Size Up The Middle: Can Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner Co-Exist?

The Edmonton Oilers are blessed with two young centres who are bona fide NHL players in the here and now, and who are only likely to get better with the passing of time. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick in 2011, and Sam Gagner, the sixth overall pick in 2007, are both excellent NHL talents and both fit nicely into the age group of the young forward corps the Oilers have assembled.

Unfortunately, neither stands 6’4” and weighs north of 200 pounds. Do the Oilers need to dump one of the two in exchange for an upgrade in size down the middle?

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To answer that question, I decided to go back through all the teams to play in the Stanley Cup Finals since the NHL lockout, and check the size of their top three centres. These centres were then ranked by total ice-time and designated first, second or third line. Here’s the list:

Team Season First Line Height Weight Second Line Height Weight Third Line Height Weight Avg. Height Avg. Weight
Boston 2010-11 David Krejci 72 188 Patrice Bergeron 74 194 Chris Kelly 72 198 73 193
Vancouver 2010-11 Ryan Kesler 74 202 Henrik Sedin 74 188 Maxim Lapierre 74 207 74 199
Chicago 2009-10 Jonathan Toews 74 208 Dave Bolland 72 184 Patrick Sharp 73 199 73 197
Philadelphia 2009-10 Mike Richards 71 199 Claude Giroux 71 172 Jeff Carter 76 199 73 190
Pittsburgh 2008-09 Evgeni Malkin 75 195 Sidney Crosby 71 200 Jordan Staal 76 220 74 205
Detroit 2008-09 Henrik Zetterberg 71 197 Pavel Datsyuk 71 198 Valtteri Filppula 72 195 71 197
Detroit 2007-08 Henrik Zetterberg 71 197 Pavel Datsyuk 71 198 Valtteri Filppula 72 195 71 197
Pittsburgh 2007-08 Evgeni Malkin 75 195 Sidney Crosby 71 200 Jordan Staal 76 220 74 205
Anaheim 2006-07 Ryan Getzlaf 76 221 Samuel Pahlsson 72 202 Andy McDonald 71 185 73 203
Ottawa 2006-07 Jason Spezza 75 216 Mike Fisher 73 208 Antoine Vermette 73 198 74 207
Carolina 2005-06 Rod Brind’Amour 73 205 Eric Staal 76 205 Doug Weight 71 202 73 204
Edmonton 2005-06 Shawn Horcoff 73 207 Mike Peca 71 183 Jarret Stoll 73 213 72 201
Average 2005-11 First Line 6’1" 203 Second Line 6’1" 194 Third Line 6’1" 203 6’1" 200

One point of interest before I get into the size numbers is how ice-time arranges these players. In many cases, the guy centering a team’s second scoring line finishes third in total ice-time – Mike Peca in 2006, Samuel Pahlsson in 2007 and Dave Bolland in 2010 are a few of the unlikely “second” line guys.

Getting back to the main point, the average top-nine centre on a Stanley Cup finalist over the last six seasons isn’t especially big by NHL standards: 6’1”, 200lbs. Pittsburgh’s trio is the biggest on the record here, coming in at a combined average of 6’2” and 205lbs; their opponents in Detroit are the smallest of the group at an average of 5’11”, 197lbs.

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The Oilers top three centres today – Nugent-Hopkins, Gagner and Shawn Horcoff – come in at an average of 6’, 192lbs, just slightly shorter and lighter than average. Horcoff and Gagner, listed at 207 and 195 pounds respectively, are both right around the league average; the still-developing Nugent-Hopkins is definitely on the slight side, listed at just 175 pounds. He’ll put on more weight as he gets older, and the Oilers should be right around the average of our group of finalists when he does so.

Looking at the list above, I don’t see a lot of reason why the Oilers couldn’t contend down the road with both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner on the roster. A slightly older Gagner in his prime might be a solid match for a player like Doug Weight, Andy McDonald, or Valtteri Filppula – he’d be a reasonably good fit as the centre of the secondary scoring line. If Nugent-Hopkins keeps developing as hoped, he might be able to fill the role of a Krecji or a Datsyuk/Zetterberg.

