Size Up The Middle: Can Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner Co-Exist?

Jonathan Willis
April 20 2012 01:00PM

The Edmonton Oilers are blessed with two young centres who are bona fide NHL players in the here and now, and who are only likely to get better with the passing of time. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick in 2011, and Sam Gagner, the sixth overall pick in 2007, are both excellent NHL talents and both fit nicely into the age group of the young forward corps the Oilers have assembled.

Unfortunately, neither stands 6’4” and weighs north of 200 pounds. Do the Oilers need to dump one of the two in exchange for an upgrade in size down the middle?

To answer that question, I decided to go back through all the teams to play in the Stanley Cup Finals since the NHL lockout, and check the size of their top three centres. These centres were then ranked by total ice-time and designated first, second or third line. Here’s the list:

Team Season First Line Height Weight Second Line Height Weight Third Line Height Weight Avg. Height Avg. Weight
Boston 2010-11 David Krejci 72 188 Patrice Bergeron 74 194 Chris Kelly 72 198 73 193
Vancouver 2010-11 Ryan Kesler 74 202 Henrik Sedin 74 188 Maxim Lapierre 74 207 74 199
Chicago 2009-10 Jonathan Toews 74 208 Dave Bolland 72 184 Patrick Sharp 73 199 73 197
Philadelphia 2009-10 Mike Richards 71 199 Claude Giroux 71 172 Jeff Carter 76 199 73 190
Pittsburgh 2008-09 Evgeni Malkin 75 195 Sidney Crosby 71 200 Jordan Staal 76 220 74 205
Detroit 2008-09 Henrik Zetterberg 71 197 Pavel Datsyuk 71 198 Valtteri Filppula 72 195 71 197
Detroit 2007-08 Henrik Zetterberg 71 197 Pavel Datsyuk 71 198 Valtteri Filppula 72 195 71 197
Pittsburgh 2007-08 Evgeni Malkin 75 195 Sidney Crosby 71 200 Jordan Staal 76 220 74 205
Anaheim 2006-07 Ryan Getzlaf 76 221 Samuel Pahlsson 72 202 Andy McDonald 71 185 73 203
Ottawa 2006-07 Jason Spezza 75 216 Mike Fisher 73 208 Antoine Vermette 73 198 74 207
Carolina 2005-06 Rod Brind'Amour 73 205 Eric Staal 76 205 Doug Weight 71 202 73 204
Edmonton 2005-06 Shawn Horcoff 73 207 Mike Peca 71 183 Jarret Stoll 73 213 72 201
Average 2005-11 First Line 6'1" 203 Second Line 6'1" 194 Third Line 6'1" 203 6'1" 200

One point of interest before I get into the size numbers is how ice-time arranges these players. In many cases, the guy centering a team’s second scoring line finishes third in total ice-time – Mike Peca in 2006, Samuel Pahlsson in 2007 and Dave Bolland in 2010 are a few of the unlikely “second” line guys.

Getting back to the main point, the average top-nine centre on a Stanley Cup finalist over the last six seasons isn’t especially big by NHL standards: 6’1”, 200lbs. Pittsburgh’s trio is the biggest on the record here, coming in at a combined average of 6’2” and 205lbs; their opponents in Detroit are the smallest of the group at an average of 5’11”, 197lbs.

The Oilers top three centres today – Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner and Shawn Horcoff – come in at an average of 6’, 192lbs, just slightly shorter and lighter than average. Horcoff and Gagner, listed at 207 and 195 pounds respectively, are both right around the league average; the still-developing Nugent-Hopkins is definitely on the slight side, listed at just 175 pounds. He’ll put on more weight as he gets older, and the Oilers should be right around the average of our group of finalists when he does so.

Looking at the list above, I don’t see a lot of reason why the Oilers couldn’t contend down the road with both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner on the roster. A slightly older Gagner in his prime might be a solid match for a player like Doug Weight, Andy McDonald, or Valtteri Filppula – he’d be a reasonably good fit as the centre of the secondary scoring line. If Nugent-Hopkins keeps developing as hoped, he might be able to fill the role of a Krecji or a Datsyuk/Zetterberg.

