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

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Thursday, 2 May 2013

05/02/13 The Summer of Sam

Back on draft day in 2007, the Oilers picked a 5'11", 191 pound center named Sam Gagner. He's seen dizzying highs and disappointing lows, and all of that has led him to this summer of 2013. The biggest decision of Gagner's career - and the biggest decision for the organization regarding him - is coming.

Among skaters with at least 20 games played, Gagner was 46th in the NHL in points per game in 2013. As a matter of fact, Gagner's 0.79 p/g was the highest total of his career, which is a 65 point pace over 82 games. For some perspective, Gagner's 14 goals are just four away from his career high last season, and the 24 assists he piled up in just 48 games are only twelve shy of his highest total from 2007-08.

He picked an awfully good time to have the best season of his young career, but it's not ideal timing for the Oilers.

Having been signed to just a one year deal in the summer of 2012, Gagner is in line for a hefty payday. His current salary of $3.2 million is nothing to sneeze at, but 0.79 points per game is in line with some heavy hitters this year. Names like Zach Parise, Marian Hossa, Logan Couture, Corey Perry and, yes, Jordan Eberle were not far away. Some of those contracts are well outside of Gagner's reach, but the significance of his strong season will not be lost on his agent.

Perhaps a more realistic benchmark is the contract that Travis Zajac received in New Jersey. The 27 year old center signed an eight year extension with a $5.75 million cap hit back in January. Including this year, Zajac has collected 0.58 points per game over his career. Gagner is sitting at 0.62 points per game over his six NHL seasons.

But can the Oilers afford Gagner at $5 million or more per season? The assumption is that Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov will receive similar $6 million contracts to Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall. Toss in Justin Schultz and there could be a financial pinch going forward.

If the Oilers can find a cheaper, more well-rounded but less offensively gifted center, Gagner's biggest value to the team may be as a trade chip. Despite Craig MacTavish's praise and reports that the team would like to talk contract extension with Gagner, the possibility remains that he could find himself as the odd man out of the Oilers' stellar young core.

Gagner's On-Ice Shooting Percentage was third-highest among Oilers forwards this season, which is partly reason to believe that his offense could come back to earth next year. The only two forwards that were ahead of him were Shawn Horcoff (only 31 games played), and Nail Yakupov. In other words, a portion of Gagner's offense may not be real.

Interestingly, Gagner had 28 points in his first 29 games this year (0.97 p/g), including points in the Oilers' first ten games in a row, and then just ten points in his last 19 games (0.53 p/g), including a seven game drought.

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I am a Sam Gagner fan, but circumstances may have conspired against him returning to the Oilers next season. His strong offensive campaign has combined with his need for a new contract, as well as the team's need to make significant changes with forwards to spare. When it comes to trading a forward for help in other areas, Gagner's name might be the most oft-mentioned in the coming months. One way or another, this truly is the summer of Sam.

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