December 24 2013 10:09AM
Sam Gagner has had a miserable six months. In late September, the young Oilers center suffered a significant injury and it has taken him forever to come back to something resembling normal. In fact, I'd wager most fans would agree with me in saying last night was the first time we got to see Gagner in his typical role: creative, offensive center with an ability to make plays and contribute to offense. It's been a long road.
IN THE BEGINNING
During the summer, new GM Craig MacTavish identified Gagner as a well-respected man about the Oiler room. This was an issue because there were some bad vibes in the locker room:
- MacTavish: “It’s incumbent on everybody in that locker-room to really work to provide the type of working environment we want. The type of productive, hard-working, non-complaining culture we want. And I’m going to be diligent in my decision-making in terms of weeding out the complainers.”
The problem with Gagner has never been attitude or offense, but rather defense. After returning too early from the injury, Gagner was the culprit on a legion of goals-against and seemed to be ignoring responsibility and turning away from the slot while allowing free looks for opposition snipers. Galling for fans, and this had to be a major problem for the organization.
I mean, riddle me this: what action DO you take with a player known for intelligent play who is making simple, basic errors? The Oilers were extremely patient—too patient—before relegating him to limited duty on the fourth line. The play didn't improve, but the negative impact was reduced because he was now far from the important part of the game.
Gagner's Corsi For % this season (5x5) is 47%, a smart improvement over last season's 42.9% (source: Extra Skater) which means he's heading in a better direction when on the ice, but these damn massive breakdowns are causing a frigging in the riggin'.
Sam Gagner has never been known as a strong defensive center, and the problems he is encountering this season are his natural weakness. Last night, for the first time this season, Gagner wasn't wearing anything that might reduce his comfort and visibility.
It looked better. In my opinion. And I'm not alone.
- Bruce McCurdy, Cult of Hockey: #89 Sam Gagner, 7. Strong 200-foot game that included some effective & committed own-zone play. Scored a beauty on a tic-tac-toe play. 11/18=61% on faceoffs.
That's a wonderful bit of prose, well-earned and a long time coming.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
I've always believed the worst time to give up on a player is when he's underperforming because of injury or another identifiable reason (I had to throw that in there because once upon a time Ron Low/Miro Satan). Gagner's performance last night suggests the new free range Gagner is back to last season's levels.
I remain convinced the Oilers should keep Gagner, although perhaps a move to wing is a better option than keeping him at center. Agree?