• Best offensive Oilers 2C since Messier?

    by  • August 24, 2011 • NHL • 20 Comments

    Something that gets lost in all of the discussion of the Suckcess model that the Oilers are currently borrowing from Chicago and Pittsburgh is that those teams tended to have a supporting cast that was somehow acquired over time. If there’s a dividing line between the teams for whom this works and those for whom it doesn’t (Atlanta, New York Islanders etc.), it’s probably the ability to surround those players with decent hockey players.

    One guy on the Oilers who I think is going to be at the core of that second group of players, if and when this group turns into a contender (and I am far from sold on that occurring) is Sam Gagner. I’ve been digging through some numbers lately and I’m starting to conclude that Gagner is likely to be an excellent second centre. You need to have one of these and with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins drafted and, hopefully, to be a guy who can produce offence at an elite level in three or four years, Gagner could be a real asset.

    One of the things that I don’t think we have a particularly good sense of is how young players progress or what constitutes an acceptable level of offence. Progress can be obscured by a lucky season early in one’s career. On the surface, Gagner doesn’t seem to have progressed all that much during his four years in the NHL. While he was undoubtedly put into the league too quickly, there’s been improvement during that time. His boxcars are strikingly similar year over year but he’s progressed from a guy who gets outshot and earns that offence with really high percentages to one who can almost hold his own, despite not receiving the easiest of starting positions on the ice. For someone who has just completed his age 21 season, that’s pretty impressive.

    Since the lockout, there are 13 centres who have played at least 600 minutes in total and averaged at least 10 minutes a night at 5v5 in their age 21 seasons and since played an age 22 season. (Derick Brassard doesn’t actually meet the criteria but it’s fun to stare awestruck at his 15.1% on-ice shooting percentage and laugh at the Jackets for giving him $12.8MM over four years on the basis of 31 games of that. Maybe paying for this is an organizational philosophy that Scott Howson took with him to Columbus.)


    It’s a pretty good looking group of players. The Oilers actually produced a reasonable amount of offence with Gagner on the ice last year – if you had him to get a group of 14, he’s right in the middle at number 7. There’s a pretty clear fall-off from the Crosby/Malkin seasons into what is perhaps a secondary group of Toews, Staal and Kopitar and then a tertiary group that includes Kopitar, Dubinsky, Gagner and Little.

    Gagner’s a little shooting percentage but not outrageously so – there was some research done by Tom Awad that found that the higher end players do tend to have higher on-ice shooting percentages. Gagner’s been between 9.1% and 9.7% three times and had one season at 7.9%. I don’t have difficulty believing that he adds a touch of creativity that makes an extra shot or two in 100 more likely to go in.

    I gathered their age 22 seasons to provide a little bit of a glimpse into the crystal ball. Interestingly, to me anyway, there aren’t a lot of huge steps forward at that point, David Krejci excepted. This is a point that might be worthy of some further research. I wonder if, as time passes in their careers, guys tend to get tougher matchups and, in particular, tougher zonestarts. This would create a bit of an illusion that there isn’t any development, when the development is occurring but being masked by increasingly difficult levels of competition.


    All told, that isn’t a bad group to be in. If, going forward, Gagner can be the pivot of a line that puts up 2.8 GF/60 at 5v5, he’s going to be an asset for the Oilers provided his line can be even average defensively. It’s easy to be vaguely disappointed when Gagner, who was made one of the faces of the Oilers in the aftermath of the disastrous 2006-07 season, doesn’t seem to quite be tracking at the scoring rates of the guys who become elite but a guy who can play a role in a line that puts up goals at about the 75th percentile is a pretty valuable asset. If you followed the Oilers in the days of second line centres like Tony Hrkac, Petr Nedved and Adam Oates, you’re probably more sensitive to this need.

    There are a couple of things that you can point at as potential causes of concern but I’m not particularly worried about them. First, there’s the question of a lack of progression. As I mentioned above, when you look at Gagner’s boxcars, it doesn’t seem like he’s moved forward all that much. When you look a bit more closely at his age 18 and age 21 seasons at 5v5, the improvement becomes a bit more apparent.


