Heaven and Hell in the NHL

This is Rick Martin in the uniform of the Montreal (Jr) Canadiens. Martin and Gilbert Perreault (along with Rene Robert) were two of the most exciting players in the NHL 30+ years ago. Perreault would wind up in his own zone and make the breathtaking rushes up ice and Martin would let go these vicious slapshots that ended up in the net about 50 times a winter.

When Martin and Perreault entered the NHL, Punch Imlach just turned them loose. Quoting his book: I’m a hard taskmaster about how the game should be played. With Perreault I just told him ‘look kid, take the puck and go with it. I mean, you’re going to make all kinds of mistakes but if you’re smart you’re not going to make them again. You’re going to develop and build your game up’. It worked for Gilbert Perreault and for Rick Martin the next year. Even Perreault made me shudder a few times, he’d go in front of his net, somebody would take the puck off him and put it in.

Craig MacTavish has often been accused of burying skilled prospects and not giving them a real chance, but I think he would probably agree with the words of Imlach I quoted from the book Heaven and Hell in the NHL. MacTavish may have had a conversation with Mike Comrie or Ales Hemsky in years past that sounded much like the quote above, maybe he’s had a chat with Sam Gagner this season.

I’ve been thinking about Sam Gagner this week, after two separate discussions. One was on this blog when I wrote ‘better than Hemsky?’ on my top 20 update, with Andy Grabia saying: I dunno. Hemmer made me choke on air, even in his rookie season. Gagner hasn’t done that for me. The other was a conversation with a friend that ended with him saying something like “well I think we can agree Patrick Kane is going to be a way better NHL player than Sam Gagner.”

I’m not certain that’s a given in either case. Let’s take them one by one.

Patrick Kane is going to be a better NHL player than Sam Gagner. Kane’s season (32gp, 8-23-31, -2) is more impressive than Gagner’s (33gp, 3-13-16, -7) and Kane will do more to help his club win hockey games this season. Despite being fun to watch, Gagner’s value to team wins this season is in the red by a mile. If the Oilers replaced Gagner with a solid veteran center (let’s say Robert Lang) there’s zero doubt their GF-GA and W-L records would be better.

However, we’re talking about careers here and the race is just underway. We need to factor in things like age (Gagner is 10 months younger) and we need to look at the boxcar numbers listed above closely.

  1. At EVs, Kane (2.25 points-per-60-mins) is a little ahead of Gagner (2.195) but the difference is minimal. We need to be careful about reading too much into this as Gagner’s number increased markedly after Pisani began playing on his line and a slump can send the number downward. Still, it’s my guess that the numbers here will come as a surprise to some.
  2. Kane is playing against tougher competition. Gagner (according to Desjardins) enjoys the easiest minutes on the Oilers, while Kane’s are the 3rd easiest (tied with Toews) on the Blackhawks.
  3. Kane’s -2 is better than many of the Hawks forwards, including Yannic Perreault, Sergei Samsonov and Martin Lapointe. By the way, Patrick Sharp appears to be having a stunning season. Gagner on the other hand sits at -7, tied with Marty Reasoner and better than only Jarret Stoll’s -11 among Oilers forwards.
  4. Kane is far superior to Gagner on the PP. Their points-per-60 minutes total (Kane 6.86, Gagner 1.52) and their actual point total with the man advantage (Kane 14, Gagner 2) is the main difference between these two players at this time. There is no obvious reason I can find for the gap (save Hemsky being the man for the Oilers), as both would seem to be perfectly suited to the task. I suspect the gap will close over the season.

Kane is the better player this year, but he’s also 10 months older, which at this age is massive. I don’t know that Gagner will end up being a better player, but the statement “well I think we can agree Patrick Kane is going to be a way better NHL player than Sam Gagner” probably needs to be softened to “based on current information Patrick Kane is a better player than Sam Gagner but the age difference and its impact on development needs to be considered.”


‘Better than Hemsky?’ This is a more difficult question, so let’s start by throwing out the age difference (Hemsky was a full year older than Gagner is now when he was a rookie) and restricting our glance at this to their rookie seasons only.

