Oiler fans all agree that Sam Gagner is a tremendous asset to the Edmonton Oilers - but they don't all agree that he'll be a tremendous player. There are those who believe that it's time to cut bait on the young centerman now so that the club can bring back value instead of dumping him for a second round pick in two or three years when there's more clarity about what kind of player he's become. Others feel that moving a twenty-one year-old with top-line potential is the exact opposite of what this team should be doing. Some think he's taken big steps forward; others that he's stagnated since his career-high 49-point rookie season in 2007-08. Those who have followed these lists for a while know that Sam Gagner has usually been just ranked just a little bit higher. Are the writers here giving up on him?
No. At least I don't think so, and I say that as someone who moved Gagner from 2nd to 5th on my list. I'll say off the top that I'm one of the folks who think that there's been substantial improvement in Gagner's game since his rookie season, and that this improvement shows up in his stats when we take a close look at his performance at even strength, but that this past season showed some stagnation. First up, let's look at the possession metrics, which tells us how the Oilers are doing with Gagner on the ice:
I think that we can say with confidence that the last two seasons have been much better than the first two seasons. Gagner is no longer receiving the same kind of protection, but the Oilers have been able to nearly break even with regard to shots and they've generally been able to move the puck to the good end of the ice, but I don't think there's much of a case for saying that 2010-11 is significantly better than 2009-10 either in terms of responsibility or results.
His more "personal" statistics at even strength show a similar pattern of improvement through his first three seasons, and then stagnation in 2010-11:
The two underlying metrics are down even as the percentages are all up. He's taking less shots himself, and the team is getting fewer shots when he's out there, but both he and the team scored at a higher rate. Gagner himself also got points on a higher percentage of the goals scored when he was on the ice (IPP = "Individual Point Percentage" and tells us the number of times a player gets a point on the goals scored when he was on the ice; in 2010-11, Gagner got a point on 68.2% of the even strength goals scored when he was on the ice).
But for much of the season Gagner was asked to carry around a couple of rookies. He's gone from being sheltered to being the shelterer, so to speak. Derek's earlier scoring chance analysis showed us that he really wasn't ready for that - when he was playing with good players, he did well, and when he was playing with rookies, he really struggled. If the Oilers play him with good players for most of 2011-12, there's an excellent chance that he'll bounce back, and if performance was the only concern, I probably wouldn't have dropped him so far.
But it isn't. Sam Gagner's season ended with surgery on a severed tendon in his hand. Of course, I'm not a doctor, and my very limited research into the injury hasn't suggested that there should be long-term damage here, but it's the kind of injury that I have a hard time just blowing off. Sam Gagner's passing is one of his most important skills, and even though I don't know that this injury will have an impact on those passing skills, until I see him play for a few weeks, I won't be satisfied that it didn't. That uncertainty combined with what was a season stuck in neutral were enough for me to move Gagner back a few spots. But they're certainly not enough for me to give up on him.