Leaving aside Detroit and Boston – teams that didn’t really have much snarl up the middle when they went to the finals – most of these teams had a hard-nosed guy to complement the two scorers. It’s the role Mike Peca in 2006, Mike Fisher in 2007, Jordan Staal in 2008 and 2009, and Dave Bolland in 2010 all played for their teams. If the Oilers hang on to both Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner, that’s the sort of player they might want to tag to replace Shawn Horcoff when the Oilers captain eventually moves down the line.

Of course, other changes may be needed. Detroit has some beefy wingers, and Boston was famous for the grit (personified by Milan Lucic) and, umm, personality (personified by Brad Marchand) on their wings last season. I’ll be doing this same comparison between Edmonton and Stanley Cup Finalists, only focused on the other forward positions, in the near future.

But for right now, I think there’s an obvious conclusion: the Oilers shouldn’t be in a rush to move Sam Gagner down the line because they’re too small up the middle. Stanley Cup history shows plainly that teams can win with two centres – and in Detroit’s case even three – of below-average NHL size.

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  • Nice article Jon. I see the point you make, and that both Gagner and RNH are developing. My main concern is the supporting cast already in place around these centermen (Eberle, Hall and presumably Yakupov) all being smaller players/still growing and the other being that Sam Gagner baring a huge jump in production next season is far away from being of the quality of second line center that many of the contending teams had.

    You would also know that many under sized players in the league are listed as being larger than they are. My issue with samwise has always been his footspeed and two way play. Although Gagner made strides in his two way play last season i am not sure he will ever have the ‘selke’ quality of many of the ‘2cnd’ line centers listed above on contenders.

    All in all, i feel Sam is just two small and so far, inconsistent, to make up for his offensive prowess. If the oilers are set on contending in the near future i think that Gagner is player that needs to be made expendible (possibly along with another asset) in order to find a larger two way center. I would also take note at the man handling that has happened to many of the respective centers listed above (not including Boston) that has taken place in the first round of this years playoffs by teams who posses size up the middle. Again, if the game and reffing continue to allow for more clutching and grabbing the oilers will be forced to become larger up down the middle.

  • Oilers89

    What would it take to get Jordan Staal? He has been nuts in the playoffs so far. Starting with Gagner+ what would it take? Gagner + our first next year ect? Would that do it?

    Edit: I think that Gagner is a good player and I would keep him, but if Staal was an option I would take it. I know I am basing this off of one playoff series but wow does he look good!

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Jonathan, i studied 80 Oiler games this year, charting Edmonton players advancing the puck into the neutral/opposition zone success rates.

    A) Successfully entered/advanced the puck through the neutral zone. Turning the puck over in the neutral zone. (after having uncontested possession of the puck)

    B) Players whom turn the puck over in the opposition and defensive zones.(after having uncontested possession of the puck)

    Is there someone already doing statistical analysis on these areas?

    Example: 83 had uncontested possession entering the neutral zone 489 times this past season. He had a success rate of .613 bringing/passing the puck through the neutral zone into the opposition zone. He had a fail/success rate of .489/.511 when the Oilers had possession of the puck in the opposition zone, meaning the play ended while on his stick almost 49% of the time.

  • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

    Is there an ON awards night coming up that I don’t know about. This Rondo guy seems to be making a late push to try and take DSF’s title.

  • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

    Thanks for this article JW. I think it shows that since the salary cap was put in place, there is more parity in the league. No repeat champs since. All this talk about, big centers, this and that to win the cup is great but all I can get out of that list is that there is no magic formula to win the cup. I really think now more than ever, every team that makes it to the playoffs has a legitimate chance to win the cup.

  • Spydyr

    Gagner is a small player who plays small.Does he ever win a puck battle?

