If the Oilers and Sam Gagner don’t reach a deal between now and Monday, they will go to arbitration. An arbitrator will hear the arguments from each side, consider their positions and award Sam Gagner a one year deal at a salary worth somewhere in between what each side is asking for. If this was the only issue for the Oilers and Gagner – what does he get paid next year? – I’d expect a deal to have been done by now. Arbitration’s been around long enough that both sides probably have a reasonable sense of where an arbitrator would likely come down.
The difficulty, I suspect, is in dealing with what come after next year. The Oilers have expressed an interest in signing Gagner to a longer term deal in order to avoid having him become a UFA next fall. Gagner has expressed an interest in being in Edmonton long term. The problem, I assume, is determining the right number for him.
If Gagner makes it to unrestricted free agency, he’ll famously be the youngest unrestricted free agent of all time. An August birthday, he made the Oilers the year he was drafted at the age of barely 18. He scored 49 points in his rookie year, a total he has yet to match, making it sort of look like he’s spun his wheels. If you just glance over his scoring totals, you see 38 points last year, which looks even less impressive until you remember the lockout. If you pro-rate his scoring line there, you come up with a 24 goal and 41 assist season, which is legitimate offensive production.
I pulled a list of forwards who are UFA age for 2013-14 and have a cap hit of between $5.3MM and $7MM for a comparison. I’ve stuck some information in there: how many sixty point seasons they’d had after their age 23 season and how many 60 point seasons they’ve had overall.
Outside of the scoring on a per game basis, Gagner stacks up reasonably well with those guys – a 60 point season (or, in his case, an equivalent due to the lockout) is a pretty impressive notch in your belt for a 23 year old. The problem with that list though is that it kind of reflects the really good years of guys who are older than Gagner – Gagner hasn’t enjoyed his seasons in his mid-twenties yet.
What if we did that list and just included scoring through age 23? Well, you get this:
Gagner scores pretty well by that measure. In that group of guys who turned into really highly paid NHLers, he’s in about the middle in terms of pts/gm through age 23. That’s got a bit of survivorship bias – there may be guys who scored early, petered out and didn’t make the big bucks but even if we look at all active forwards who played at least 100 games by age 23, Gagner is 67/253.
It’s hard to conclude anything other than “Gagner has shown reasonably good levels of offence for a player his age” and we know that, historically, those players tend to get paid. I haven’t talked too much about possession but I’m optimistic about Gagner in that regard. Last year was a disaster but I tend to think it was a tactical thing – Gagner’s been a reasonably consistent 49%ish guy in the past, playing on poor teams. A good second will be 53%+ – with better teammates, I don’t think it’s impossible for Gagner to get into that range. The Oilers’ second line, whoever it might be, is probably going to be a good bet to have a higher shooting percentage than most, which provides value and reduces the need for a huge Corsi%. From a possession standpoint, I can see a way in which Gagner fits into a Stanley Cup contender on a second line.
What makes Gagner difficult, I think, is that the Oilers have to deal with the UFA question before teams generally do. Usually, you have a better idea of what a guy is when it comes time to decide if you’re willing to commit to him. As Gagner made the Oilers right after his draft year (and because, frankly, the Oilers were kind of chaotic for a few years there) and because the lockout cut out a chunk of his age 23 season, it’s harder to know precisely what he is. Which makes figuring out what he’s worth kind of difficult.
The Oilers list of options is pretty straightforward:
1. Let the arbitrator decide Gagner’s salary for 2013-14;
2. Negotiate a one year deal for 2013-14; or
3. Negotiate a multi-year deal.
Two of those options just push the issue off, in that they leave the UFA issue to be resolved, whether by Gagner leaving or by a new deal negotiated after January 1. I’m inclined to think that that isn’t likely to end well for the Oilers, unless someone out there really likes Gagner and makes a whale of a trade offer for him.
If the Oilers are at X and Gagner is at Y in terms of a long term deal, I think you have to ask what happens if next season plays out. Gagner could have a great year, an average year or a poor year. Would an average or a poor season reduce whatever he’s asking from the Oilers? I’m not so sure it would. There’s already an expectation out there that the salary cap will be rising next year and, unlike virtually every free agent in the history of the NHL, Gagner would come with a legitimate expectation that his best days were ahead of him. Assuming he doesn’t want something completely outrageous, I suspect he’d find it as a free agent next summer.
Of course, if they don’t sign him to a multi-year deal now, they run the risk that he has an excellent year. If he puts up 65 points, his price probably rises. If he has a 70+ point year – and that’s not impossible, given that he’s the de facto number one centre to start the season and the group of young forwards around him – his price will presumably rise. I’d expect he could do really well as a UFA in those circumstances and one would expect his price to go up accordingly.
The other thing that makes a multi-year deal great is that one of those years will be an RFA year and have a lower price tag. Say he wants $4.5MM for his RFA year and $5.5MM a year for his UFA years. By doing a multi-year deal that includes the RFA year, you’ll knock the cap hit down a little bit – it might just be $100K but that’s not nothing.
Without knowing what Gagner’s looking for, it’s hard to judge how realistic it is. That being said, I’d think of anything under $6MM as being realistic – it’s tough to look at Travis Zajac’s number and age and not suspect that Gagner’s going to be a more valuable player over the next eight years, a period in which Zajac will make $5.75MM a year. I kind of think that the Oilers have an opportunity for a real steal on this deal. Say it was a four year deal at $4.5MM for his RFA year and $5.5MM for his UFA years. That’s $21MM, a $5.25MM cap hit. It’s hard for me to imagine how the Oilers could find a player as good as Gagner on the UFA market for as little money.
All said, it’s a bit of a weird deal because we don’t entirely know what Gagner is yet. I’ve been optimistic about him in the past – I called him the best Oilers 2C since Messier two years ago – and I still am. The price of top hockey players is going to go up quickly in the immediate future. Gagner’s production through age 23 looks very respectable, even if he has yet to really put up a big, full season. Deferring this issue by letting the arbitrator deal with it doesn’t seem likely to me to produce a better result. Make a longer term bet on him now seems like a reasonably smart bet to make to me.Email Tyler Dellow at email@example.com