The Age Card

For some reason, Sam Gagner’s been a hot-button topic for the past few days, both here and elsewhere, and one item that keeps coming up is “the age card.”

Is Gagner’s age irrelevant? He’s in his fourth NHL season – shouldn’t he be pretty much at the peak of his game right now?

The short answer is ‘no.’

As a rule, the really strong, first-ballot Hall of Fame type forwards hit the ground running. The Crosbys, Ovechkins, Sakics, Lemieuxs – those guys generally light up the league before they hit 20. But there are another group of very, very good forwards who don’t start hitting their stride until their early 20’s. What follows is a brief look at some of those players who have played in the Northwest Division over the last few years.

Jarome Iginla – I don’t need to introduce Iginla to Oilers fans, who have had the displeasure of seeing him light up the league with the rival Flames for years now. A three-time First Team All-Star, two-time Rocket Richard winner, owner of both an Art Ross and Lester B. Pearson Trophy along with five gold medals, Iginla has had an impressive career. Iginla turned 22 in the summer of 1999, fresh off his third season in the NHL, and at that juncture he had averaged 44 points a season and the best season of his career was a 51-point effort. He would put up 63 points the following season, but would spend the decade after that between 65 and 100 points every year.

The Sedin Twins – This is another pair of players that Oilers fans are familiar with. Henrik Sedin is fresh off a season where he took home the Hart and Art Ross trophies, along with a First Team All-Star berth, and both he and his brother have been high-end two-way players for the last five seasons, always near the point-per-game mark while preventing offence the other way with their frustrating style. In the fall of 2004, as the players celebrated their 24th birthdays, they’d had a breakout season of sorts: Daniel had topped the 50 point mark for the first time ever (in three previous seasons, he’d never bested 35 points) while Henrik had just completed his first 40-point campaign. Fans in B.C. were by and large fed up with the twins; while they bridle now at the “Sedin Sisters” moniker it was one that was repeated over and over again on call-in shows, in conversation, and on the internet by fans of the team. I lost track of the number of times I heard a frustrated fan call for the team to trade the bums. Of course, post-lockout the two players have been among the league’s most consistent scorers (Henrik ranks 6th in post-lockout scoring, Daniel 11th) and the majority of those people have had a change of heart.

Ryan Kesler – The 23rd overall pick in the deep 2003 draft, the question mark with Kesler was whether he had the offensive chops to play anything more than a bottom-six role at the NHL level. He has since shown himself to be a capable two-way player; he’s coming off a 75-point season while taking on the toughest assignments (leaving the Sedin line free to score) and is generally regarded as the straw that stirs the drink on his line. But as Kesler turned 24 in the summer of 2008, none of this was readily apparent: he had just played in his breakthrough fourth NHL season, scoring 20 goals for the first time and challenging the 40 point mark (he recorded 37). It was his first season with more than 25 points. We now know that he built on that, tallying 59 and then 75 points, but it was far from apparent at the time.

Ales Hemsky – The most dynamic player in Edmonton, Hemsky has consistently flirted with the point-per-game mark in the half-decade since the NHL lockout, and has been the team’s only constant offensive threat during that span. But as he turned 22, coming off his third professional season, there were still a lot of questions. In his first two NHL years, he hadn’t hit 35 points, and a trip to the Czech Republic during the lockout wasn’t especially encouraging either – he’d finished with 31 points in 47 games, which roughly translates to a 40 point NHL season. He scored 77 points the following season, and while health has been an issue his offensive production has been excellent since.

Markus Naslund – The former Vancouver captain was a good player for a long time, but he had some peak years that were truly exceptional, scoring 40+ goals on three occasions and tallying 103 points during the height of the dead puck era. He was a three-time First Team All-Star, and in 2003 won the Lester B. Pearson award. When he turned 25 in the summer of 1998, however, it was fair to ask if he’d ever be even a consistent second line player. Sure, he’d topped the 50 point mark once, as a bit player on a stacked Penguins team featuring Lemieux, Jagr, Francis, Nedved (45 goals, 99 points) and Sandstrom (70 points in 58 games) but they’d shipped him away for nothing and his offence had steadily dropped from that high, to just over 40 points and finally down to 34. There was no way of knowing that Naslund was about to score 36 goals and 66 points, or that he would top both the 20-goal and 60-point marks for the next eight seasons. In fact, for the decade after that disappointing 34 point season, Naslund would be the league’s third-best goal-scorer and sixth-best point scorer.

Those are just a handful of examples of first round picks who emerged only after lengthy stints in the NHL, and not one of them saw their breakthrough season until they were older than Sam Gagner is today. I’ve ignored the myriad of players from past years, from outside the division, and I’ve even omitted the long list of players who didn’t make their NHL debuts until they were older than Gagner is now; guys like Milan Hejduk, Mikko Koivu, Chris Drury, and Martin St. Louis.

