled mess of speculation, hope, and trying to figure out which prospects Derek would go all contrarian on.
Gagner's record just gets better the more you look at it. Already a legitimate NHLer. Not a star, but plenty of time to round into one. Plays a key position where the Oilers are wanting for impact players. Advanced statistics tell you that he does more with less than any of the youngsters currently on the Oilers. Good guy, good player, small, exciting, not constantly injured, and never had a single extreme DUI. Picking Sam Gagner second is probably the easiest task we faced for this entire exercise.
So yes, I did rank him fourth.
No, I didn't take my stupid pills this morning. Sam Gagner didn't run over my cat in his Land Rover. I'm not just trying to be difficult or showing off what an irreverent punk I am. I have no advanced statistic up my sleeve to prove to you that Sam Gagner secretly stinks.
Last year for Sam Gagner was a qualified success. His points-per-game improved to 0.6, nearly as high as his luck-aided rookie season. +/- aside, he did very nearly as well by the newspaper statistics as he did the previous season in a much more difficult situation on a less competitive team. It wasn't a leap, but it was a step up. Not what you hope for from a young skill forward entering his third NHL season, but it was something.
In his third NHL season, 21-year-old Vincent Damphousse improved his previous season's point total by twenty. 23-year-old Doug Weight improved by 26 points despite the problem of playing for the 1993-94 Edmonton Oilers. Ales Hemsky was 22 and what should have been his third NHL season was eaten by the lockout but at the end of the day he went from 34 to 77 points. Sam Gagner went from 41 points to the same 41 points, except in fewer games. He's younger than any of these ersatz comparables but it's not like Gagner is physically immature. This is the point of his career where a first-line forward should start to figure out the opposition and Sam Gagner only kinda is.
There's no cause for alarm, of course. He still has time. Marc Savard figured it out late in his career and he's hardly the only one. Being an NHL playmaker is not the easiest job in the world. But "it's not too late!" is a weak way to justify promoting a prospect.
Meanwhile, his competition is getting more and more impressive. Jordan Eberle, clutchness aside, improves season upon season at a rate which has defied his doubters. Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson started brilliant and is getting even more brilliant than that. Next to these amazing young men Gagner starts to look a little pokey.
Now, it's true that I said as recently as my Zack Stortini article that it's worth giving someone who's already made it more credit than someone who might, but Eberle and Paajarvi-Svensson aren't Chris Vande Velde. They've both had success in superb professional leagues that aren't the AHL. Eberle's only played a little outside of junior but he was dominant in the WHL last year despite the mediocrity of his Regina Pats. Both also had tremendous senior World Championships runs: unlike the Jeff Petrys or Ryan Martindales of the world, we know that Eberle and Paajarvi-Svensson can play with men because they're already proven it. It becomes a lot easier to rate them on their potential when we don't have to worry about their present.
That's where Gagner comes up short. I certainly don't mean to insult him. I don't even want to say "he'll be a fine NHL player someday" because he's a fine NHL player now. But from his sophomore season on Gagner has looked like he'll be a superb second-line centre someday. If you had him on your first line you wouldn't be in dire straits but he hardly seems likely to start making All-Star Games or getting Olympic team consideration. Maybe he becomes one of those fringe first line guys, like Shawn Horcoff has been for most of his career, where even though he's getting pretty good results, much of the fanbase can't help but wish they had something a bit better. His career hasn't got the trajectory of a man destined for stardom, merely good-dom.
I think most of my colleagues who ranked Gagner second on the team would agree with me. You can't see an elite player hiding in that little shell, whereas with Eberle or Paajarvi-Svensson the jury's still out but hopes are high. But you'll notice I'm refraining from making any confident predictions along the lines of printing out this article and eating it.
He can bloody well pass like a dream. He can skate, he can shoot. He knows which way the puck is going. And he's not quite old enough to drink when the team's on the road in the States. Sam Gagner is a very nice player but there's still a chance he can get much better. We should probably know by next season. Another forty-one points will tell us something about him. Let's hope he tells us something else instead.