  • As a rookie, Gagner is scoring at 2.195EV and 1.52PP on a team that is averaging 2.41 goals-per-game (27th overall).
  • As a rookie, Hemsky scored at 2.26EV and 3.52PP on a team that averaged 2.82 goals-per-game (9th overall).

Gagner’s hanging in there at EVs on a team that doesn’t score as much as the 02-03 Oilers, and of course Hemsky trumps him on the powerplay. Gagner is playing the soft parade and I believe Hemsky did too, but don’t recall Hemmer playing with a guy like Pisani (I really don’t recall WHO he played with as a rookie. Do you?) Either way in terms of style Hemsky has the edge, but it’s a credit to Gagner that he’s in the conversation (at EVs) with Hemsky in terms of quality as a rookie.

Bodes well.

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14 Responses to "Heaven and Hell in the NHL"

  1. Blake says:

    I remember Hemsky playing with Chopper for a strech when he was a rookie.

  2. therealdeal says:

    I think we can agree your friend didn’t think through his statement.

    Kane looks like a great hockey player, but like you said, it’s damn early. Both of these guys could potentially have 20 year careers…

  3. Bank Shot says:

    Kane and Hemsky both have the advantage of superior skating which hides alot of warts and allows an easier NHL transition IMO.

    Gagner has the steeper learning curve and he’s handled himself well given his physical limitations. Lack of speed and size can be corrected with work effort so that is really what determines where Gagner’s career goes.

    I think Gagner has better brains then Hemsky, so if he has a solid work ethic, he’ll end up being the better player.

  4. godot10 says:

    Hopefully, Moreau will do for Cogliano what Pisani has done for Gagner…i.e. allow him to go back to centre permanently, and play a more regular shift.

    Torres’s injury has jumpstarted Cogliano’s shift back to centre, but Moreau should help Cogs get more ice time.

    Too bad there is no chance that the Oilers could reacquire Mike Grier.

    The problem with Hemsky is that he is a perfectionist, which is why he is scoring 15 goals, and 55 assists, instead of 30 goals and 70 assists.

    In a couple of years, Gagner will outpoint Hemsky because Gagner will make a play, while Hemsky waits to make the perfect play.

    Cogliano is a Glen Anderson type.

  5. tyler.hildebrand says:

    while Hemsky waits to make the perfect play.

    That might be the most appropriate description of Hemsky’s style of play I’ve ever come across, though I don’t know if we’ll ever see Samwise outpoint 83…..

  6. HBomb says:


    From what I can remember, Hemsky started the 2002-03 season with Smyth and Comrie, but that experiment came to an end pretty quick when they didn’t produce right off the bat.

    He then played a long stretch with Moreau and Reasoner.

    Towards the end of the season, when he really started to produce, he was playing with Marchant and Smyth on the de-facto top-line.

    Interesting thing was the first game against Dallas in the playoffs that year, where I believe he recorded an assist. One linemate was Brad Isbister, a guy he had chemistry with at the fall 2003 training camp.

    The center on that line?

    One Shawn Horcoff.

  7. PunjabiOil says:

    I think Kane is going to be a better player than Gagner. There’s not a doubt in my mind.

    However, Gagner does have the chance of being the 2nd best player from the draft class.

    As for Hemsky vs Gagner, keep in mind Hemsky was 19 in his rookie NHL season. Gagner turned 18 just recently, and played only 1 season in the OHL [played 1 season in the USHL prior that].

  8. Jeff J says:

    “…while Kane’s are the 3rd easiest (tied with Toews) on the Blackhawks.”

    Some of the ‘Most Common Opponent‘ names look pretty good. In the Hawks’ most recent game (Fla), Kane faced Jokinen’s line at home. Against the Canucks he had the Sedins in Chicago and Kesler/Mitchell in Vancouver. Could be the QUALCOMP is off in Kane’s case, or maybe he’s just been used in a more prominent role lately. However good or bad Kane’s opponents have been this year, his line has been beating them.

