a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Thursday, 8 December 2011

12/08/11 Gagner Is No Bust

It didn't take the fans long to jump on Sam Gagner in what is supposed to be the turning point season of his time with the Oilers. He's had four years to figure it out and people want more. Now, finally, they are getting it.

The kid in the picture above is the same one that came into the NHL as an 18 year old and scored 49 points in 79 games. What he showed there was no mere flash in the pan; no anomaly. Gagner is a bonafide NHL player. If he's given the chance, he'll show everyone just how much of an impact he can make.

As yet, the only player from the 2007 draft that has more points and games played than Gagner is his former teammate Patrick Kane. Some players have a chance to catch him (Logan Couture comes to mind), but the Oilers would have been hard-pressed to do better with that 6th pick overall.

However, this season Sam started slow. He had just four points in his first 15 games, including a 7-game pointless streak which was his longest since his rookie year. In fact, as a rookie Gagner had a stretch of 7 games and 13 games where he didn't register a point. And yet he scored a career-high 49 points that same season.

From February onward, Gagner scored 28 points in the last 29 games of the season, aided by a run of nine consecutive games with at least one point. Before that, he had a modest 21 points in 50 games. In hindsight, it's easy to forget that his hot streak didn't start until February. It may seem needless to point out, but we aren't even through December yet in this young season, so it's a little early to judge Gagner's contributions. There's still a lot of hockey left to be played.

19 of Gagner's 42 points last season came after January ended, as did 24 of his 41 in 2008-09. In 2009-10 Gagner scored 15 of his 41 points from January 16th onward, and he also missed the last ten games of that year.

Having said that, it looks like Gagner's game may have already turned the corner this time around. He's collected 7 points in his last 8 games and is now up to 9 in 21 contests. His shooting percentage is an unsustainably bad 2.3%. 2.3%! If mere luck had allowed him to score at his career average percentage (say around 9%), he'd have 4 goals in 21 games and be on pace for 14 in 75, which is a total that he's still very capable of reaching.

Gagner's much maligned faceoff ability seems to have come around some as well, as he's sitting at 51.3% on 78 draws right now. Here is his progression year after year in the dot:

2010-11: 43.8% on 935 draws
2009-10: 47.4% on 709 draws
2008-09: 42% on 690 draws
2007-08: 41.8% on 299 draws

If he can keep up his current pace he'll be a perfectly acceptable option in the faceoff circle, as well as a solid offensive contributor. He's clutch around the end of the year when a team needs its players to step it up, and he's still extremely young and relatively inexpensive for the whole package that he brings.

The fact is that even if Sam Gagner ends up as a 50-point player for his entire career he'll be a solid draft pick and a very good second line center. Only 35 centers scored 50 or more points last year, which means that to have one of them is a huge boost. Incidentally, in an injury-shortened season Gagner was still 49th in points among centers last year.

Trading Gagner may seem to make sense to some at the moment, but he still has plenty of room to grow into his role. What's more, he's a more offensively gifted option for the second line than any of the Oilers' other centers. Shawn Horcoff may be outscoring Gagner at the moment, but Horcoff is 33 years old. It can't and won't continue for much longer, whether Gagner is an Oiler for it or not. It may be a hard pill, but eventually the Oilers will be better served to have Horcoff play less minutes and be a very good third line center while Sam fills the middle slot on the second unit.

Here is a look at the depth chart at center with and without Gagner, and the effect that injuries would have on the lineup:

Center depth chart with Gager included

Centers Without RNH Without GagnerWithout HorcoffWithout Belanger
Nugent-Hopkins Gagner Nugent-HopkinsNugent-HopkinsNugent-Hopkins
Gagner Horcoff HorcoffGagnerGagner
Horcoff BelangerBelangerBelangerHorcoff
Belanger Lander Lander LanderLander

Center depth chart without Gagner as an Oiler

Centers Without RNH Without HorcoffWithout BelangerWithout Lander
Nugent-Hopkins Horcoff Nugent-HopkinsNugent-HopkinsNugent-Hopkins
Horcoff Belanger BelangerHorcoffHorcoff
Belanger LanderLanderLanderBelanger
Lander O'Marra O'Marra O'MarraO'Marra

The depth chart is much stronger with Gagner on the team and with Lander as a callup than it is without Gagner. Pushing Lander down the depth chart gives the organization much stronger depth and means that one injury wouldn't be so devastating. It also means that Lander would be playing big minutes in OKC and would be that much better as a callup.

If the Oilers and their fans stay the course with Sam Gagner, he can still be a very big part of the future.

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