Sam Gagner and the LA Kings

Harry How

With a number of the most reliable insiders in hockey discussing the possibility of Sam Gagner being moved to the Los Angeles Kings, we take a look at some of the points of interest in that scenario.

According to Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada, the Edmonton Oilers have had very serious talks with the Los Angeles Kings with regard to a trade involving Sam Gagner. David Staples has an article up here that summarizes Friedman's comments, but I'll re-write some of the key parts here because I think they are worth diving into a little deeper than I've seen elsewhere to this point...

“I don’t know how big the price tag would be. I don’t know the answers to that. I don’t think the Kings want to give up too many guys off their roster..."

The key point here (and Friedman goes into greater detail on this point) is obviously that LA does not want to subtract any important pieces from their current roster in order to load up for another run at the Cup in the spring. This is an important point because it basically means that the Oilers are somewhat limited in the assets they are able to target in the Kings organization.

While Oiler fans have grown accustomed to trading players for picks and prospects, that process has been a contributing factor to the team's prolonged stay in the NHL basement. They traded away real bonafide NHL players like Dustin Penner, Kyle Brodziak, Andrew Cogliano and others for future help instead of immediate NHL talents. Looking at just those three examples, we are now 2 1/2 years down the road from the most recent of these moves (Cogliano to ANA) and as of yet, not a single asset obtained in return has become a consistent NHL player, though Oscar Klefbom (obtained in Penner deal) looks like he may yet reach that point someday.

With the impatience in Edmonton reaching a fevered pitch this year, the idea of parting with good (although flawed) established NHL players for nothing beyond some future potential should no longer be an accepted course of action. The Oilers HAVE to fill at least one hole among the dozen or so that currently exist on next year's projected roster in any trade that sees them move out Sam Gagner. Anything less is another collosal failure.

"I think LA has some interest in (Gagner). I think there is a couple of moving parts there, including are the Oilers willing to take a key part of the salary to make that work from a cap point of view?"

The concept of retaining salary in transactions is a new one that some people are still just beginning to understand, so I think it is important to touch on a few items here. Some people were livid with the Oilers for retaining salary on Dubnyk this year. They shouldn't have been. I disliked that deal for a mulitude of reasons, but spending Darryl Katz's money to pay 50% of Dubnyk's deal for the rest of the season doesn't bother me. In fact, I fully endorse the team using that strategy to maximize a potential return for a guy like Ales Hemsky should he be moved before the trade deadline. There is a key difference though between the contracts of Dubnyk and Hemsky when compared to Gagner's. Term.

Both Dubnyk and Hemsky are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, so any money being paid to them by their former employer ends at that point as well. Gagner however has two more seasons remaining on his contract that carries a cap hit of $4.8M. Assuming the Kings are asking the Oilers to retain the the maximum of 50% of the cap hit, that means the Oilers would be utilizing $2.4M of their own cap space in each of the next two seasons to pay Gagner to play for the Kings. Its not the philosophical issue of paying a player to play against you that I protest though, it is the fact that the team now has $2.4M less space to use to replace the hole left by Gagner's departure. You would have to find a pretty extreme value contract or two to compensate for that wasted space and make no mistake about it...the Edmonton Oilers SHOULD be a cap team next year. With all of their holes, they will need every last cap dollar if they wish to fix them all this summer.

Is There a Deal To Be Made?

That's really tough to say of course. It all depends on what Dean Lombardi is willing to part with and what kind of flexibility he can find on his roster from a cap standpoint. I can tell you what kind of trades don't work though, so let's go through those quickly...

1. Acquiring picks or prospects. Names I have seen tossed around like Linden Vey, Tanner Pearson, etc. are players who are slightly bigger than Edmonton's top six forwards who are consistently cited as being undersized, but neither player has shown they can be a regular contributor to a good NHL team. Settling for a player like this, even if LA finds a way to accept Gagner's full salary is just not good enough.

2. Acquiring a big bottom six winger. The Kings are one of the Western Conferences "big teams". Teams that have both size and skill and can use both to their advantage. It makes some sense then that people would want to target one of their big bodied wingers like Dwight King, Jordan Nolan or Kyle Clifford.