  9. Asiaoil says:

    Simply can’t ignore the age issue which is a massive factor for 18-20 year olds. He’s almost a full year younger than Kane and only 6 months older than Stamkos. It will be interesting to see what he does next year since that will be a better comparable to what Kane does this year. Still – if Gagner was a few weeks younger and eligible for the 08 draft – he’d be in the mix for the #1 pick next summer IMHO. What he’s doing in the NHL at barely 18 is very very impressive – and this is from a guy who wanted us to draft Voracek. If he works on his strength and skating this summer and can pick up another step – watch out for this one going forward.

  10. Cory Klein says:

    ” Could be the QUALCOMP is off in Kane’s case, or maybe he’s just been used in a more prominent role lately. “

    My hockey pool agrees with the bolded statement. He is in a slow stretch.

  11. Dennis says:

    I remember 83 starting out playing with 18-19. That’s an easy one to recall because right off the bat 83 was dishing out some sweet passes and I used to joke that 18 was going to set an NHL record for hitting posts. Early on, 18 was riding shotgun for 83 and it seemed like they were fast friends. In fact, the night that Hemsky surprised the fuck out of us and drilled Reed Lowe into the Blues bench, it was because Lowe had just rocked Moreau. Does anyone else remember this?

    And then, yes, later on we saw the first real glimpse of his skill when he played with 26-94.

    As far as 83 vs 89, it’s hard to break that down. I saw more “wow” plays from 83 as a 19 year old then I’ve seen thus far from 89, ie the first time I really became excited about hemsky was during an early season Sat night game in Nsh, but like the man said, one year’s a helluva difference at that age. And from what I see of the way he behaves on the ice, and especially from the quotes I read attributed to him, Gagner seems like an old soul. Assuming he’s a guy that can put on muscle, I’ll expect him to show up next year a little bulkier and that’s gonna make all the difference in his game.

    So, he’s probably gonna have a better 19 year old season than Hemmer but he’ll have the leg up in terms of knowing going in what it takes plus knowing the way certain players will play him. I think he’s just size away from being a damn fine player, though. One thing that shocks me about him is how hard his shot is. He didn’t score fuckall goals in the O but he can put a lot of mustard on his shot and I’m thinking that will eventually pay off.

    Finally, it’s nice to see him bouncing back after a pretty long lull. He made some nice plays on Sat night and damn near scored the winner in OT. On the other hand, guys are cheating big time to his forehand on the SO chance so he’s gonna have to find something else for that exercise.

  12. choppystride says:

    However, Gagner does have the chance of being the 2nd best player from the draft class.

    Nah….unless Turris suffers some major injuries, I don’t see Gagner (or even Kane) being better than him.

    Sam definitely has a shot at being the 3rd best guy though.

    In terms of bulk/strength, it seems like he’s a guy who will be willing to put in the work. Plus the culture for that sort of thing is good on the Oilers. I think he should be ok in this regard.

    However, skating will be Gagner’s achilles heel. Unfortunately, I don’t think skating is something that one can improve by leaps and bounds (even for an 18-yr old). And, for this reason, I have doubts on whether he’ll ever turn into someone who can be consistently effective against the tough comp.

  13. Bruce says:

    On the other hand, guys are cheating big time to his forehand on the SO chance so he’s gonna have to find something else for that exercise.

    It was just a matter of time before some experienced goalie was going to make Sam look silly by simply ignoring the 63 fakes and going to his left at the moment of truth. The Dominator did just that last week, and it was a thing of beauty to an old goalie like me. I’ll take the 42-year-old geezer against the 18-year-old wunderkind every time. :)

  14. MikeP says:

    I remember Hemsky saying something along the lines of Moreau really helping him, and comments from MacT and Lowe along the same lines.

    Dennis, as far as Gagner putting on some muscle, there’s little doubt in my mind that he can and will. His dad was never big, but he’s already bigger than his dad and has a couple years of growth left. In that mostly-atrocious PPV sequence with Principe, Gagner in a shirt looks a lot bigger than Gagner in a uniform – he’s got muscle, and I think there’s room for another 5-10 pounds.

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