|Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano|
Once billed as both being future cornerstones, it's likely that only one of the players above will remain with the Edmonton Oilers beyond this season. Management has a decision to make when it comes to which player they should keep. In all likelihood it will be Sam Gagner who stays a part of the organization, with the hope of one day being a top end second line center. Gagner's game is still a work in progress, but he does have the offensive tools to be effective in the NHL. One glaring hole so far has been his ability to win a faceoff - something that he must be able to do in order to stick at center long term.
In today's NHL the centers that are considered elite have a good all-around game, and they can usually win draws at a high rate. Contrary to what seems to be the popular opinion, strength in the dot is not something that comes easily to most players right away. It isn't a skill that can translate as easily from junior hockey, like stickhandling or skating can. Most of the centers that we now think of as elite were not always that way when it comes to taking draws. Here are a few examples.
2003-04: 40.2%, 2005-06: 46.8%, 2006-07: 46.1%, 2007-08: 53.0%, 2008-09: 54.0%, 2009-10: 55.1%, 2010-11: 57.4%
It was only in his fourth season that Kesler won more draws than he lost, and now he is extremely effective in the discipline. In fact, he even took a step back in 2006-07, the season before he won 53% of his draws for the first time. He was actually 23 in his fourth season because of the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
1998-99: 43.9%, 1999-00: 44.7%, 2000-01: 44.4%, 2001-02: 45.9%, 2002-03: 47.0%, 2003-04: 57.7%, 2005-06: 56.4%, 2006-07: 55.1%, 2007-08: 59.0%, 2008-09: 58.0%, 2009-10: 62.5%, 2010-11: 61.7%'
In his first five seasons (albeit only 27 games in 1999-00), Malhotra looked as hopeless in the faceoff circle as Sam Gagner looks now. He was 23 years old before he was able to win draws on a consistent basis, and he hasn't looked back since.
In his first three years in the league, Horcoff won 41.8%, 46.3%, and 42.9% of the draws he took. He actually took a large step backward right before winning 50.6% in 2003-04. That year started a run of 5 consecutive seasons of 50% or better for Horcoff, but his recent status as the Oilers' only faceoff man has seen his numbers dip to 46.4% and 48.3% over the last two years. Nevertheless, he's another example of a faceoff guy who took a little while to get there. He was 25 years old before he got above 50%.
Sam Gagner is 22 in August and has had career faceoff stats of:
Don't let his fall back in faceoff percentage fool you into thinking he'll never get over 50%. As has been shown, even some of the league's better faceoff men have taken steps back before getting over the hump.
Winning draws is one of the tougher things to do in the NHL. Not only does it require physical strength against men that are much older than a raw rookie, it also takes an enormous amount of desire on the part of the player and some help from his linemates to win the scramble draws.
There's no guarantee that Sam Gagner will ever win more than 50% of the draws he takes on a consistent basis, nor is there any that he'll be a top faceoff man in the league. On the other hand, his numbers to this point aren't necessarily indicative of how good he will eventually be. There's still plenty of time for him to round into a complete NHL centerman.