I will grant Mark Spector that Dwight King is the most desireable of the three players I listed above. Clifford and Nolan bring virtually zero offense and are basically 4th line players. King has 23 points this year, but has done so playing predominantly with the likes of Kopitar, Richards, Carter and Doughty. His shooting % this year is approximately double what it was last year, and on a team with among the best shot differentials in the NHL, he takes slightly fewer than 6 shots/60 min. of EV ice time. That is fewer than every Oiler forward who has played regularly in the top 9 this season with the exception of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (who is at 5.65) and Boyd Gordon, who basically spends his entire games getting the puck out of his own zone so the skill players can try to score.

I'm not sold on King as a player, but I'll even move beyond that. Say the Oilers were satisfied with the exchange of Gagner for King (they shouldn't be). We now get back to the idea of keeping salary. With King only making $750k this season, LA would be adding over $4M in payroll in such a swap, which would likely further the conversation around the Kings needing the Oilers to retain salary in order to make the math work. Here's where the big problem comes in.

Imagine the hypothetical scenario where the Oilers trade Gagner for King while absorbing half of Samwise's cap hit for his remaining term (they do not have the option of only retaining salary for a portion of the term of the contract). In that scenario, The Oilers have now filled a hole, likely on the third line left side with King and have created a hole at the 2nd line centre position. With King being an RFA, he's likely in line for a raise from his $750k salary. Even if the Oilers were to sign King to a deal in the $1.5M range, they still have to account for the decereased cap space as a result of retaining 50% of Gagner's deal. Now, that $1.5M hit has essentially become $3.7M for the next two seasons, which would equate to roughly a 50% increase over what they are paying Ryan Smyth to fulfill that role now. Is King, he of 20g-27a-47p in over 130 career NHL games really worth nearly $4M a year?

The alternative of course would be realize those savings in other places, but with so many needs in key areas like goaltending, top pairing Defensemen and a 2nd line centreman, that doesn't seem overly likely. (Remember when we told you contracts like Ference and Hendricks would come back to bite this team in the ass?...this is why) So, unless you think the Oilers are likely to find a suitable 2nd line centreman for under $2.5M, then the are basically not saving a dime by unloading Gagner in this manner, and considering Gagner is a vastly superior player to Dwight King in an apples to apples scenario, this kind of deal is one the Oilers end up losing.

Is there a scenario where the Oilers retain salary on Gagner and it works in their favour?

Yes. But not many of them.

If the Oilers were going to take an NHL playe back like, say, Jake Muzzin, who has been playing in the Kings top 4 for much of the last two seasons. Muzzin is young, fits into the Oilers age cluster and is on a very attractive contract for at least one more season, which mitigates at least one of the two seasons the Oilers would still be paying Gagner. If the Oilers acquired Muzzin and he was able to come in and play at a level similar to what he has in LA, that is a scenario that likely plays out well for Edmonton. Even with the retained salary, if Muzzin (one more year at $1M) can play a top 4 role on the Oilers and do so well, then the combined cap hit is not unreasonable. The question is though...can he perform at that level without Drew Doughty? I don't think that is clear, so they would need to be more certain of Muzzin's abilities than I am before agreeing to this scenario.

Slava Voynov would also certainly be a reasonable target even despite his much larger salary, but given the Kings' reluctance to subtract key pieces in season, I can't imagine that is something they would entertain.

The other player would be Tyler Toffoli. Much like Muzzin, Toffoli is on a value contract (2 more years on his ELC). He is an NHL rookie this year who has put up some promising numbers. Toffoli is producing well at 5v5 (16 of 19pts in his 38 games points have come at even strength), he is generating 10 shots/60 min. of EV ice time, which is very good, and he has produced at .5ppg despite not playing with the Kings' top offensive talents. At 6'1 and approximately 200 lbs at age 21, Toffoli is another player that likely could fit in with the Oilers over a longer term. There are certainly questions to be answered about his long-term potential, but there appears to be a player there who could be of use to the Oilers long-term and who could play for the team immediately.

My final note here is that I am always weary of acquiring a young player like Muzzin or Toffoli from a team like LA whose strong possession game is engrained in the team as a whole. It speaks well to those players that they can be a part of a successful system like that, but the question remains as to whether or not the system is making the player look good or if the player is helping the system succeed? I don't think anyone knows the answer with either of these two players, so I'm more inclined to wait until the off-season when you can widen your net in terms of teams who would have interest in Gagner, and with the willingness of trade partners to move pieces from their active rosters.

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