Leaving aside Detroit and Boston – teams that didn’t really have much snarl up the middle when they went to the finals – most of these teams had a hard-nosed guy to complement the two scorers. It’s the role Mike Peca in 2006, Mike Fisher in 2007, Jordan Staal in 2008 and 2009, and Dave Bolland in 2010 all played for their teams. If the Oilers hang on to both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner, that’s the sort of player they might want to tag to replace Shawn Horcoff when the Oilers captain eventually moves down the line.

Of course, other changes may be needed. Detroit has some beefy wingers, and Boston was famous for the grit (personified by Milan Lucic) and, umm, personality (personified by Brad Marchand) on their wings last season. I’ll be doing this same comparison between Edmonton and Stanley Cup Finalists, only focused on the other forward positions, in the near future.

But for right now, I think there’s an obvious conclusion: the Oilers shouldn’t be in a rush to move Sam Gagner down the line because they’re too small up the middle. Stanley Cup history shows plainly that teams can win with two centres – and in Detroit’s case even three – of below-average NHL size.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#1 Eulers
April 20 2012, 01:03PM
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Midget Fist!

Good read, but its hard to see these guys surviving the first round of the playoffs this year given how physical it has been.

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#2 Archaeologuy
April 20 2012, 01:11PM
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Keep Gagner. Trading him means we're counting on Horc to provide "2nd line" Offense. I dont see that happening any time soon.

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#3 David S
April 20 2012, 01:36PM
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"...that’s the sort of player they might want to tag to replace Shawn Horcoff when the Oilers captain eventually moves down the line."

"When"?

WHEN?????

*Slaps self in disbelief*

Mother of god. Isn't Shawn Horcoff already a third-line C?

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#4 David S
April 20 2012, 01:37PM
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*Assuming of couse Horcoff is untradable, which to my mind he is.

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#5 Quicksilver ballet
April 20 2012, 01:57PM
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@ Archie

Horcoff's still going to get 18 minutes a night going up against the others teams best line. The math may make it doable if the return is right for Grange.

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#6 gord962
April 20 2012, 02:08PM
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@ Arch - one would presume that if we traded Gagner we would get more than a bag of pucks back. The point to Willis' article was trade him and get some size on the 2nd line C position, not move the existing elements up one line.

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#7 Rama Lama
April 20 2012, 02:10PM
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I think that trading Gagner is required as he is too slow for the wingers he will have to play with.

If he cant address his foot speed then we should not keep him, as most nights he looks like he is skating with a boat anchor tied to him........most confounding given small players are usually fast?

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#8 Team Hall
April 20 2012, 02:21PM
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Very interesting approach Mr. Willis. I like it. I sure wouldnt rush to trade Gags unless we have a great deal coming back. Thanks for the insight.

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#9 Archaeologuy
April 20 2012, 02:24PM
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@Gord

Actually I really dont think that's the point of the article at all. I dont even think you're in the same ballpark as the point.

@Quick

The return for Gagner has always been speculated to be a defenseman, not a forward. The offense he provides from the C position would disappear into nothingness. Not impossible to overcome, but worth noting.

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#10 FastOil
April 20 2012, 02:44PM
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Gagner has to stay unless an equal talent emerges. That being said, I still worry about his skating. Smyth isn't fast but is an effortless skater (ok when not exhausted) and turns very quickly. He can get in front of an opponent on the boards to keep a cycle going.

I don't know if you see Gagner this way JW, and I agree that some heavier wingers might be needed in the corners at some point, unless the lighter guys can figure out a way to get the puck and keep it longer.

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#11 Clyde Frog
April 20 2012, 02:55PM
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I think the point is find players who can contribute points. If they produce at a proper pace, then their size shouldn't be a determining factor.