    I’ve tried to come up with an analogy here and the best I can do is a bank loan. Imagine that you’re a bank manager, faced with two requests for a $200,000 loan. Gagner’s 18 year old season is a guy who has no job but just won $100K in the lottery. His 21 year old season is a guy with a job pulling down $100K annually. The ESP/60 is effectively identical for both seasons. If, however, you look at his 18 year old season, you notice that he was in on close to 85% of the goal scored when he as on the ice. Last year, that number was under 70%. We get too hung up on points at the expense of goals for but 70% is a “normal” figure. Most guys trend hard towards it – if they have a big year and are in on lots of goals, the next year they regress.

    Points are an imperfect measure of offensive ability – basically a goal is scored, so we assume that someone did something good offensively and then look around and start handing out credit. If Gagner had been in on 70% of goals scored when he was on the ice at 18, he’d have scored 1.63 ESP/60 and it would look as if he was making nice progress. As it is, that isn’t how things have turned out – he’s been like a duck, feet furiously churning below the surface. If I’m a bank manager, I’d rather loan money to the guy with the income stream rather than the guy who got lucky once.

    The defensive number is also, to put it mildly, a horror show. I can’t bring myself to get worked up about it though. Evaluating the defensive skill of Oilers in front of the goaltending over the past few years is like evaluating young pitchers at Coors Field or hitters at Dodger Stadium, if it was located in a mile or two of water. Most Oilers have horrible save percentages. We all know the extent to which those numbers are dependent on context and, with competent goaltending behind him, I assume that that will come around for Gagner whenever management decides to stop having the radio talent that it’s bought and paid for selling a night with the Oilers as a chance to look at the spandexed crotch of a young lady and starts selling it as a chance to see the team win, something that would entail putting competent goaltending between the pipes.

    David Staples had an interesting post a while back talking about Gagner’s defence. He made the point that Gagner seemed to be at fault on an inordinately high number of chances. I note what David’s saying and it’s something to follow and pay attention to. I’m crossing my fingers a little bit here.


    It’s notable that Gagner’s had a considerably more difficult zonestart than a lot of his contemporaries. I haven’t shown this but the difference is significant. While some of the other guys have been eased into life at the NHL level, Gagner’s not really had the benefit of being sheltered in terms of where he starts his shifts. That will go some distance towards closing the apparent gap between him and some of the second tier guys.

    I haven’t really commented on the PP but then I don’t know that it really matters if Gagner develops there – he’s pretty bad as it is. If he’s ultimately a second tier guy on the Oilers though, he’s not going to be someone who sees big PP minutes. Seasons don’t turn on what your second PP unit does – it will be up to guys like Hall and Nugent-Hopkins to make sure that the first unit is making a difference.

    There is, therefore, a role that I think we can reasonably hope that Gagner becomes better than average at. Ultimately, you win games and Stanley Cups by having more areas on your team like that than the other guy. Gagner looks to me like a guy who could be a part of that. Now they just need to find six or seven more guys who can fill roles and be above average while doing so.


    20 Responses to Best offensive Oilers 2C since Messier?

    1. Hambone
      August 24, 2011 at

      No doubt, Gagner was rushed into the league. On a team that knows how to develop players like Detroit, he would be just easing into full-time NHL play.

      He strikes me as a good supporting role player, similar to Kessel on the Leafs. If we count on him to supply offence night after night, well, the nights might be long but with other strong players he might be a good producer.

    2. August 24, 2011 at


    3. DSF
      August 24, 2011 at

      Not sure why you would mention Gagner’s Zone Start as a tribute.

      According to BTN, he started in the offensive zone 52.8 55.4, 48.8, 50.9 in his first 4 seasons.

      In that 55.4% season, Gagner finished in the O Zone only 49.7% of the time and in the other he was even or very close to it.

