SAM: CRICKETS FOR THE CRITICS

Robin Brownlee
February 07 2013 07:54PM

If Sam Gagner scored 40 points for the Edmonton Oilers this season, and he might despite playing just a 48-game schedule, somebody would be sure to sniff: "See, Sam still hasn’t even managed 50 points in an NHL season. He's not that good."

As polarizing a player for a rabid and playoff-starved fan base as the Oilers have had in many years, Gagner draws raves from some and criticism from many no matter how well, or poorly, he plays.

Those who appreciate Gagner for what he is – a reasonably productive second-line centre with a hint of grit and a competitive streak – are quick to point out these days the former London Knight is off to the best start of his NHL career with points (3-8-11) in 10 straight games.

Those fixated on what Gagner is not – a smooth-skating pivot who produces big points as a bonafide No. 1 centre, which the Oilers have lacked since the team drafted him sixth overall in 2007 – are less impressed. He doesn't skate well. He's lousy on face-offs. He's not as good as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who already better fits that top-billing in the middle.

Given Gagner's start to his sixth NHL season – amid the pitiful state the Oilers find themselves in with Shawn Horcoff, Nugent-Hopkins, Eric Belanger and Anton Lander on the limp – his detractors have found themselves woefully thin on new material so far. Wait awhile. They'll come up with something.

SIUTBOHC

"I felt like I was in a good spot coming into the year," says Gagner, who played with Klagenfurt AC in Austria during the lockout. "I tried to put in a lot of good work during the summer and you get confidence from that. I was excited for the start of the year and I've had the opportunity to play with some great players."

With Nugent-Hopkins playing between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle before he tweaked his shoulder, Gagner's spent most of his time between rejuvenated and healthy Ales Hemsky and rookie Nail Yakupov. The trio has been both good and opportunistic through 10 games. Given Edmonton's injury woes at centre, Gagner's torrid start has been timely.

"I've worked a lot on just staying even-keeled," said Gagner, who inked a one-year deal that pays him $3.2 million this season. "There's different things that can go on during a year that are tough to handle at times with the way the last few seasons have gone.

"We couldn’t seem to gain any traction as a team. That wears on you. The whole reason you play this game is to win and get a chance to play in the playoffs (something Gagner hasn't done since turning pro in 2007). This year, we have a great opportunity to do that. That's exciting for everyone in here.

"For me, I wanted to keep the same attitude no matter how things were going and I worked a lot on just focusing on that this summer. I've done a good job of it so far, but it's a long season and you have to stay with it all the time."

SO FAR SO GOOD

Surpassed by Nugent-Hopkins, Hall, Eberle and rookies Justin Schultz and Yakupov on the marquee, Gagner's stayed on task and is leading the Oilers in scoring despite the team's recent slide, punctuated by a 3-2 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars Wednesday.

Of course, Gagner's still small. He's still not particularly fast, even if he's half-a-step quicker than he was as a rookie. He's minus-3 and his face-off percentage is a sub-par 37.8 per cent. And, history suggests -- he's had seasons of 49, 41, 41, 42 and 47 points – he's destined to fall off the point-a-game scoring pace he's on.

I wonder, though, where the Oilers would be right now without Gagner and his two wingers, even if he's not the type to waste time and energy giving that or the naysayers much thought. I wonder what role he'll play as the season wears on if the playoff push fans long for materializes.

"We haven't been very good, but we're better than we've shown," Gagner said of the expectations of improvement fans have for this edition of the team. "This year, people are optimistic about our future. We want to turn it around right now. That's our focus."

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

Aceb4a1816f5fa09879a023b07d1a9b4
A sports writer since 1983, including stints at The Edmonton Journal and The Sun 1989-2007, I happily co-host the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260 twice a week and write when so inclined. Have the best damn lawn on the internet. Most important, I am Sam's dad. Follow me on Twitter at Robin_Brownlee. Or don't.
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#51 DSF
February 08 2013, 01:38PM
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Bucknuck wrote:

You are really cherry picking.

Yeah, it's awful when the facts get in the way of a good story.

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#52 So not a Pouzar
February 08 2013, 01:43PM
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@Wanye

That's what she said.

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#53 Bucknuck
February 08 2013, 01:54PM
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DSF wrote:

Yeah, it's awful when the facts get in the way of a good story.

How about this fact. He's leading the Oilers in Scoring. He's tied for nineteenth in league scoring (and ninth amongst centres). That is the story as well.

If you want to quibble about even strength primary assists and ignore everything else then you are cherry picking.

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#54 match16
February 08 2013, 02:04PM
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@DSF

Do you think hockey leagues (around the world) would award a point if the secondary assists weren't as important as the primary assists?

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#55 DSF
February 08 2013, 02:05PM
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match16 wrote:

Do you think hockey leagues (around the world) would award a point if the secondary assists weren't as important as the primary assists?

Some hockey league's don't award second assists.

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#56 DSF
February 08 2013, 02:17PM
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Bucknuck wrote:

How about this fact. He's leading the Oilers in Scoring. He's tied for nineteenth in league scoring (and ninth amongst centres). That is the story as well.