Finding players who have that competitive element should be the next concern, kids who are willing to do the gritty things necessary to continue production in the playoffs.

Again size is not an indicator of this. For proof look no further than philidelphias gritty tiny tots up the middle and how they compete against pitsburgs bigger centres.

Trading skill and production for physical size is just silly... But it sure is an easy way to critique players.. /sigh

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#12 Clyde Frog
April 20 2012, 02:56PM
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Double post :P

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#13 Ducey
April 20 2012, 02:58PM
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Good article, Willis

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#14 John Chambers
April 20 2012, 03:32PM
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We're a group of fans with an irrational size envy. Looking around the league at young C's who one might covet as a replacement to Gagner, none of Derek Stepan, Marcus Johansson, Kyle Turris, Derek Brassard, or Cody Hodgson are any better, or any bigger.

Sure you might deal Gags for a D if the plan is to move Hall to C, or if you magically acquire Logan Couture, but otherwise the grass is probably greener under your feet.

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#15 db7db7db7
April 20 2012, 03:36PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

Keep Gagner. Trading him means we're counting on Horc to provide "2nd line" Offense. I dont see that happening any time soon.

Not if you were to move hall to center.

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#16 Rondo
April 20 2012, 03:38PM
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You already know what I'm going to say

Brandon Sutter

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#17 What
April 20 2012, 03:41PM
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Hey where'd that lovely tilted kilt lady go to

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#18 Rondo
April 20 2012, 03:52PM
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Look at the top 2 centers of teams that won the cup , there is always a bigger two way center

Boston Krejci Bergeron

Chicago Toews Sharp

Pittsburgh Crosby Malkin

Detroit- Datsyuk Franzen

Anaheim Getzlaf Macdonald

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#19 admiralmark
April 20 2012, 04:00PM
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Question might be are we big enough in all our forward positions? Seems to me that al of Boston,Pitts, and Detroit have beefy wingers if not centers. Not sure what we have can handle the rough going in a 7 game series of pounding.

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#20 Clyde Frog
April 20 2012, 04:05PM
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@Rondo

Can you do something for me quickly, just so the rest of us can judge your comments with some idea of where you are coming from?

Please define the role of the 2nd line for us.

Thanks!

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#21 Quicksilver ballet
April 20 2012, 04:11PM
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Size isn't that important, it's the size of the compete inside the player that wins battles. Players with the highest compete level aren't always 6'2+.

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#22 Rondo
April 20 2012, 04:24PM
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Given The # 1 center for Edmonton is skilled, you need a two way center that is big that plays against the #1 center of the other team. You look at the most complete players in the league Crosby Toews Datsyuk Bergeron they are all two way players that are physically tough. Yeah I know they are #1 centers but you really need that side when you have a very skilled smallish center RNH. Look at Vancouver Sedin skilled then you have Kesler a two way player. Successful teams always have this combo. Years ago I was saying go after Hanzal , now the ship has sailed I think Brandon Sutter could fill that role. Having for example Hall RNH and Eberle was One line the other Pääjärvi Sutter and Yakupov . I'm not to worried about Brandon getting point.

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#23 Clyde Frog
April 20 2012, 04:27PM
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@Rondo

So the point of a second line is to check and be defensively responsible? Not to score and take pressure off the 1st line?

Honestly?

Madjam is that you?

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#24 Rondo
April 20 2012, 04:43PM
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@Clyde frog

I'm not going to convince you regarding Brandon Sutter. You look at points only so in your mind Gagner is superior. I think your wrong and you think I'm wrong.

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#25 They're $hittie
April 20 2012, 04:46PM
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Isnt the best all around center on the team Gagner. (corsi - good, Plus minus - best on the team, POD - near top of team, 5x5 per 60 - 2nd on team. You have to wait another year for RNH to progress further and get use to tougher minutes. Look at your center options, who do you want to take the hard minutes. So If he is gone for D who is available to play these minutes?