      Considering his O Zone face-off results were 111 W and 154 L last season, we may have a clue that someone else is doing the work.

      In terms of Qual Comp in those same 4 seasons he has been 10th, 7th, 8th and 7th among regular Oiler forwards so, except for his rookie season he’s been pretty much running in place.

      As for his defensive “prowess”, you say you’re not concerned because the Oilers defense and goaltending were horrible (no argument from me) but you may notice that Gagner’s GAON/60 of 3.81 is significantly higher than a player than many think doesn’t have a clue in the defensive zone and was playing in front of the same defense and goaltending. Andrew Cogliano’s GAON/60 in the same season playing on the same team was 2.89.

      Guess which one was facing tougher Qual Comp?

      Staples is on to something here.

    4. August 24, 2011 at

      I agree with you that a lucky first season has obscured Gagner’s improvement in the last few years, but I was disappointed that his underlying numbers have mostly regressed from 2009-10 to 2010-11. His shooting rate at 5-on-5 went from 9.5/60 in 2009-10 to 6.7/60 in 2010-11, and the Oilers’ shot rate with him on the ice went from 29.1 to 26.0 and went from being a strong positive ratio to a slight negative. This despite the fact that he started more often in the OZ in 2010-11 than he had the year before. It’s not the end of the world, but it was the first time that those numbers didn’t get better.

    5. Tyler Dellow
      August 24, 2011 at

      DSF -

      The problem I have with this is that all of the research tends to show that save percentage snaps back towards .920. We’ve been through this and you deny it despite the overwhelming evidence. I don’t know how else to convince you on this point. His save percentage was abominable this year. Betting on those to stay low will leave you an awfully poor man.

      The point I’m making with the Zonestarts isn’t that he moves the puck the right way, although he did this year, it’s that he had less favourable starts than the other guys did at age 21. That’s going to hurt his numbers.

      His QualComp numbers don’t seem out of place for me for a guy who you’d look at as a second line centre.

    6. Tyler Dellow
      August 24, 2011 at


      That is quite a decline in shooting rate. You’re right, that’s a bit stronger in terms of evidence of a plateau or decline.

      Hope next year’s better.

      • DSF
        August 24, 2011 at

        We’ve also discussed how it’s impossible to separate SV% from the skaters on the ice since once again we are trying to apply a team stat to an individual player.

        Gagner’s on ice SV% in his four seasons have been .898, .924, .901 and .876 so it might be a little optimistic expecting it to “snap back” to .920.

        But even taking his best season, .924, his GFON/60 GAON/60 was barely above break even playing very sheltered minutes.

        There were only 3 NHL goaltenders who played 40 games and surpassed .924 last season so it appears if Gagner gets All Star level goaltending and plays sheltered minutes with the best team mates, he can break even.

        If he was killing it on the PP, that would be acceptable but, despite getting the second most PPTOI/60 (behind only Hemsky), he delivered the 6th best GFON/60 among Oiler forwards at 4.40. (Cogliano was 8.24).

        I had a chance last month to spend a couple of hours talking about the Oilers in general and Gagner specifically with the former head of player development for Hockey Canada and the former GM of the London Knights who thus knows Gagner very well.

        His assessment of young Sam was, shall we say, less than complimentary and he mentioned his lack of willingness and ability to play in his own end as a huge red flag. He also was less than optimistic about his offensive upside.

        • August 24, 2011 at

          I think you might be confused about the SV% thing. Those save percentage numbers are at even strength, which makes .924 only slightly above average, and in fact, sixteen different goalies played at least 40 games and had an EV save percentage of .924 or better.

          • dawgbone
            August 25, 2011 at

            And if we look at it, the .924 he put up was the only season where the Oilers had goaltending that was at least league average (at ES) since Gagner joined the club.

            DSF, the important thing to remember is that he’s 21 years old and going into his 22 year old season.

            The Stanley Cup finalists have a pair of important centres on their team who were brought along slowly.

