Can the Edmonton Oilers afford to trade Sam Gagner? Can they afford not to?

Jonathan Willis
March 18 2014 10:13AM

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There is no more controversial player in Edmonton than Sam Gagner. The payoff for the difficult 2006-07 season, the still-young forward was supposed to be a primary piece for the Oilers to build around at centre. Instead, nearly 500 games into his NHL career, he continues to struggle.

What should Edmonton do with him?

The Case for Moving

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The argument for moving Gagner is that he isn’t a two-way hockey player.

Scoring isn’t really Gagner’s problem. He hasn’t lit the world on fire but he’s been posting very respectable second-line point totals since day one. On a team with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, that’s good enough (or should be eventually), even if it isn’t what the Oilers had in mind when they picked him sixth overall.

Gagner isn’t big, but that isn’t really a primary problem either. History is full of teams that have won Stanley Cups with centres roughly the size of Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner (fun fact for the ‘every team needs size down the middle!’ people: of the 10 centres to play on the Cup winners from Detroit (2008) and Boston (2011), not even one of them was listed at over 200 pounds). There are plenty of ways to win hockey games, and having a bunch of 6’4” guys who can play pivot is one of them, but not the only one.

What every Stanley Cup winner has in common is good players. And while Gagner is certainly an NHL player, it’s fair to wonder if he’s really the guy a team wants in the No. 2 pivot slot. Chicago won with Martin Hanzal (edit: Michal Handzus) there last season, but very few teams can insulate their No. 2 centre with Jonathan Toews in the No. 1 role and people like Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa on the wings.

Watch Gagner on this goal against from Edmonton’s last game in Carolina:

Justin Schultz grabs the puck at the blue line and jumps up ice. Gagner’s in the middle of the zone, behind the pinching Schultz and his two wingers, and sees it all happen. At about the two second mark, he’s at the far left of the screen about halfway up, watching a battle on the side boards. There’s a Carolina player just above and to the right of him. A good centre knows that, knows that Schultz (smartly) pinched, and covers for the defenceman. Gagner wanders past the Hurricanes forward and suddenly there’s a two-on-one, and eventually a goal against.

Every player makes mistakes, and thus any player can be made to look terrible on video. But from what I’ve seen, this is a mistake typical of Gagner. He doesn’t have the defensive commitment a centre needs. He cheats for offence.

The Case Against Moving

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The argument against moving Gagner is equally simple. It’s a stupid idea from an asset management perspective to trade players during low ebbs in value.

The following are Gagner’s totals (projected over 82 games) for the last five seasons:

Season  G A PTS +/-
2009-10 18 31 49 -10
2010-11 18 33 51 -21
2011-12 20 31 51 5
2012-13 24 41 65 -10
2013-14 10  36 46 -31

Gagner is at a low ebb in goal-scoring, a low ebb in point-scoring and a particularly low ebb in plus/minus. I think that in this case the basic statistics reflect reality. He started the year injured, he came back and was brutal, and while he’s improved a little bit lately he simply hasn’t been the Gagner of past seasons.

If the Oilers had traded Gagner two years ago, they likely would have had a better return. Ditto for last season. This year? We’re talking about the Oilers retaining salary and getting back Kyle Clifford.

Bad NHL teams typically bleed talent. One of the reasons is because bad teams generally have managers who make bad decisions, but there’s more to it than that. Bad teams are under more pressure than good teams to move players in off years, because they need everyone performing at a top level just to get within visual range of respectability. Bad teams tend not to have a support system, so when the bottom falls out on a player it really falls out.

Moving Gagner right now will see the Oilers get a 50 cents on the dollar return.

What Should Edmonton Do?

Craig MacTavish10

We are in a situation where the team has competing interests. It needs to get better in the No. 2 centre slot, which means trading Gagner away. But it also needs to get full value (or as close to it as possible) to improve the roster, which means retaining Gagner.

There are all kinds of real world problems here (is Gagner pushing for a trade, which free agents will consider Edmonton, what does the trade market look like) but in theory I think there’s an obvious two-step best course here:

  • 1. Add a replacement for Gagner to the roster.
  • 2. Keep Gagner until his trade value rebounds.