Ganger’s age is relevant. He might be in his fourth NHL season, but he’s barely 21; other (still highly regarded) players from his draft year are only now starting to show what they can do – players like Jakub Voracek, Logan Couture, and James Van Riemsdyk. Writing him off at this juncture would be premature.

      • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

        The underlying point is that his PP production (along with Hemsky/Penner) has been off the chart low compared to his previous years… and will most likely return closer to his first three years.

        • C-DOG

          And at the same time his 5 on 5 #’s could also drop.

          So you have to look at the overall #’s and not pick & choose, I beleive it was you who tried pointing out his 5 on 4 #’s from last year being something decent.

          • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

            Wasn’t me.

            Anyways, his 5X4 is WAY below average. While his 5×5 is modestly above average.

            It isn’t picking and chosing, an unbiased person should be able to form the opinion that the number WAY out of whack is likely to correct more so then the number modestly out of whack.

  • bigguy13

    Like I was saying its not all about talent the players you are with make a difference to. Obviously there isn’t chemistry on the powerplay so they should change it up a little maybe put MPS on one of the PP lines with Gags. There is also nothing saying that Gags has to stay playing as a center, maybe he’ll find his calling as a winger.

  • Gagner has taken a step back, production-wise, but I think he has taken a step forward in the area you don’t see – defensively. I think he will continue to improve, he has 2 key physical limitations – not fast, not big.
    Those will hold him back from greatness, but he will be an exceptional 2nd line center due to his craftiness and vision.
    A 50pt, responsible, 2nd line center is not a bust, just maybe not the greatness we had hoped for. Better hands than Horc, but a little slower.
    For “greatness” tools, like size, speed, hands, and vision, see Hall, MP. Eberle is close to that boat, but with no size, will be limited.

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      That’s actually not a bad thing….we actually want them to move up the standings a bit.

      My preference is 9th place in the west for the Flamers and 14th overall in the NHL…out of the playoffs with the 14th pick in the 1st round.

      That would be perfect 🙂

  • Eberle and Hemmer for Seguin? That would look bad this year, but might look real good in 5 years when we have a first line centreman. That was a ballsy attempt by ST, it has been documented that he did make a sexy offer to the Bruins. He shot for the moon on that one. That would probably have taken us to the Conf finals in 5 years. We have already compiled a wealth of young talent, that would have been a plethora of riches to pull that one off.

  • Generally a players top two production years are year 4 and 5 . But Gagner broke in as 18 year old. His upper may not be for a year or two yet ! I’d like to keep him till at least his contract time is expired to be honest . I think he’ll still get quite a bit better over next two seasons . Face it , not like we have anything better for probably at least that time frame . He might yet turn out to be a force offensively like his father was .

  • Oilers4ever

    Well written Willis.. exactly the point I made in Lowetide’s article… Unless you are so called rated “superstar”, these kids take several years… for him to come in at 18 and do what he did with Cogs and Nilsson in that stretch drive in his first year was unbelieveable.. yes, the last two have been so so to that… but he will get better.. A number one centerman I don’t think ever just strictly because of his size… but a number two for sure.. If the Oil could somehow get Courtier for their number one (and Larsson too if possible), along with what’s on the farm and in the CHL for them right now, this team will be fine for years to come. People just need to learn to have some patience with them.

  • cableguy - 2nd Tier Fan

    Well said…

    I cant wait to see what the kids look like when they fill out.

    Hall will probably end up around 210 LBS and MPS 10 more than that. With the speed they have they’ll be tough to play against.

    I still cant get over how well Eberle looks with the puck on his stick… I hope Gagner learns a thing or two from him.

  • cableguy - 2nd Tier Fan

    The Kesler example is an interesting one. True his career started very slowly, but it must be acknowledged that he possesed the physical tools to take things to another level. Sam Gagner just doesn’t have that extra gear. His wrist shot, size, overall strength and speed are all poor and although these attributes may get better I fear they will never be good enough to be an impact player at the NHL level.

  • The Real Scuba Steve

    I have a feeling if is Hemsky is dealt or doesn’t resign with The Oilers, and if he is on a good team we will then see Hemsky’s offense explode. Imagine if he went to The Caps and played with Semin and Ovechkin? Scary.

  • Hey Willis what was the website for the chart of each teams odds of making it into the playoffs. Last night on TSN they said the Oilers had 0% chance and the Flames only had a 2% chance of making it. It seems way too early for 0% chance. I’m a realist, we aren’t going to make it, but its not statistically impossible yet it is?

  • After a ten game winning streak, assuming all other teams play .500 hockey, the oilers would actually be in about 6 or 7th place or top in the division one point ahead of Van. I don’t think that its not a possibility, teams have gone on hot streaks before. I do think that it is very unlikely to see even a 4 game win stream out of the current team this season.

