Oilers #1 Prospect December 2007: Sam Gagner

Current Rank: 1
Summer 2007 Rank: 1

It’s been an eventful 5 months for Sam Gagner: show up at the draft and get picked 6th overall. Show up at training camp and play well enough to get a terrific nickname (“Samwise”) and pass a bunch of guys in line and grab a job with the big club.

Sam Gagner’s numbers (25gp, 2-8-10, -10) have faded after a nice start (he was 1-6-7 in October, 1-2-3 in November), but there are some numbers that do stand out: 1.90 EV points-per-60 minutes at even strength at age 18, and the fact that he still ranks in the top 10 in rookie scoring (9th overall, 7th in assists).

This compares to the most recent teenager among Oilers NHLers, Ales Hemsky. Hemsky was 19 years old in 02-03, and posted 59gp, 6-24-30 and a 2.26 EV points-per-game total. Hemsky was on a team that scored 2.82 goals per game, compared to Gagner’s Oilers who score at a 2.23 rate. You can say the deadball era is over, but when comparing two players like the 02-03 Hemsky and the 07-08 Gagner team offense has to be part of the equation. Hemsky did his magic on 9:26EV TOI per night, compared to Gagner’s 11:21 (and dropping).

All of the comp’s for Gagner I’ve read have been guys who have the reputation of being somewhat one dimensional skill players. Guys like Marc Savard have been mentioned, PM Bouchard and Alex Tanguay too.

I think he may be a little more of a complete player than the Savard group based on what we’ve seen so far, but let’s just pursue some names and see where we get. I often like to go back a long way to find a comp because it gives weight to the career you’re comparing these kids too. If I say “Sam Gagner’s closest comp is Ales Hemsky” I don’t think it means as much as saying “Sam Gagner’s closest comp is Martin Gelinas” as an example (and I’m not saying Gelinas is a comp although there are some interesting things about him).

When Hemsky was a kid I found two good comps: Thomas Steen and Rick Middleton. They’re still good comps because Hemsky hasn’t broken out yet as a player, something Steen never really did (he was an excellent player, though) and Middleton did at 24 (Hemsky’s current age). After age 24, the guys who end up being end-of-the-year award winners have pretty much made themselves known on some level. Zetterberg was 25, but he spent the year he was 24 in Timra.

Okay, comps for Gagner. We’re looking for young men who arrived in the NHL as teenagers after having a quality draft year in junior, and who may have struggled with the speed of the NHL game at a young age but certainly showed enough to be considered a candidate for “elite level” NHL player.

There’s not that many of them folks, over a long period of time.

I decided to start with Martin Gelinas, because my mind wandered back to him when thinking of Gagner. They are similar in that they came to the NHL as teenagers, as Oilers, and had terrific skills. They are not similar in that Gelinas’ was more physical as a player and more of a shooter, but if they matched up in other areas I could live with it.

They were both high draft picks (Gagner 6th overall, Gelinas 7th overall) and Gelinas played at 18 in the NHL (6gp, 1-2-3) before putting in his rookie season at 19 (46gp, 17-8-25 on the Oilers final Cup winner). Lots of things broke right for Gelinas that season, he led the team in shooting percentage and he also landed on a line that made him famous. The following season he scored 20 goals but never moved forward with the Oilers for a variety of reasons (he showed up at one camp muscle-bound, some family things. Typical young stuff) and they ended up trading him for not much and he has had a nice career. I suspect most Oilers fans would be disappointed with a Gelinas career for Gagner, but he’s been a solid NHL regular for most of the last 20 seasons. Gelinas’ 17-year old junior season (2.02) is shy of Gagner’s (2.23) and of course we’re speaking of a different scoring era (Gagner’s team scored 301 goals, Gelinas’ 385).

I found the best comp at the top of the 1986 draft. Vincent Damphousse, 6th overall to Toronto that season. He was a slightly larger player than Gagner and did use his size well, but wasn’t an overly physical player. He did have amazing hands, tremendous skill player. He lost way with a poor Toronto organization, found his way one year in Edmonton and then went to Montreal and settled into his career.

As a 17-year old junior, Damphousse scored at an identical level to Gagner at the same age (2.25 to Gagner’s 2.23). Damphousse’s (say that fast 5 times) team scored 406 goals to Gagner’s 301, so it’s probably safe to say they were either similar talents or Gagner was slightly ahead at the same age. Either way, on their respective draft days both men were considered to be among the very best talents available.

As an 18-year old NHL player Damphousse scored 80gp, 21-25-46 (.575 points-per-game) compared to Gagner’s 25gp, 2-8-10 (.400ppg) so far this season. Damphousse was on a team that averaged 3.57 goals-per-game, Gagner’s team is averaging 2.23 gpg.

A quick note: re plus minus. Here are the centermen on the 86-87 Leafs:

  • Petr Ihnacak +5
  • Tom Fergus +1
  • Dan Daoust E
  • Damphousse -6

And the current Oilers RWs:

  • Kyle Brodziak -1
  • Zack Stortini -2
  • Ales Hemsky -4
  • Sam Gagner -10

That damn Gabriel Desjardins was wasting his time being a kid in 1986, selfishly pursuing less important things while we wandered around bumping into things without the kind of insight we can gain from his fine work these days. Still, rookies (for the most part) are found wanting and one could reasonably argue that Gagner is far more exposed than anyone on either list (his season ending total could be -30 if this continues, although it won’t).