Let’s call Gagner’s replacement “Brandon Dubinsky” (we’re picking on Columbus here because they have Ryan Johansen and Boone Jenner and Artem Anisimov and because virtually any of their four good centres would be a nice fit for the Oilers – but the general idea is just to add a player-type, not a specific player). If the Oilers add “Dubinsky” in the off-season without off-loading Gagner, they could start next year by putting him at centre on the third line and bumping Boyd Gordon down into the role of fourth-line defensive specialist (it’s the role Manny Malhotra played in Vancouver).

That puts Nugent-Hopkins’ line in the power-vs.-power role, the “Dubinsky” line in a secondary tough minutes role, the Gordon line in a defensive zone role, and leaves all kinds of soft minutes for the Gagner line. In that situation, it’s pretty conceivable that Gagner recovers offensively and his trade value increases dramatically, at which point Edmonton’s free to deal him for something else and bump “Dubinsky” into a more offensive role.

As we said, there are real-world considerations that might make this scenario an impossibility. But if possible, I think it’s the best route forward for Edmonton.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#151 fasteddy
March 18 2014, 05:10PM
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FuManShu wrote:

Did you happen to see Draisaitl at the WJC? If you're basing your viewings on that, remember the supporting cast he had around him compared to Ekblad or Reinhart.

Just saying.

No, just in WHL games. He looks like a shinny player; flashy against inferior competition. Im worried that won't fly against the big boys. Virtanen looks much more like a pro than Draisaitl too..... (and while we're on the subject, if Greg Chase plays one game for the Oilers I'll stop admiring soccer moms!)

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#152 Cold Hard Truth
March 18 2014, 05:17PM
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Craig MacTavish on Gagner, 2013:

"Sam has really developed into a leader here… he’s a guy that’s really developed into the type of character we want and that’s going to be important when I’m making the decisions, is that we have the type of culture in that room."

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#153 michael
March 18 2014, 05:23PM
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Your option are little and none.You cannot trade Gagner based on his play the first 60 games this year. Good land.You have someone smack you upside the head and sip out of a straw for 6 weeks and see how the frick you feel. Gagner gets a mulligan on this season. Gagner deserves and has earned a mulligan.

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#154 Cold Hard Truth
March 18 2014, 05:25PM
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In mid-July 2013, Vic Michaels asked MacTavish if he was going to make any more moves to improve the team.

MacTavish stated: "Not really at this point."

"when I sit down and look at our roster, I’m reasonably comfortable that we’ve made some progress and reasonably comfortable with the depth of our line-up.”

"I’m reasonably optimistic that we’re going to be a real good hockey team.”

My Point: MacTavish ignored, or did not see, the blindingly obvious holes we have in the roster. MacTavish demonstrated poor judgement. He does not have some Grand Strategy for the team, but is flying by the seat of his pants.

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#155 The Last Big Bear
March 18 2014, 06:55PM
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Cold Hard Truth wrote:

In mid-July 2013, Vic Michaels asked MacTavish if he was going to make any more moves to improve the team.

MacTavish stated: "Not really at this point."

"when I sit down and look at our roster, I’m reasonably comfortable that we’ve made some progress and reasonably comfortable with the depth of our line-up.”

"I’m reasonably optimistic that we’re going to be a real good hockey team.”

My Point: MacTavish ignored, or did not see, the blindingly obvious holes we have in the roster. MacTavish demonstrated poor judgement. He does not have some Grand Strategy for the team, but is flying by the seat of his pants.

I like the cut of your jib.

MacTavish should be lapping up the undeserved credit for "turning around" a team that couldn't get any worse, and was inevitably going to get better even if only by virtue of the young players being a year older.

Instead he's getting a free pass for somehow, some way, managing to make the team even WORSE.

Yes, he acquired Scrivens and signed him to a good contract. Yes, he won the Perron-MPS trade.

Virtually everything else he's done has been questionable AT BEST.

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#156 Dave
March 18 2014, 08:11PM
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Trading Gagner would be good for the player and the team.

