Juan Gris: Mann im Café via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Player development is not a linear function. It doesn't fit into a normal distribution, either. For most players, developing into an effective NHL player is a process marked by incremental improvements in the smallest parts of their games. Along the way, progress is often impeded by factors like injuries, trades, promotions, league changes, military service, coaching, coaching changes and family matters. Most of all, player development is affected by NHL teams and personnel management. There's no way to put a nice bow on a box and present it as player development, in fact, player development is like a cubist painting - messy, chaotic, broken and random.
Sam Gagner is a wonderful player. He's had a rocky start to his career, because as my esteemed colleague Jonathan Willis notes "If this were a real NHL team with real NHL management, he'd still have at least a year left in his ELC." Gagner was rushed into the NHL in order to please a cranky fan base, a fan base forced to watch the teams heart shipped away to Long Island. Since then Gagner has played a regular role on all four lines, played with rookies and veterans, killed penalties, manned the power play, required to play with more heart, more grit, more skill, and more toughness, but always in a constant state of flux. Gagner is currently playing his fourth professional season under his third coach and third group of assistant coaches and fifth general manager.
Despite all of this, Gagner has slowly progressed as a professional. Though his faceoff percentage continues to lag, the rest of his game is NHL quality. He's only 21 years old already has 270 NHL games under his belt, though, as described above, those games have been played for a very bad franchise in a tempestuous era.
Sam Gagner's progression is obvious here. His qualcomp is increasing each year and his raw Corsi numbers aren't suffering...So Penner, Gagner and Hemsky are the only guys on the team constantly pushing play up the ice, and at the same time moving their plots to the right of the graph. Given their success as a line last season, it seems that these three may make a formidable first line.
Gagner has held serve this time around in second place as Ben has bumped him up a spot, Bruce dropped him two spots, Jonathan dropped him a spot and Scott held stead in second. In the comments of Taylor Hall's summer rankings post, I said "The decision between Gagner and Hall was the most difficult of the list for me..." and it remains so. Because of that, I moved Gagner into a tie for first.
Gagner's stock has plummeted on the Oilers Fan Opinion Exchange, with some very bright people asking to trade the young center. With his stock at an all-time low, why am I moving him up the ladder? The answer is simple - comparables.
Lowetide likes Vincent Damphousse and Doug GIlmour, Jonathan has Jim Fox, Bobby Carpenter, Vincent Damphousse, Pat Falloon, or Tim Connolly in his comparable list and all are interesting comparisons. Regular reader Matt.N likes Sam's dad Dave as a comparable. In September, I took a different approach to statistical comps for Gagner. Riffing off of Jonathan's wonderful normalization work, I chose to normalize every forward in NHL history for era effects and then find all forwards under the age of 21 that were in the range (+/- 15% of P/G) of Gagner in one of their three NHL seasons, and didn't go terribly off of the rails or take off towards superstardom shortly thereafter. Height be damned, 1980 be damned, who can we find for Gagner that matches up solely by the math?
The list was interesting and included some names that most wouldn't associate with Gagner: Kirk Muller, Dan Quinn, Jeremy Roenick, Bobby Carpenter, Bobby Clarke, Dave Keon, Brian Bellows, Rod Brind'Amour, Vincent Damphousse, Peter Zezel, and Doug Gilmour. Three of them stood out for being very close statistical matches for Gagner - Carpenter, Keon and Clarke. In that article I wrote:
Mention Bobby Clarke and Sam Gagner in the same breath and there is a certain portion of the Oilers' fanbase that may faint. However, it is Clarke's 21-year-old season that is within striking distance for Gagner in 2011. In order to keep pace with Keon and Carpenter, Gagner would have to post an actual, non-adjusted season similar to 76 GP, 19G - 48A for a total of 67 points. To keep pace with Clarke, Gagner would need 76 GP, 18G - 37A for 55 points.
A quick check of Gagner's numbers shows him with 29 points in 49 games. To match Clarke's 55 points, Gagner would need to score 26 points in his last 33 games, a number certainly attainable with good health for Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner and Shawn Horcoff.
Sam Gagner is a 21-year-old forward with 270 NHL games on his resume. He's improved his underlying numbers during each of his professional seasons and he's well within striking distance of Bobby Clarke's traditional stats. That's plenty of evidence to support his selection as the number two player in the organization under the age of 25. Imagine if the Oilers wouldn't have mangled his development.