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
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
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:
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?
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.