Photo by Lisa McRitchie, All rights reserved.
Sam Gagner is probably one of the Oilers' more controversial players among the fanbase: he's described as everything from a future first line centre to an expendable smurf. His detractors point out that he's played four years in the league and has only just matched his rookie year's scoring rate, while his boosters remind us that he's only twenty-one years-old.
(I've adopted both positions, depending on my mood and who I was trying to antagonize, so I think I can evaluate this without bias.)
How has Sam Gagner's career path to date compared to those of other players to enter the league at eighteen? A fellow named Michael provided some food for thought over at Lowetide by comparing Gagner's rookie season to those of players who entered the league at the same age. I'll replicate and follow up on his work after the jump.
Since the 1994-1995 season, twenty-four forwards have played a minimum of thirty games in the NHL as eighteen year-olds (defined as playing during the season in which they would be eighteen years-old February 1). This is an elite crew, and Sam Gagner's eighteen year old season makes him look like a giant among...slightly smaller giants, I guess. Here are the twenty-four, sorted in descending order of points per game:
There is no shame in being behind Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, or Jeff Skinner, and Gagner's ahead of some pretty terrific players. On the other hand, one cannot help but to look at where Joe Thornton is on the list and suspect that performance as an eighteen year old may not be the ideal predictor of one's overall career path. Onward.
The following is all players who played at least thirty games during their nineteen year-old season, for whom that season was their second in the league (i.e. approximately the same group as above, plus a few who didn't clear the thirty game threshold in their first year, minus a few who didn't clear it in their second year or who have yet to play a second year).
Players in green are those who were ahead of Gagner on the last list; those in red were behind him.
This table is slightly less encouraging: of the sixteen players behind Gagner on the last list who also appear on this one, fully half have passed him. Moreover, we can see a clear division between the two: by and large, the red players above Gagner went on to excel in the league as offensive talents, while those below him (Joe Thornton and Jordan Staal excepted) did not. Meanwhile, the guys who were above him as eighteen year olds are still above him, except more so.
When we look at the seasons of twenty year-old third year players, the results are more heartening:
The two players who have passed Gagner turned out pretty well, so no shame tracking worse than them. No shame in being tied with Jordan Staal, either, though Staal's production took a big jump from his second year to his third, and Gagner's didn't. Meanwhile, Gagner himself passed four: we might not be too excited that he's tracking better than Alexandre Daigle at this point, but that jump over Patrick Marleau looks pretty interesting - we'll have to keep an eye on that.
Twenty-one year old fourth year players:
This is a mixed bag. It's certainly a positive thing that Gagner's jumped back ahead of Ryan Smyth and Vincent Lecavalier, both of whom would count as pretty optimistic comps (in terms of total output, not playing style). On the other hand, his leap-frogging of Daigle and Marleau was short-lived, as both are back above him - likewise Chris Gratton, another player who was ahead of Gagner as a nineteen year-old but behind him as a twenty year-old. Interestingly, Gagner is still tracking very closely with Jordan Staal.
Where did these players go from there? I've gone ahead and pulled their twenty-two year-old seasons, for the sake of comparison. I've also included Gagner's twenty-one year-old season, not because I expect his twenty-two year-old season to be identical, but to provide some kind of visual linkage between this chart and the preceding ones.
(If you're wondering where Jagr, Nolan, and Sanderson came from all of a sudden, it's because I'm only using data since 1994-1995, and their comparator seasons for the previous tables took place before that. As such, they're not really useful comparators, as we only have one data point. Also because, in most cases, they were beating the tar out of Sam Gagner at this point in their careers.)
Staal's gained some clearance on Gagner's twenty-one year old season, but his performance is within the range of reasonable expectations on Gagner next year. Lecavalier's jumped well ahead, but we all knew that was coming. To me, the two most interesting names in this chart are, again, Patrick Marleau and Alexandre Daigle, both of whom fell behind Gagner's twenty-one year old season. Both of those players alternated perfectly between being ahead of Gagner and behind him, a fact which I think tells us something significant: even this far into his career, Sam Gagner could be Patrick Marleau or he could be Alexandre Daigle (though Daigle's flameout by most accounts had something to do with his personality, so we'll cross our fingers that Gagner can avoid that fate). Those are probably the outer markers. Gagner could also be the guy who matched Gagner's twenty-one year old clip at twenty-two, Radek Dvorak, which would be a happier thought if we weren't using exclusively offensive metrics to reach that finding. Or he could be Jordan Staal.
We set out to figure out who was right between the doubters and the boosters, and the only answer we've found is that we don't know yet (which, as I understand it, makes me right for arguing both sides). One point in the boosters' favour, however, is their emphasis on his age: if this exercise has shown us anything, it's that even with five years' experience under their belts, players' careers are not set in stone at the age of twenty-two. In the critics' defense, since his second season Gagner's fluctuated between ninth and thirteenth in a comparator group that remained roughly the same size; the promise of his rookie season seems very unlikely to be realized.