"Are you sure you don't mean microstatistical?" one of my fellow C&B writers asked, cautiously and courteously, upon seeing the title of my Andrew Cogliano piece. "I don't know if there's an agreed on adjectival form, but 'microstatic' read strange to me so I thought I'd check." Points to my esteemed colleague for getting the correct adjectival form of "adjective", but I decided since the root word in the current instance is "microstat" not "microstatistic", it shouldn't need all of three more syllables to, uh, adjectivize it. A six-syllable word just seemed to be overkill. So I decided to reactivate my poet's license and make up a new word. Besides, it's hardly the first time I've created (wait for it) a little static.
It occurred to me when rolling out the Cogliano data 2007-10 that it might be instructive to do something similar for other young players who have been developing their games during that span. The first obvious choice is Sam Gagner, who joined the Oilers at the exact same time as Cogliano, signing an entry-level contract in the summer of '07 and proceeding to make the team straight out of training camp. Sam too has now completed the first three years of his apprenticeship, that ELC now bought and paid for. How did he perform?
After the jump, a whole bunch of dry numbers, coupled with some observations, interpretations and opinions which could well be all wet.
As before, data here has been painstakingly collected from NHL.com and behindthenet.ca for each of the three seasons under review. I have included all forwards with 18+ GP with the Oilers, which is exactly 16 skaters in all three seasons. BtN has slightly different parameters in that it only includes players who ended the season with a given team so the number of players is not a perfect match. (16 forwards in 2007-08, 15 in '08-09, and 17 in '09-10, which will have a very slight effect on some of the rankings.)
Gagner has seen his GP fall off a little in each season, with his 2009-10 season ending early due to a chronic hip problem. His ice time has remained relatively consistent over the three years, about 13 minutes a night at even strength, another 3 on the powerplay, and negligible time killing penalties.
Boxcars: Like Cogliano, Gagner achieved a career high in his rookie season and has seen his totals diminish since. That his 41 points ranked second on the Oilers last year speaks to the team's severe lack of scoring. Good thing Dustin Penner is big enough to be an island, because he was one.
The top two rows are a little concerning. Gagner has seen his QualComp numbers and rankings decline since his arrival in Edmonton, while continuing to secure the very best of linemates, at least if you believe the Gospel According to Hawerchuk (and I do, with moderate confidence). Both Craig MacTavish and Pat Quinn sheltered Sam to the best of their ability. Fortunately his Relative Corsi numbers are solid, but one would expect that under such favourable circumstances.
Like Cogliano, Gagner has steadily improved his shot totals, a pattern that becomes more evident when parsed on a per game metric (1.71, 2.05, 2.50). However his Sh% numbers, while steady, are nothing to write home about.
That last statement holds equally true when examining the shooting success of the team when Sam is on the ice. His Sh% ON ranks a middling 8th in all three seasons; nothing there suggests an elite playmaker engineering above-average scoring opportunities. Or it could be the absence of that mythical one shot scorer on his flank (or on this team). On the defensive side of the puck his Sv% ON took a big bump in his second season, which is reflected directly in his GA figures below.
Gagner's finishing ability is nothing special; he has never ranked in the top 6 on the Oilers in goals per unit of ice time at even strength. It's interesting to note BtN's breakdown of primary and secondary assists which certainly supports the notion that Sam's forte is the telling pass to the goalscorer, but it's concerning that both his numbers and his team rankings have tumbled down the charts since that at-times-delightful rookie season. Add it all up and we have something of a middling point producer at even strength, without too many numbers rising off the page screaming "elite scorer". Not yet.
The most interesting thing here is the fluctuation in GA, which is virtually in lockstep with the variation in Sv% ON noted above. One wonders how much of these numbers are Sam's doings, and how much was a matter of Dwayne Roloson's strong 2008-09 season making him look better defensively than is actually the case. (Or JDD et al making him look worse in '09-10.)
Gagner has next to no physical element to his game. His penalties drawn:taken ratio was very respectable in Years 1 and 3 but took a nose dive in the middle season when Sam got in a rut of taking bad penalties for awhile.
Hmmm. Gagner has been sheltered in his ZoneStarts. I have ranked them in order of difficulty, but they can also be read as 4th easiest, easiest, and 6th easiest over the three years. I have adjusted ZoneFinish to account for goals for and against, and note that Gagner's figure is slightly worse than his Expected ZoneFinish in each of the three seasons, which flies somewhat in the face of his solid RelCorsi stats. He has gradually taken more draws after being sheltered in his rookie year, and like Cogliano saw about a 5% bump in his percentages in his third year, but still ranks among the poorest faceoff men on the club. Surely this is an age thing, and I'm not too worried that he will be able to reach somewhere close to 50% in a year or two, but it's clearly an area that needs work.
I have added powerplay production stats in this case since this is such a significant part of Sam's game. All rankings are based on 9 forwards who met the twin thresholds of 20 GP and 1:00+ PP TOI/G. (I discarded Ryan Jones in '09-10 to keep the number of teammates constant; Jones played only a handful of games with the Oil and wasn't a factor on the PP.)
It's interesting to see how the individual scoring categories yo-yo about - Sam made his living as a playmaker in his rookie year, then became more of a scorer while his assists totals plummeted off the map in year two. Last year saw Gagner produce solid numbers across the board, including a huge bump in secondary assists which may be a fluke in small number statistics, or it may speak to his function in the Hemskyless powerplay. Appearances often to the contrary, powerplay production was up more than a goal per 60 minutes on Gagner's watch last year.
* * *
As an 18-20 year old, Sam Gagner produced moderately decent offensive numbers while playing sheltered minutes with top-level teammates. His ability to step into a tougher-minutes role is far from proven at this point, but it is essential that he be able to do so soon. As the Oilers' top young centre and no worse than #2 on the overall depth chart, he's a key player for the team going forward, and as he is himself surrounded with younger players it will be impossible to shelter him forever. Gagner also needs to continue his emergence as a key contributor on the powerplay in order to bring his offensive numbers up to something approaching first-line centre production. The return of Ales Hemsky may facilitate that, or it may complicate matters further; improved chemistry between Sam and Ales would be a welcome sight with the man advantage as both appear to slot into the first unit. At evens Sam will get his opportunities to click with one or more of the young guns; the 2010-11 Oilers are blessed with a lot of talent on the wings and it's incumbent on the pivots to get the youngsters the puck in good situations. A Gagner - Taylor Hall partnership may well be in the cards. Still just 21, Gagner enters his fourth NHL season as one of the young vets on the squad with a great opportunity to grow into a leadership role.