Brandon Sutter? Really, that guys production is terrible.

Gagner is average weight and his height is just below average. So using his size as an excuse is terrible, and Nuge will grow to the same size slightly taller. Our Centers are and will not be as small as you think.

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#26 They're $hittie
April 20 2012, 04:48PM
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@Rondo

nope brandon sutter is terrible. I watched this kid since he played midget. Never understood why he got drafted as high as he did. Let him run around hitting. If he doesnt start producing more he will turn into Torres.

Oh and Brandon Sutter is 183lbs, Gagner is 194. Size argument is gone. In the world of physics Mass is in the equation and Height is not. So If you want to say he is a better hitter and plays bigger good. That is your argument. But he doesnt produce as much as Gagner.

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#27 Oilers89
April 20 2012, 04:54PM
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@Clyde Frog

Once again you are right. Two lines that could score a goal really easily (which is the way our first and second line are coming together) will be tough to beat. Sure they won't be huge but if they compete hard and are dangerous does it really matter that they give up the odd goal because of defensive problems. If we are in the business of scoring more than the other team then we should be fine. Our third line should be assembled to shut others down and our first two can go out against anyone and give up a goal but score more than they are giving up, which IMO is very likely.

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#28 Rondo
April 20 2012, 05:00PM
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There are players in the league that can score goals and points when they don't mean much then there are players that score important points. Gagner is a regular season player. Sutter is a playoff player.

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#29 Walter Sobchak
April 20 2012, 05:03PM
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I don't think it's necessary to replace Gagner with like production, in fact Gagner may be used to bring another top pairing D-Man.

Gagner may even be packaged to bring in a gritty tough winger and a legit 3rd line center.

Hypothetical example - Clutterbuck and Brodziak for Gagner and Paajarvi.

Sorry but that boat anchor Horcoff is here to stay so you might as well use him in a 4th line role or find a UFA for that 2nd center or move Hall over.

Edit-That's if I would move him at all. Gagner is valuable to the Olers.

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#30 Tron
April 20 2012, 05:03PM
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Well lets assume we draft Yakupov. Our top two lines would be

Hall,RNH,Ebs Hemmer,Gags, Yakupov

Looks like plenty of scoring but physically, Hall is the only one with some size. I think we need to get bigger and there doesn't seem to be much of a market for Hemmer while there does seem to be some interest in Gags.

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#31 Oilers89
April 20 2012, 05:14PM
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Rondo wrote:

There are players in the league that can score goals and points when they don't mean much then there are players that score important points. Gagner is a regular season player. Sutter is a playoff player.

Are you sure? Brad Marchand with his monster size of 5'9-190 dominated the playoffs last year. Meanwhile Joe Thornton who is 6'4-235 has yet to impose his will in such a way. These are just two examples but what could possibly make you believe that Sutter would be any better than Gagner in the playoffs?

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#32 Walter Sobchak
April 20 2012, 05:15PM
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Besides Hemskys old injury and Hall's injurys due to his reckless nature.

Why all of a sudden does size come into the equation? I'm not sold that your top two scoring lines have to be huge!

I have not seen Gagner out for an extended period of time because of his size! Nor did I see Eberle or RNH be out for an extended period of time because of size!

Do I think Size is important, yes. In your 3 to 4 spots and to have some type of push back.

But to say you need a big body in the middle is just dumb

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#33 TigerUnderGlass
April 20 2012, 05:22PM
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Rondo wrote:

There are players in the league that can score goals and points when they don't mean much then there are players that score important points. Gagner is a regular season player. Sutter is a playoff player.

Ah yes. Sutter and his long history of great playoff performances.

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#34 DieHard
April 20 2012, 05:23PM
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What wrote:

Hey where'd that lovely tilted kilt lady go to

Why has nobody answered you. I miss her too.

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#35 Wanyes bastard child
April 20 2012, 05:24PM
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@Rondo

Brent, is that you?

