As a group, Oilers fans don't tend to agree on much. Generally, I think we all believe the rookies - Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Magnus Paajarvi - are pretty good and J.F Jacques is not. We might also agree that the sky is blue and that grass is green but beyond that though we don't agree on much at all. Sam Gagner is one player that the fans certainly do not agree on. There are those, including myself, who think Gagner is going to be a really good hockey player and that with his skill set he should be a key piece on this team for many seasons to come. Others would pick him up at his door ready to drive him to the airport if only he'd agreed to catch the very next plane out of town.
Gagner was taken by the Oilers sixth overall in the 2007 draft, our reward for surviving the Ryan Smyth death march. But, as his detractors will readily tell you, despite that lofty draft status and four years of NHL experience Gagner has yet to really establish himself as a first line centre capable of carrying the load in the NHL night after night.
In his rookie season Gagner scored 49 points but has been unable to match that total in the three season that followed. And points aren't the only measure when Gagner has failed to progress. He has been a minus player every year of his career and the -47 he's posted over his career is the worst cumulative total among all Oiler skaters over the past four seasons. Looking at the scoring chance information posted by Derek yesterday it's clear that Gagner struggled this season in general and struggled mightily when injuries decimated the Oiler lineup leaving him as the go to guy. This season he took 935 face-offs but won only 43.8% of them. In fact of the 65 players who took at least 900 face-offs in the NHL this season Gagner's winning percentage is better than only one player. You don't need me to tell you who that player is do you?
And then of course there is the fact that he's small. Those who don't like Gaganer will tell you that if this team is ever going to actually compete then they can only have so many small forwards, which might be true. With that in mind replacing Gagner now makes the most sense because size at the centre position is more important than size on the wing and Gagner will bring a decent return if we move him before he really stagnates and the rest of the NHL catches on to his shortcomings.
Those in the anti-Gagner camp make a compelling case. But I don't buy it.
Sure Gagner has played four season but look at the team he has played for. The Oilers have just 131 wins in 328 tries during Gagner's career. The teams points percentage over that span is 0.453, better than only the New York Islanders. To put it nicely, Gagner has played on some bad hockey teams in his short time in the NHL. The quality of the team around him has to be taken into account. As does the fact that Gagner has already played for three different head coaches - Craig MacTavish, Pat Quinn, and Tom Renney. Learning different systems and being assigned different responsibilities almost every September is not the type of consistency that is going to help a young player develop.
And what about his age? Gagner will turn 22 on August 10. Think about that, he's played four years and 291 games in the NHL and hasn't turned 22 yet. He's played that much because he was rushed to the NHL, something that has impacted his development. At a minimum he should have spent his 18 year old season with the London Knights in the OHL but the Oilers instead chose to throw away any value they could have gotten from his entry level contract by playing him here as soon as they could.
If Gagner is brought along slower he may have put up better numbers in his first couple season; he just as easily may not have. That's beside the point. If Gagner had been brought along slower and had just finished his third, or even better his second season, would you still want to trade him? I can't imagine many fans that would. He is still very young and it is widely accepted that young players improve as they get older, why would Gagner be any different? Why is he held to a different standard because the Oilers don't understand player development? I don't think it's much of a strecth to think that the flat line in Gagner's development has a lot to do with the fact that he was rushed into the NHL rather than just letting him get here on his own schedule.
It goes without saying that there are holes in Gagner's game. The face-offs still need work. After improving in each of his first three seasons, Gagner's winning percentage took a step back last season. It's doubtful that Gagner will turn into Manny Malhotra who wins more than 60% of the face-offs he takes but if he can consistently win just under half of his draws I don't think there would be a lot of complaints.
From what I see he needs to be better positionally in the Oilers end of the rink too but playing centre in the best league in the world isn't exactly the easiest of tasks to start with, it doesn't get easier when you're forced to learn on the fly after being dropped into the deep end as an 18 year old. Better defensive zone positioning will almost certainly result in that team worst -17 improving too. An on-ice save percentage better than 0.876 wouldn't hurt either.
I had hoped that this season would be the one where Gagner got back to the heights he reached as a rookie breaking the 50 point plateau for the first time in his career; that of course did not happen. But Gagner did match the point per game rate of his rookie season so I don't think the season was a failure either. In more ways than I would have liked Gagner didn't achieve what I had hoped for going into this season. Playing on a 30th place team likely didn't help much. Gagner is a talented hockey player, even those who would like to see him traded will agree with that assessment, we just have to give it time. We're giving Tambellini time why not Gagner too?
Prediction: If he can play 75 plus games I think Gagner will finally surpass his rookie season total getting to 55 points next season. With his contract expiring at the end of the season Gagner has the potential to get himself a nice payday with a strong performance next year. If things really click for him and he gets to 60 points it will be interesting to see what the Oilers do about a new contract this same time next year.