There are good things that you can say about Sam Gagner. His Corsi% is hovering just under 49% this year, which isn’t terrible. His on-ice save percentage isn’t unusually bad for his career, given that he’s played against top opposition and had the good fortune to be healthy during the Khabibulin/JDD years.
What is just infuriating about the guy is that we’re into year seven of the Sam Gagner Fronted Rebuild and we still see stuff like this:
The stills don’t really capture the majesty of the thing but there wasn’t so much as a glance over his right shoulder into the slot or a glimmer of recognition that if a winger and two defencemen are back behind the net with two Phoenix Coyotes, that means that three Phoenix Coyotes are behind you and maybe one is gliding into the slot and in need of some checking.
I think I know what Gagner’s doing there – he’s hoping that, despite the fact of the puck being on a Phoenix Coyote’s stick, an Oiler will take it and give him an outlet and he and Hemsky can go up the ice and play offence. Is that a possible outcome of that situation? Sure. Is it a likely outcome? Not really. Is it worth doing when there’s plenty of time left in a one goal game? Nope. If there’s 15 seconds left, fine, turn on the jets. 15 minutes? You’ve got to be kidding me.
The thing with Gagner is that there are just endless examples of this sort of stuff him. Pointless, low reward plays. For all the talk about Gagner’s size and speed, there are plenty of plays – like this – that are nothing to do with size and speed. Hockey’s a funny game, in that you can cheat and lots of times you’ll get away with it, which reinforces the cheating. The pass from behind the net hits Nick Schultz’s skate, Mike Ribeiro doesn’t take the pass cleanly, Dubnyk makes a big save…you get away with it.
You can’t get away with it forever though and every so often the bill comes due, just like it did tonight. Part of turning yourself into a postive possession guy is just taking stuff like this away from the opposition. It’s low hanging fruit. If Gagner stops in front of the net, he intercepts the pass, knocks it over to Hemsky and it’s an easy out. No damage done. If he gets in the habit of doing that all the time, of cutting out the high risk, low reward players, maybe the Corsi% ticks over 50%. You start doing that, you start scoring more and allowing fewer and winning more.
I’ve long been a fan of Sam Gagner – I wrote a much criticized piece in the summer of 2011 in which I called him the best Oilers’ 2C since Messier – but he’s not without flaws. He isn’t particularly big, he’s not the fastest guy in the world and he’s bad at faceoffs. If he’s to be the kind of second line centre with whom you win the Stanley Cup, he needs to be doing the easy stuff right. Getting your possession numbers up by not performing these mindless slides through the slot hoping for a puck would go a long way towards doing that.
I don’t know how much longer the Oilers can wait for this. He’s played 430 NHL games as of the end of tonight’s game. How many more games does it take to learn this stuff? Is there a reason that he hasn’t learned it yet, can it be resolved? Does it take ten years to gain this sense? At what point do the Oilers just say “This isn’t going to work” and either turn him into a winger or move on?
In that piece I referenced from 2011, I wrote this:
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.
There’s nothing that’s happened since then that makes me think he doesn’t have that ability. He’s gifted offensively at 5v5 – the Oilers have shot 9.1% on the ice at 5v5 over the course of his career. He just seems unable or unwilling to do the things that would let him really take advantage of that by getting to the point where the Oilers get 51% or 52% of the shots with him on the ice. I used to say, back in about 2008, that hope wasn’t a plan – I’m not sure how you can have a realistic hope that Gagner starts to do those things seven years into his career. I hope he does but, if I was the Oilers, I’d be thinking about a plan for if he doesn’t.
P.S. Gagner was coming off a season in which he posted an .876 on-ice save percentage. Notorious Oiler blog commenter DSF made an appearance in the comments of that post, objecting to this:
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.
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.
Gagner’s career on-ice save percentage to that point was .906. Since then, it’s been .915. Given that he plays against top offensive players, that’s pretty much bang average. It’s probably a point in his favour – it’s not like his on-ice save percentage shows him giving up an abnormal percentage of goals on shots allowed. It’s entirely an issue of getting outshot 49-51 not giving you the kind of margin that you need to win hockey games. How many more games get invested in this?Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org