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#157 JohnQPublic
March 18 2014, 11:59PM
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This is one of the better articles I have read on this site.

Nice job Willis.

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#158 Rdubb
March 19 2014, 02:33AM
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But you are forgetting that after July 1, Edmonton cannot trade Gagner without his consent as he has a no-trade clause, or did you forget that? Also, Can't the coaching staff do something to get him to become more defensively responsible? Maybe such as telling him EVERYDAY at practice and while watching film, alone and in front of everyone else, or can't they get a guy(s) like Ference (which should be his job as a vet and the captain), or Smitty or even Hendricks to go talk to him and get it in his thick head? Can't they take ice time away from him until he learns? We have Lander up so let's see what he can do on the 2nd line for the remainder of the yr? can't they sit his butt in the press box? Now that I am pissed at him again, why not move him to the wing where his defensive liability isn't such a big deal? Who cares if he thinks he is an NHL 2nd line C, because all his stats say he ISN'T, & that MUST BE pointed out to him. Have MacT tell him that there is very little interest in him, so maybe the best thing for his career is to move over. Sam is too hard headed and must soon realize to either learn to play a better defensive game or he must realize that he is not a 2nd line C, maybe a 3rd line at best on any other team, and on a good team, he'd be a 4th, and he doesn't play the game of a 4th liner, so, where does that him? PLAYING THE FREAKING WING!!!! Let's try him on the wing for more than a game or two, and who really gives a damn if he pouts and acts like a 10yr old child when he is moved, if he does, sit his butt down, explain things, TELL HIM WHAT IS FACT and then have him buy a bag of popcorn during the game... Just my thoughts Peck

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#159 TKB2677
March 19 2014, 08:35AM
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I live in Red Deer and watched the Rebels - Raiders play in game so I got to watch Draisaitl in person. Wow that kid is big. He's listed at 6'1, 208lbs. He's every bit of that and more. When he took the puck to the net, he took it to the net, there was no stopping him. When he wanted to shield the puck, he did it with no trouble.

I got into a debate with someone yesterday in here about Gagner not being that small and apparently he's 202lbs. I'd like to see Gagner and this kid stand side by side. Apparently Gagner is only 6lbs lighter than Draisaitl. Apparently 6lbs must make a gigantic difference because he would tower over Gagner both in height and width. Granted this is junior but there is no chance in hell Gagner can take the puck to the net like this kid will be able to do or shield guys off the puck like this kid can do with his size.

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#160 HardBoiledOil
March 19 2014, 10:44AM
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^i really want the Oilers to take this kid if they lose out on the Ekblad sweepstakes!

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#161 Tikkanese
March 19 2014, 11:45AM
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TKB2677 wrote:

I live in Red Deer and watched the Rebels - Raiders play in game so I got to watch Draisaitl in person. Wow that kid is big. He's listed at 6'1, 208lbs. He's every bit of that and more. When he took the puck to the net, he took it to the net, there was no stopping him. When he wanted to shield the puck, he did it with no trouble.

I got into a debate with someone yesterday in here about Gagner not being that small and apparently he's 202lbs. I'd like to see Gagner and this kid stand side by side. Apparently Gagner is only 6lbs lighter than Draisaitl. Apparently 6lbs must make a gigantic difference because he would tower over Gagner both in height and width. Granted this is junior but there is no chance in hell Gagner can take the puck to the net like this kid will be able to do or shield guys off the puck like this kid can do with his size.

Maybe the bulk of Gagner's weight is in his legs. Bure & Forsberg were all like that.

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#162 TKB2677
March 19 2014, 04:00PM
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@Tikkanese

Gagner must have one hell of a big set of legs and ass because even if you look at the first picture for this article - Gagner lined up vs Toews. According to the numbers Gagner weighs 202, Toews is 208. You telling me Gagner is only 6 lbs lighter than Toews? Look at how much wider Toews back looks compared to Gagner. 6lbs difference doesn't do that. 15 lbs difference does.

I could easily be wrong and Gagner is 202 but where he puts it I have no clue. That picture doesn't lie.

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