    He gets knocked off the puck by a strong wind.Every second shift he cleaning the snow off the ice with his body.

    Some small guys play bigger than their size. Gagner plays smaller.

  • Clyde Frog

    @Rondo

    In Junior Sutter never set a ppg pace, nor did he even put up 60 pts..

    He has only posted 40 pts once in his career and for the last 2 years not even close to that.

    Do you have any clue what that means?

    He is a great 3rd line player, but a point producer no? He would be crucified here, hell Gagner is for not popping 60 every season even though he is in the mid 40’s for NHL Centre production. (Making him a lock for 2nd line centre production)

    Sure Sutter is 6’3″, but that doesn’t mean he will produce all of a sudden.

    Your second line is a scoring line, this idea that 2nd line centres need to be big 2-way checkers is wierd and seems to have permeated up recently, someone must have written an article somewhere.

    You understand that the 3rd line is your shutdown line and as such the 3rd line forward tends to log more icetime than the 2nd? So if you want to compare Sutter to someone on our team its Horcoff…

    What you want is to trade a decent 2nd line centre who can produce and play the position. For a really good young 3rd line centre that will post mediocre production if he is bumped to the 2nd line… I think its harder to find legit top 6 centres over good 3rd liners, I may be out to lunch here, but thats my opinion.

    I’m not hating on Sutter I think he is good for his position, but nothing in his history says 2nd line material on a contender. (Production is what your second line is for!)

  • Brandon has potential to be a #2 center or a great 3rd line center.

    Gagner has potential to be a#2 center and nothing else. And with one small center already the chances of him being effective as a second line center is slim.

    • Oilers89

      Gagner is a #2 center with potential to be a 1st line center. Gagner and Sutter are the same age, so what makes Sutter capable of developing further and into a role higher than he is currently in if Gagner can’t possibly get better?

  • DieHard

    “Gagner is a #2 center with potential to be a 1st line center.”

    Edmonton would have traded him if they could have gotten for him.

    You and a few people may believe your quote but not the NHL.

    • Oilers89

      I was mostly just stating some random made up fact just to show you how ridiculous it sounds when you say that Sutter can be a second line center that is better than Gagner, and then completely dismissing the fact that Gagner is the same age. What makes Sutter’s ceiling so much higher?

  • Oilers89

    Most teams brought their B game when they played Edmonton. Hard to get up for a 29th or 30th place team.

    Imagine how Gagner as a potential #1 center would fare if the brought their A game

  • Clyde Frog

    @Rondo

    The fact that Sutter couldn’t even produce half as much as Gagner in Junior and has not once equalled his production level in the NHL = He won’t magically flip a switch and become a 60 pt player.

    Simple as that, you are not talking about a kid with second line production abilities… You are talking about a 3rd line centre, end of story.

    Also provably false, the Oilers games were not worth less points than others.

    Sorry… KkthxwtfBBQ!plzdrvonthru!

    • You mean besides his junior seasons of:

      16 years old 66 points in 57 games

      17 – 74 points in 54, and

      18 – 33 points in 17 games.

      This is Sutter’s 22 year old season. When Messier was 22 he had 106 points.

      These two are definitely the same.

  • Clyde Frog

    @Rondo

    Nope Mark Messier put up 33 then 63, then 88 pts in his first 3 NHL seasons. He also vastly outperformed Sutter’s Junior point totals, not sure how that point is valid at all?

    What leads you to think Sutter will ever break the 40 point barrier again? Blind hope? Man love? Trolling?

  • Clyde Frog

    @DSF Except for the fact that he was the 45th best in Centre production last season?

    Oh wait he was 39th best this season you say? So he was in the top 9 for second line centre production, hrmm… Yah throw him away your right, who wants that… Also he is 22, so there is no room for him to improve on that either, right?

    /sigh

  • Clyde Frog

    @DSF

    Scoring is down, as evinced by the fact Gagner’s 47 points was good for 39th in overall scoring for centres.

