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.