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#36 Tron
April 20 2012, 05:32PM
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We have our Gretzky. Who's our Messier? We need some edge on the top two lines.

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#37 kinnickkinnick
April 20 2012, 05:45PM
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Hypothetical:

Oilers first + Gagner for Blue Jackets second + Johansen

I agree its an overpay for us and not even sure the Jackets would do it. Maybe if they throw in Marc Methot?

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#38 Walter Sobchak
April 20 2012, 05:49PM
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@kinnickkinnick

Gagner alone for Johansen, but why make that trade? Doesn't seem logical to lose Gagner for Johansen then lose our first for a second that's like taking 5 steps back.

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#39 kinnickkinnick
April 20 2012, 06:05PM
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Walter Sobchak wrote:

Gagner alone for Johansen, but why make that trade? Doesn't seem logical to lose Gagner for Johansen then lose our first for a second that's like taking 5 steps back.

Yeah I also thought it was an overpay but if I am Columbus I think Johansen is a career center and I wouldn't give him up for a smaller center with an arguably lower ceiling. Something more that Methot for a throw in Perhaps? Oilers would come out of that with a franchise defenseman, big 2nd line center with tons of potential, and another solid d-man. Then it RNH-Johansen-Horcoff as top three and a well-rounded D-core to work from. Takes care of d and center weak areas with one trade.

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#40 kinnickkinnick
April 20 2012, 06:09PM
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Whoa, sorry for the poor edit.

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#45 steven morie
April 20 2012, 06:16PM
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Nice article Jon. I see the point you make, and that both Gagner and RNH are developing. My main concern is the supporting cast already in place around these centermen (Eberle, Hall and presumably Yakupov) all being smaller players/still growing and the other being that Sam Gagner baring a huge jump in production next season is far away from being of the quality of second line center that many of the contending teams had.

You would also know that many under sized players in the league are listed as being larger than they are. My issue with samwise has always been his footspeed and two way play. Although Gagner made strides in his two way play last season i am not sure he will ever have the 'selke' quality of many of the '2cnd' line centers listed above on contenders.

All in all, i feel Sam is just two small and so far, inconsistent, to make up for his offensive prowess. If the oilers are set on contending in the near future i think that Gagner is player that needs to be made expendible (possibly along with another asset) in order to find a larger two way center. I would also take note at the man handling that has happened to many of the respective centers listed above (not including Boston) that has taken place in the first round of this years playoffs by teams who posses size up the middle. Again, if the game and reffing continue to allow for more clutching and grabbing the oilers will be forced to become larger up down the middle.

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#46 kinnickkinnick
April 20 2012, 06:19PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

If I'm reading you correctly, and that's CBJ's second round pick you're talking about, there's no chance I do it if I'm Edmonton.

I wouldn't move Yakupov straight across for Johansen. And I certainly wouldn't move Gagner for a second round pick.

No, I mean 1st overall (Yakupov) + Gagner for 2nd overall (Murray) + Johansen + something more. Who do you think CBJ would have to throw in to make this work for the Oilers?

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#47 jonny94
April 20 2012, 06:21PM
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@Rondo

"Gagner is a regular season player. Sutter is a playoff player"

It must be 4:20 today to make statements like these. Wowzers

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#48 jonny94
April 20 2012, 06:34PM
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Tron wrote:

We have our Gretzky. Who's our Messier? We need some edge on the top two lines.

Last I checked our compared Mark Messier was drafted 1st overall in 2010. He's got a lot of bite, scores goals and like Messier has yet to play a full NHL season in his career. Hopefully this player does something Messier never did..... win SIX stanley cups with the Edmonton Oilers!

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#50 DieHard
April 20 2012, 06:35PM
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kinnickkinnick wrote:

No, I mean 1st overall (Yakupov) + Gagner for 2nd overall (Murray) + Johansen + something more. Who do you think CBJ would have to throw in to make this work for the Oilers?

For some reason I'm getting the feeling Murray is a little overrated. 2 jacks for king is not worth it.

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