    But nice try… You can’t get around his scoring in relation to every other centre in the league. This year he posted excellent production for a 2nd liner.

    He went from the ~50th to 47th to 45th to 39th ranked centre for production, if that isn’t improvement, what is?

  • Clyde Frog

    Oh DSF, he then went on to produce 21,27,25 and 13 pts…

    Should we ignore that? Gagner has already been a more consistent performer, is younger and the 39th best producer in the league.

    Cry and complain all you want, nothing will change how good he is or what centre production numbers currently are.

    Sure if you could flip him for a 60+ pt good on you, but hating on him for what he is doing is just plain sour troll grapes.

  • Have been saying this for 2 years now… Gagner needs to beef up muscle wise… get stronger.. I know he’s only 22, but he has been in the league for what 5 yrs now. There are small guys that play bigger and hes not one of them. He needs to go to Gary Roberts school of hard knocks [ ala. Steve Stamkos]. Gagner is not hard player on boards, and is always sitting on his butt. He also gets thrown out of the face off circle more than any other center in the NHL>. Giroux is 15 lbs smaller and plays a solid game. Look at Marchand [ Boston ], tough as nails… small guy.
    Its in your head,, and thats something Gagners hasnt got on to . and he may never… Also get rid of that Pee Wee hockey stick.
    PS.. Mind you he plays tougher than Hemsky and Horcoff, who are both over 6′ , and Horcoff is over 200 lbs.At the end, as much has Ive liked Gagner, I would trade him for the right deal.

    • Quicksilver ballet

      BINGO!!!

      Perfectly said. It’s not the size issue with Ganger and I think we clump grit, endurance and most importantly balance into the word “big”. Big does not guarantee these talents in such players. It’s more common in big players to have traits like balance ala Dustin Penner however as we have seen with Penner, grit and endurance was not present.

      Ganger has determination however he displays little to no balance with the puck. He gets knocked off or brushed off the puck far too easily to grind it out along the boards or to make a strong move to the net.

      I’d move Ganger for a center who displays these talents even if said player is less talented offensively.

      • Quicksilver ballet

        To me it comes down to skating. No surpise I guess given the name I chose. Skating is more than speed, as said it’s having balance, agility (quick turns/edges),the ability to at least gain speed quickly even if the top end isn’t blazing fast. Moreau and Grier could really motor if they had half the rink to get going.

        As far as I can see, the great small players typically skate well. If a small player can’t accelerate away from or outmanoeuvre bigger players, especially in the corners, or keep their balance, how can they consistently win battles? The advantage a small player has and needs is to be quicker than the bigger bodies.

        It is the essence of Schremp’s failure, and also the Oiler’s failure with Omark. Linus can battle for the puck and is a rugged little player. We have our Marchand right now. He probably could put up as good a fight as Hordichuk as well 😉

        If given the shot he would outclass Jones in a hurry, and probably do more actual effective hitting. He might also get some assists meaning his linemates could score as well. Unfortunately I think he will be a top notch Oiler killer.

  • go after parise, the first two lines would look like this
    hall hopkins eberle
    hemsky parise yakupov
    pajarvi lander hartikainen
    petrell horcs and sign someone that can hit

    we will have two great lines and the alpha males can be on seperate lines

    sign one of washingtons goalies as a back up to dubey

    so long gagner, jones, bellanger smyth ect

  • Wax Man Riley

    The issue is toughness and intensity, not height and weight. Toughness and intensity are a lot harder to measure, but I’m sure there are a few stats out there that can provide some indication? (Hits given / hits received? Takeaways / giveaways? Maybe hook these guys up to a heart rate monitor during the games?)

    Look at Paajarvi. He’s 6’3″ and 200 pounds but he’s also the softest player on the team.

  • Wax Man Riley

    Such an interesting article UNTIL you mentioned Horcoffs name. This guy is a 4th liner at best Mind you he could start the season as 3rd line center, cause he does find a way to keep up to the “pace” for the first 10-15 games then he’s DONE!