The question of whether Sam Gagner or Gilbert Brule is going to be a better player for the Oilers has come up a few times here at Oilers Nation, including in Lowetide’s excellent (and almost entirely unrelated) article earlier today. A comparison of their performances at the same ages might shed some light on the matter.
Gilbert Brule spent seven games in the show the year after he was drafted by Columbus, suffered some injuries and ended up spending most of the year with the Vancouver Giants of the WHL, where he put in a very strong performance. Sam Gagner spent the entire year in the NHL, narrowly missing injury, and while he contributed offensively his defensive game was somewhat lacking.
A direct comparison is impossible, but we can use Gabriel Desjardins’ NHL equivalencies to give us an idea of where the two players were at offensively. This is just an estimation, but one that has a strong track record of predicting NHL performance, and is based on the aggregate performance of players jumping to the NHL from other leagues.
Using those projections, we can project Brule’s WHL/NHL mixed season over an 82-game schedule and compare it to Gagner over the same schedule:
This estimation shows Brule as a better goal-scorer and Gagner as the more effective offensive player. Let’s see what happened the following year, when both players spent the whole season in the NHL. We’ll look at goal- and point-scoring rates, broken down for game situation, and also at QualComp and QualTeam for those years. First off, the even-strength data:
|Player||EVTOI||EV G/60||EV A/60||EV PTS/60||EV GD/60||QualComp||QualTeam|
I’d like to draw attention first to the quality of teammates and opponents each player faced. Both had favourable circumstances; Gagner played third-line quality opponents with second-line quality help, while Brule played fourth-line quality opponents with third-line quality help. I think the positions are highly comparable.
We see similar goal-scoring rates, with a slight edge to Gagner, and Gagner more than doubling Brule’s assist production. The combination of those factors gives Gagner a fairly significant lead in scoring rate. More interesting, perhaps, is goal differential: Gagner came in just a shade under even while Brule’s line was lit up like a Christmas tree by the dregs of the league. The combination of those factors is almost certainly the single-biggest reason Gagner saw much more even-strength ice-time.
Next, the special teams data:
|Player||PP TOI||PP G/60||PP A/60||PP PTS/60|
Interesting results here; Brule appears to have been the better power play option but received significantly less ice-time than Gagner. Both teams had substandard power plays, but Brule had a slightly more uphill battle: his Blue Jackets converted at a 14.8% rate while the Oilers managed a 17.0% success rate in the pertinent seasons.
Let’s move forward one season more, the last directly comparable season for the two. We’ll add a bit more data here – this year represents 2007-08 for Brule, the first year that zone starts and shot differential data is available:
|Player||5v5 TOI||5v5 G/60||5v5 A/60||5v5 PTS/60||5v5 GD/60||5v5 SD/60||5v5 RCor/60||ZoneStart||QualComp||QualTeam|
First, I’d direct the readers’ attention to the situational data: zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates. Gagner sat right around the 50.0% mark in zone-starts, but got a major push otherwise, playing with high quality players against garbage. Brule on the other hand played with fourth-liners against third-liners, but got a major push on the zone-start scale, rarely being sent out for defensive zone assignments. Both players were cushioned quite a bit, and I’d say Gagner got the better deal.
The key difference is that Gagner produced to some degree, scoring points at twice the rate Brule did. Both players moved the puck in the right direction, for the most part; Gagner’s Corsi number was decent given the team around him, while Brule’s number is a little underwhelming given how often he started in the offensive zone.
I would be remiss not to mention shooting percentage here. One of the reasons I’m leery about taking Brule’s 2009-10 at face value is because it seemed like everything went in for him: he recorded a 14.0% shooting percentage, which is above NHL average and well above Brule’s career average. 2007-08 was a similar story for Brule, but in reverse: he managed a 1.4% shooting percentage, which was unbelievably, unsustainably low. For comparison, Patrick “Shoot from everywhere” O’Sullivan had the worst full season of his career in 2009-10 and still managed a 5.8% shooting percentage. It was not indicative of Brule’s ability and had to be taken with a grain of salt. Brule was dispatched to the minors, where he was less than impressive.
Here’s the power-play data for the same comparable seasons:
|Player||5v4 TOI||5v4 G/60||5v4 A/60||5v4 PTS/60|
It’s not a track record that inclines one to view Brule as a comparable player to Gagner, particularly when one considers that in the comparable years Gagner is still seven months younger than Brule. Injuries likely had an impact but the fact of the matter is that even when healthy Brule was a disappointment in Columbus, both offensively and defensively. It’s a tribute to the man that he was able to come to Edmonton and have such a successful season on such a lousy team, but it’s almost certainly premature to be expecting him to have a better career than Sam Gagner.
Still, the fact that we’re even having the discussion shows the kind of season Brule had.