            Ryan Kesler was scoring 0.09 goals per game in the AHL at 21.

            Henrik Sedin’s scoring rates were 1.98ESP/60 and 3.37PPP/60, compared to Gagner’s 1.96ESP/60 and 2.70PPP/60 at 21.

            • DSF
              August 25, 2011 at

              Dawgbone he is already 22.

              And, comparing him to Ryan Kesler is ridiculous.

              Kesler did not get primo PP time like Sam has been getting (in fact, neither did Sedin) and Kesler is 6’2″ and 210 pounds, hits, kills penalties, is an elite defensive player and can skate with the best.

              Gagner is not, and will never be, any of those things.

              Even if Gagner could put up a 41 goal, 73 point season he would still be lacking Kesler’s defensive prowess, grit, size and speed.

            • dawgbone
              August 26, 2011 at

              I can’t reply to you for some reason, so it’s going here.

              Yes he is 22, but his season last year he was 21, which is why I’m using 21 year old seasons as a comparison.

              No Kesler did not get primo PP time, in fact, it wasn’t until he was 23 that he started getting a decent amount of PP time, where he put up 1.48 ESP/60 and 2.82 PPP/60, still well within range of Gagner.

              Sedin’s numbers in the year I posted saw him play 160 minutes on the PP.

              And I must be missing Kesler’s 21 year old season where he was 6’2 and 210 and an elite defensive player. There’s no doubt he’s become one since that time, but he wasn’t one at 21 years old.

              The point was, players at 21 often aren’t as good as they are at 25 or 26, and that there is still plenty of available growth, especially for a player who was rushed in to the NHL when he was.

            • DSF
              August 27, 2011 at

              Not sure where this reply to Dawgbone is going to end up but here goes.

              No one disputes that 25 year old players are generally better than 21 year old players but it was you who pulled out the Kesler/Sedin comparisons, not me.

              First off, unless Gagner grows four inches and learns how to skate considerably better, he’s already at a huge disadvantage vis a vis Kesler.

              Then we look at their 21 year old seasons:

              For sure Gagner had better box cars but that’s not surprising given the opportunities he was presented with.

              As a 21 year old, Kesler was a first unit PK’er (2.36 PKTOI/G) and I doubt Gagner (0.22 PKTOI/G)could PK to save his life.

              Gagner was afforded 2:56 PPTOI/G while Kesler had 0:23 PPTOI/G as a 21 year old.

              At evens, Gagner was third among regular forwards at 14:25/G while Kesler was at a mere 10:47.

              Gagner scored 9 of his points on the PP while Kesler, despite very limited TOI scored 3. (Kesler also had 1 goal and 1 assist shorthanded)

              Kesler was credited with 136 hits that season, leading the Canucks forwards (I know, I know) while Gagner was credited with 24.

              Thing is, for the Oilers to be successful, they will need to have a second line centre somewhere in Kesler’s area code because the WC is loaded with very talented second line centres, a group that also includes, for example, Couture, Sharp/Bolland, Statsny/Duchene, Brassard/Johansen, Kopitar/Richards, Berglund/Oshie.

    7. kinger
      August 25, 2011 at


      The design is really starting to shape up. One suggestion though, the font would be a lot easier to read if it was a little bit darker. It takes a bit of squinting to read the article on my netbook.

      • beingbobbyorr
        August 26, 2011 at

        In the interim, one easy workaround I do is to put my cursor over some part of the text and do a Cntl-A to higlight everything. Now it’s white on blue background and much easier to read.

      • beingbobbyorr
        August 26, 2011 at

        Another nice thing would be to have date & time stamps on all comment posts.

    8. August 25, 2011 at

      Responding to the title of the post, not the substance (which looks reasonable, to my eye): how does he shape up against another bigger Oilers C who started young – Jason Arnott? Different eras etc, but you started it with the Messier reference. :)

    9. FastOil
      August 25, 2011 at

      I believe the second centre needs to be a full game player, able to dominate another centre, if he is not an elite scorer. If the two most important forward players on the team aren’t rock solid, I do not like that team’s playoff chances for more than a fortunate run. I prefer a perpetual contender.