    • cableguy - 2nd Tier Fan

      well, in theory, anything is possible.

      however, suggesting this team can go on a 10 game winning streak, when the franchise record is 9, would be bordering on insane.

      Longest winning streak 9 games February 20 – March 13, 2001

  • Constantly defending, Samwise. I’ve always said the same thing.. he’s 21, and what was Hemsky doing at that age? Showing promise, but still not putting up huge numbers yet either. Plenty of time for him to develop, and no need for impatient Oil fans to hit the panic button. We’re blessed here, and we’ll see it in a few years.

  • Aitch

    An interesting note on most of the players you mentioned JW is that they seemed to have their breakout and subsequent consistent elite level play all after the lockout (which also included the implementation of new rules).

    I’m not saying your points are not valid, but I wonder how much the rule changes had an impact on these players numbers, to go along with their athletic maturity.

  • Aitch

    “Writing him off at this juncture would be premature.”

    Of course writing Gagner off at age 21 would be premature, but that’s a lot like Lowetide saying Gagner is not the problem.

    The above statements are open-ended. If Gagner becomes a 75-point player, you can say, “See, I said it was way too early to write him off.” If he doesn’t become much more than he is now, you can say, “I never said he was going to be something special.”

    Let’s firm things up a bit with something somebody can point to 10 years from now. What will Gagner be over the next 10 years? Is he a second-line centre who averages 55 points? Sixty points? A first-liner who averages Seventy?

    I will be extremely surprised if Sam surpasses the 70-point barrier more than once in the next 10 years. I see him, given his physical limitations, averaging 55-60 points a season over the next decade, when he’s in his prime.

  • @ Robin Brownlee:

    Frankly, I think there tends to be a bit too much certainty in the world of NHL commentary. I don’t have a crystal ball; I can’t tell you what he’ll become.

    My guess? I’d guess that Sam Gagner puts up Hemsky-like numbers over the heart of his career. 65-70 points, surpassing that in his peak seasons. Naturally there’s some chance he’ll be better than that, and some chance he’ll be worse than that, but that’s how I see the odds.

    • PerryK

      Too much certainty in commentary? Commentary without a strong opinion or position is pablum. It’s waffling. The best and most widely read in the business take a stand and they’re either very right or very wrong.

      Playing it safe, leaving yourself an out with a “Then again, maybe not” after stating your case over 500-1,000 words might make it difficult for anyone to say “You were flat-out wrong,” but it also weakens the commentary.

  • @ Shadi:

    Nonsense. You have to look at where his production is coming from, what it’s been like historically, and look for trends that indicate which direction things are going.

    We’ve seen a modest step forward in his 5-on-5 scoring, and a drop off the cliff in his 5-on-4 scoring. The former might regress, but the latter is certain to correct.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    I think guys like 89 deserve the heat and what I miss is when guys like Souray got a free pass from the fans because he was an Albertan!

    Or that’s the only reason why I could see he would get a pass because he was obviously overrated and overpaid.

    Note: I wish Souray was still here because we’re so thin on D right now and he’s a waste of money in the A but it’s odd how some guys like 77 and 89 can take the lashes but other fellows never get a lick.

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      You’re right. I’ve never seen a negative comment or item written about Horcoff or Penner or Hemsky or Cogliano or Strudwick or Khabibulin or . . . They never get a lick.

      For someone so fastidious with numbers, you play fast and loose with language when you broadbrush things that way.

      • here’s the difference, though.

        people who complain about 83 aren’t even worth arguing with because these are people without a clue. people talking about 43 anytime have a point or people talking about 13 this season have a point as well.

        and the same goes with Khabby because all these fellows deserve the knocks, or at least IMO.

        the deal with 10 is he’s overpaid – though not to the extent that some people believe.

        but if someone’s complaining about 89 this year then I wonder what they think of our bottom six? our top six isn’t the problem and 89’s a big part of that but the bottom six are getting killed.

        young Gagner’s not a world beater but he’s a fine player and less focus would be on him if the Oilers didn’t basically start every game down 1-0 before of a terrible PK.

        people aren’t looking at the big picture.

  • @ Robin Brownlee:

    Completely disagree.

    It’s not about certainty, it’s about analyzing the evidence and making the best possible bet. We’re all gambling here.

    That’s why I didn’t tell everyone who would listen in the summer that Brule was due to regress offensively – I couldn’t know that. But I certainly could point to all the red flags and indicate the probability was regression.

    But, you certainly don’t need me to tell you how to write. I’m most comfortable writing the way I think of things – in terms of probabilites, not certainties.

    • You started by talking about commentary. If you’re writing commentary/column/opinion, you’d better take a stand or it’s a waste of time.

      If you’re writing analysis, that’s a distinctly different matter. I don’t need to take a position if I’m writing analysis, or a game story for that matter. I just have to let the information speak for itself.

      Commentary is a different animal. If it isn’t strongly spiced by the opinions of the person writing it, it isn’t worthwhile.