• When Does Sam Gagner Get It?

    by  • December 4, 2013 • Hockey • 13 Comments

    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 tyler@mc79hockey.com


    13 Responses to When Does Sam Gagner Get It?

    1. scott
      December 4, 2013 at

      Good article Tyler, I noticed this play as well and watched it back and forth on my pvr. The coach talkes accountability for all players but Arco gets thrown under the bus by Eakins in the post game and yak gets benched for defensive lapses, what about Gagner on this play? Its so frustrating, there’s just so many defensive letdowns with this player. How long do we allow excuses for his injury to his jaw or his new faceshield he’s playing with.

    2. Rakesh
      December 4, 2013 at

      Great article, and agree to the first comment. This boils down to that coaching and management are the problem here and coaching and management are off limits when it comes to journalists being critical. For starters, Gagner should not play centre. And secondly Gagner has become immortalized by coaching and management. Any other player who is not Canadian would either get benched, demoted, or told he would get traded this summer-see Yakupov, Omark and Hemsky. Management signed Gagner to a long term contract. Coaching gives him too many minutes, and the media, well they publish articles about how he should be considered team captain. It’s time to go after the system, not just the players. Gagner and many oilers are my developing because of the system.

    3. flyfish
      December 4, 2013 at

      Recognizing the dangerous player. You think that would be easy. Time for some more classroom and video training. If the player don’t get it than up to the press box with a coach and make them see it for themselves from up top.

      Can’t remember which Stanley cup winning player that made this comment ” We got praised for all the goals we scored but never got any recognition for all our great defensive plays”.

    4. David Staples
      December 4, 2013 at

      Strikes me that Ryan Jones over-commits here. He’s playing the low forward spot, so the d-men are to engage, with Jones only doing so if he get the puck.

      At the same time, Jones must be shoulder-checking the slot, because it’s trouble if he commits to getting the puck and loses it.

      And this was trouble.

      Gagner …. how many times do folks have to point out these same kinds of mistakes?

      Clearly, there’s been a major fail on the part of the Oilers coaching staff to teach this player and others. They need teachers on this staff, not more guys with pro hockey experience who evidently have no idea how to teach players how to should check.

    5. j
      December 4, 2013 at

      One of the contributing factors this year (and the last 6) is the ever changing lineups. I appreciate most teams have players moving in and out of the lineup but the Oil never seem to have any stability therefore players never know how to cover each other off. You can see it clearly with the defensemen – almost every shift there is a hesitation play that costs them position. With the forwards, it is the finer points of coverage that are lost when you don’t know how your winger/centre will react. There is no trust. No understanding of who does what that comes with experience playing together.

    6. Nav
      December 4, 2013 at

      Because of the sheer frequency with which this ‘wide-open slot’ business occurs, one has to wonder if the team’s centers are being instructed to get to the wings, or get to a position where they can break out quicker.

      I can’t buy this phenomenon is exclusively the result of Gagner not getting it.

    7. MrMarbles
      December 4, 2013 at

      Ribeiro was alone in the slot for so long I had enough time to say “C’mon you guys” in my most disgusted voice before he scored the goal. I was ready to trade Gagner right there. I agree with David that Jones shouldn’t be down there for so long but I give him some credit in that he was trying to win a puck battle (which he lost).

    8. Oilanderp
      December 4, 2013 at

      EVEN if Jones wasn’t supposed to be down that low (and I don’t know that is true since I am not in that dressing room and have no idea what sort of d-zone system they are supposed to be playing) and EVEN if both defencemen aren’t supposed to be behind the net at the same time (I don’t know), I simply cannot think of a single justifiable reason why Sam Gagner could not cover the front of the net. Not one. Maybe my 10 years of playing house league and D (no not AAA, D) hockey makes me much more advanced in understanding the intricacies of covering guys in the slot. Somehow, I doubt it. These guys play hockey for a living! Sammy needs to go to the wing whenever roster movements and personnel allow. Just unacceptable.

    9. michaeld
      December 4, 2013 at

      A more charitable interpretation of what Gagner is doing on this play is assuming that, since Shultz has got the pass to the slot “covered” (he is going down to block it), the passer will opt to kick it back to the point, in which case he intends to intercept it (remember that worked the other day when he went on that 2 on 1 with Hall against Nashville).

      Even if that’s true, it’s still a bad read, since there was much greater danger that the pass would get into the slot than that there would be a goal from the point. But perhaps it’s a more understandable read than just cheating for offence.

      • Bruce McCurdy
        December 4, 2013 at

        You mean he’s covering the point that Hemsky already has covered? Swell.

        • michaeld
          December 4, 2013 at

          Yeah… I didn’t say it was a good play, just a “more understandable” one than merely cheating for offense. Far be it from me to defend the indefensible. Nothing about my read of it makes it a good play.

    10. Goatsnake
      December 4, 2013 at

      Gagner’s issues as a hockey player at this point are well known.

      How much more time are the Oilers willing to invest in him? Who knows. But it seems as though ownership/management are clearly enamored with him to the point of not being able to see his ceiling and obvious limitations with any honesty.

      As for moving him to the wing? No. The lack of defensive acumen doesn’t just magically improve because he’s no longer at C. I know the rationalizing behind the Gagner to wing suggestion is that stronger linemates can cover for his weaknesses, but that’s just underlining the real issue – no matter where he plays in the line-up (or is “hidden”) he is still going to be a liability.

    11. Oilanderp
      December 4, 2013 at

      …… but he has compete! Unflappable!

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