If you want to quibble about even strength primary assists and ignore everything else then you are cherry picking.

Yes, he's doing pretty well so far.

But if you want ignore how he's racking up those points you are also ignoring how hockey games are won.

He's still being sheltered...the 129th toughest competition among NHL centres, and is still giving up more than he's scoring.

His +-ON/60 5V5 is currently -1.34, making him 139th in the league among centres.

His P/60 on the PP is very good...11th among centres, but, as we have seen, PP scoring has far more variance than EV scoring does.

If he keeps clicking on the PP, he'll be fine.

If not, I'd wager he'll drop down the scoring race pretty fast and pretty far.

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#57 James
February 08 2013, 02:19PM
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DSF wrote:

Some hockey league's don't award second assists.

And yet the best, and therefore most prominant and important league in the world does. Hmmmm.

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#58 James
February 08 2013, 02:22PM
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Gagner has been on the top end of the Oilers scoring for the past few years. I doubt he'll drop "pretty fast and pretty far". Will he remain in the top spot? No. But he won't be down at number 10 either.

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#59 James
February 08 2013, 02:35PM
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According to the team site, Gagner has never been below #5 in the scoring lead. Of course that was on a team with less talent, but I still don't think he'll drop off a cliff like some are suggesting.

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#60 Lochenzo
February 08 2013, 02:35PM
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To dispell another myth of Sam Gagner, watch him on the penalty kill. He's in the lane trying to block a shot. Nowhere near as good as Petrell, but don't tell me Sam doesn't block shots. If you want to see a guy get out of the way of slapshots, watch Phil Kessel. He actually steps to the side and lets the shot through in a situation where it's better to block it.

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#61 Bucknuck
February 08 2013, 06:21PM
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@DSF

Sam Gagner is a streaky player, and when he begins the year on a streak it looks pretty great. He will have a slump at some point and his total will come back to earth.

But just because I don't think he will maintain this pace, doesn't mean I don't think he deserves credit. He is a good second line centre in this league.

The chances being bled are largely due to the turnover machine on the LW (Yak) and also Sam's bad start with faceoffs. I expect those will level out as well.

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#62 Doc Unk
February 09 2013, 02:27AM
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I can't stand it when people complain that "Player X riding on the coat-tails of player Y." Hockey is a team sport, people! That's why there are so many guys on the ice at once. Sure, playing with Hemsky and Yak is going to increase Gagner's numbers. A top line is a top line because it has THREE excellent players on it, all feeding off of each others talents. Are you people (and I'm generalizing here, I know) saying that someone who plays with an amazing talent can't be any good is his own right because of that?

Let's say, just as an example, there are two players. These two players play on the same line but one is on a whole other level of skill than the other. Let's say, again just as an example, player one pots 25 goals, but 15 of those were due to assists (primary or secondary, I don't care) from player two.

In the above, would you say that player one is riding the coat-tails of player two? Or maybe two is going for the ride? I'd say that both are good players. But good player or not, it's the line, and indeed the whole team that makes the W column increase. Points are the measuring stick that we use, and Sam's point totals are off to a great start. He's no Kurri, but playing on a line with Gretzky doesn't mean you can't be good too just because he's that much better.

Please, don't get all huffy about comparing 89 to 99, or anything like that. I've got a reasonable expectation of how good a hockey player Gagner is. This is a comparison of situations, not talent. BTW, the numbers of 25 & 15 come from the fact that Gretz assisted on just over 60% of Kurri's 601 career NHL goals.

Anyway, in my long and rambling way, what I'm trying to say is that 89 is a good hockey player, and the synergy of playing with two other good players in 83 and 64 can only help that line and the Oil as a whole.

I'll get off my soap box now and let someone else have a turn.

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#63 oilerman53
February 09 2013, 09:29AM
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There will still be hating on Gagner no matter how well he does. He was part of the first wave of promising youngsters and is the only one who stuck. Until he brings up his pathetic faceoff percentage he wont be considered elite. The best centers around the league like Nuge offset obvious shortcomings in their games by being able toput up huge point totals. Gagner needs to channel Oates and Yzermans faceoff skill set and hire a guru. The final year Oates spent here had almost a direct correlation of how awesome Horcoff and Stoll became on the draw the following years. One of which was the year they almost hoisted the cup.

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#64 gcw_rocks
February 09 2013, 10:05AM
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I have long been in the "trade Gagner if you can get a really good defender for him" camp.

I think he has been an adequate 2nd line centre at best up until this season. The point totals have been okay, but the face off percentage and defensive work show us a flawed player.

Lacking big, defensively responsible wingers and slotting in behind a smallish 1st line centre who also can't win face-offs means that Gagner's flaws have hurt more than they would if he was on many other NHL teams.

This season he is scoring enough points to compensate for the pathetic face off percentage and middling defensive play. Let's hope he keeps it up because then the balance is favourable. If he drops back to being the traditional scorer he has been, then I would argue on the balance he doesn't fit.

One would expect the Oilers to draft a centre with their 1st round pick this season. Unless Gagner continues to light up the scoreboard we that draftee will be Gagner's replacement in the next 2 years.

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