Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Future of Sam Gagner

If all of the speculation is correct, tomorrow night Steve Tambellini will step up to the stage at the Xcel Energy Center and announce that with the first overall selection in the 2011 NHL entry draft, the Edmonton Oilers are proud to select from the Red Deer Rebels, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. If this is the case and the Oilers do select the dynamic playmaking center, where does that leave Sam Gagner and his future with the Oilers?

Sam Gagner was drafted 6th overall at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft and immediately made the jump to the NHL the following season. It has been hotly debated ever since among Oilers fans if this was the correct decision, or whether Gagner would have been better served going back to junior for another season. Gagner silenced most of his critics that year when he went on to score 49 points in his rookie season. However, he may have done himself a disservice in doing so as he raised the expectation level for himself throughout OIL country, which was already quite high considering how early he was drafted in the first round. Ever since his strong rookie season, Gagner has seen a slight decline in his offensive production scoring 41, 41, and 42 points over the next three years. The jury is still out on what Gagner’s ceiling really is. OIL country seems to be divided on this, with some believing he has not yet reached his true potential, and other believing that he has already seen his game plateau. Many have suggested that Steve Tambellini offer Gagner up in a trade tomorrow in an attempt to move up from the 19th overall selection.

Looking back at the selections in the 2007 draft, it’s clear that the Oilers made the correct selection at #6 spot. Out of all the players taken in Gagner’s draft class, the only player that has scored more points than Gagner is Patrick Kane. The only other player that was available at number 6 that might have been a better pick is Logan Couture who went 9th overall, but of course hindsight is never wrong and clearly the Sharks knew something no one else did as they made two trades on draft day in order to get the 9th pick. However at the time, Couture did not have nearly the numbers in junior that Gagner scored, and certainly 2 seasons in the AHL and playing in the San Jose Sharks top 6 this season helped his impressive rookie campaign.

So if the Oilers select Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tomorrow, does that immediately make Gagner expendable? In his first 4 seasons, Sam Gagner has shown at times that he possesses the hands and vision to be a quality playmaking center in the NHL. In addition to the offensive abilities, Gagner has also demonstrated willingness to battle and even push back when challenged. More importantly, he has also shown a commitment to improving his game, often putting in extra time at the rink to work on his weaknesses. This fall Gagner will enter his 5th NHL season at only 22 years of age, and there aren’t too many NHL players who stop improving at 22. While Gagner may never be a first line center, I feel he does have the ability to be a strong second line center. Given that the quality of wingers on the Oilers has improved significantly over the past few years, I would expect the point totals for Gagner to increase as he solidifies his role on an offensive line. Is a 20 goal 40 assist season beyond his abilities? Gagner has one more year on his contract before he becomes a restricted free agent again. There is no need to give up on him yet. Even if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins becomes an Oiler tomorrow, keeping Gagner around will give RNH time to develop either back in Red Deer or in a sheltered role in the NHL. Until Nugent-Hopkins becomes a legitimate first line center and pushes Horcoff down the depth chart, there is time to wait and see with Gagner. Of course it is still entirely possible that the Oilers could select Adam Larsson tomorrow, which would then make Gagner’s future a lot clearer.

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