      You’re top 2 lines have to be offensive threats to be sure. Yet points are not the whole story. I believe Gagner will continue to improve, but the problems the stats indicate have to do with his ability to compete and dominate. I think his attitude is good, seems like a great guy. Gagner has a lot of skill and will score if the opportunity presents. I don’t think he is particularly a threat to score on his own, or can create chances consistently, especially if under pressure. He isn’t explosive. Not being a scoring threat makes him much easier to contain.

      That defines him as a talented complimentary scorer. We know he’s weaknesses – skating, traffic, contact, face offs, coverage. Even with improvement, I can’t see him as a top 2 C on a great team. The points are not enough to cover for all that is not there, and won’t be that great when it gets better if it’s not very good now.

      Development is not the same as creating that which doesn’t exist. If he was dominant enough, it would show now but perhaps need refining. I don’t see dominance in his game at all. We’ll see this year, at 22 and 5 years in, we should be able to see who Sam Gagner is as a player. If it’s still up in the air, I think that seals the deal, and it’s time to maximize value.

    10. DSF
      August 25, 2011 at

      It would appear Renney is seeing the same thing skeptics are:

      Via Milhouse (who has both a mortgage and a passport…who knew?…I know!!!)

      “Renney certainly didn’t sound as if Gagner was any kind of finished product when he was asked about him. In fact, Renney sounded a tad impatient, as if he was talking about the potential of some smart but lazy kid, who had some good qualities, but definitely needed to step it up.

      Here’s what Renney told Tencer: “I think Sam’s got to be a player. He’s got to step up and be real good player for us. There’s a real good chance he’s going to have a couple wingers with him that will be able to do the job and make some things happen offensively and he’s got to get them the puck. He’s got to make things happen, he’s got to distribute it at the right time, and quickly, and be a part of augmenting that attack in terms of a give and go style, and subsequent to that, he’s got to be a good transition player and for some that’s moving his feet. His mind is always there. He’s a very, very smart player. But he’s got to move his feet at the same time as his mind, and away from the puck, the same thing.”

    11. Tyler Dellow
      August 28, 2011 at

      I fucking hate threaded comments. Unless someone has a stirring defence, I might turn them off.

      We’ve also discussed how it’s impossible to separate SV% from the skaters on the ice since once again we are trying to apply a team stat to an individual player.

      I’m not sure what your point is here. The stat guy position is that SV% is overwhelmingly goaltender driven, with individual players having the potential for a lot of variation from year to year due to randomness. In the case of the Oilers, the goaltending’s been a horror show for some time. In that context, Gagner’s numbers don’t seem too unreasonable to me.

      But even taking his best season, .924, his GFON/60 GAON/60 was barely above break even playing very sheltered minutes.

      There were only 3 NHL goaltenders who played 40 games and surpassed .924 last season so it appears if Gagner gets All Star level goaltending and plays sheltered minutes with the best team mates, he can break even.

      Yeah, but his S% was way down that year too. And he’s made strides in terms of SF/SA since then.

      My way of thinking through this stuff is pretty straightforward. I want to see guys who can win the SF/SA deal or who are regularly winning it. I think you’d agree that, based on his career to date, Gagner can reasonably be expected to have an on-ice shooting percentage in the 8′s or 9′s over the course of his career, which is a good thing. If the shots are even and he has average goaltending behind him, my take is that we can reasonably expect him to be in the black.

      His assessment of young Sam was, shall we say, less than complimentary and he mentioned his lack of willingness and ability to play in his own end as a huge red flag. He also was less than optimistic about his offensive upside.

      Gagner’s come some way to establishing himself at ES as an offensive player. As for defensive play, Renney complimented him on his willingness to do that recently.

      • September 5, 2011 at

        Threaded comments make it easier to follow a conversation except when things get too narrow too quickly like they do here.

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