One final word in this comp about age: In October of 1986, Damphousse was 18 years and 10 months old, and Gagner was 18 years, 2 months in the fall of 2007. It’s not a big deal when you are my age, but 8 months for a hockey prospect is a lifetime.

I’m comfortable with Damphousse as a comp, more than I am with Marc Savard or any of that group. He has shifts where he looks completely out of his element, and he has shifts like last night where he looks electric from inside his own blueline to the other team’s slot without ever really having control of the puck.

When Sam Gagner’s brain and hands catch up to the pace of the game and his body matures, my guess is the Oilers will have the best skater they’ve drafted since Jari Kurri.

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14 Responses to "Oilers #1 Prospect December 2007: Sam Gagner"

  1. godot10 says:

    Brodziak had a relatively fast start this year, had his slump, and is now coming back and settling in, and he is in his early twenties. I think he ends up on right wing with Stoll and Torres soon.

    Cogliano similarly, although the highs and lows are more muted. I think he is settling in now also. But he also is twenty. I can’t wait to see him between Moreau and Pisani.

    Gagner had a relatively fast start also, and is now in his “wandering-about-in-the-desert” period. Since he is only 18, it will take longer to find “the promised land”, but I don’t think they should ship him out to the World Juniors or back to London. When the Oilers get healthier, and he gets more controlled ice time and situations, I think he begins to settle in.

    P.S. Barring a trade….I think the Oilers will be more of a three-line team for the rest of the year when they get healthy, with the 4th line guys being rotated into the top three lines. i.e. Reasoner taking defensive zone faceoffs for Cogliano. Gagner spelling Penner. Stortini spelling Brodziak.

    Penner-Horcoff-Hemsky
    Torres-Stoll-Brodziak
    Moreau-Cogliano-Pisani
    Gagner-Reasoner-Stortini
    Sanderson

  2. doritogrande says:

    Jason Spezza.

    He was a supreme offensive talent in Junior, had some growing pains when he made the Sens, played the lockout year in the AHL and came back a different player. He’s just now starting to learn to play defense.

    Good comp? I think so.

  3. Lowetide says:

    dorito: Yeah, he’s an interesting comp. As mentioned in my post, I like to use comps who have had the heart of their career roll out, that way it’s possible to follow them at specific points (and why Hemsky needs to have a Middleton-at-24 season this year).

  4. Nelson88 says:

    LT,

    I’m curious why I never see Weight as a comparable to Gagner? Due to his age (20?) when he became a regular in the NHL?

    Weight is the player Gagner reminds me the most of watching him play. If he has that type of career I would be happy.

  5. Mork says:

    Lets hope he has a Brian Bellows type rookie year in the sense that he has a strong second half. Obviously his numbers wouldnt be as good.

    I agree that Doug Weight would be a good comp.

  6. godot10 says:

    What about Luc Robitaille as a comparable for Gagner?

  7. Mork says:

    Robitaille is more of a shooter than gagner

  8. godot10 says:

    //Robitaille is more of a shooter than gagner.//

    Robitaille got goals and assists. Was extremely smart, and an average skater.

    Did you watch the junior series against Russia? Gagner can score as well as pass. He is extremely smart, and an average skater.

  9. Lowetide says:

    As for comparables like Weight to Gagner, I find them difficult. Ideal comp is 17-year old kids in the same league with similar skill sets. Then I go to other similar leagues (like the OHL=WHL=QMJHL, that kind of thing) and then as a last resort across the college=junior level.

    I think college is just a terrible system to be honest. You’ve got 18-year olds playing against 24 year olds, how can you evaluate that?

    Junior leagues are pure, maybe that’s the best way to put it.

  10. jon says:

    Finding a good comparable for Gagner has definitely been difficult. Just from my own personal opinion, I think a good one would actually be a hybrid. Gagner seems to have Comrie’s instincts around the net and down low, with the frame to match. But his passing and vision at times is reminiscent of Doug Weight. Unfortunately, those guys both tore up the NCAA in their draft year, so it’s really hard to get a bead on where Sam might be relative to them coming into the draft.

    As you touched on LT, I don’t think the standard comparables of Spezza, Savard, or Briere sit right. All of those players have characteristics that have helped them succeed at the NHL level (Spezza: Size, reach, elite puck protection; Briere: Great speed and acceleration; Savard: Plays a gritty, aggressive game actually. Hockeynews poll 2 years ago had him 2nd most hated player in NHL according to players).

    All in all though, Gagner has to #1 just based on his position on the curve at his age relative to all previous Oiler draft picks in the “Rebuild Era” (15 years and counting).

  11. Dennis says:

    Obviously, age is the thing you have to consider when you look at how Gagner’s playing and how he might play in a year or two.

    He has great vision and a surprisingly hard shot and I think he’ll be a fine player. The biggest problem with Gagner right now is he doesn’t always know where to go in his own zone and he’s super weak on the puck.

    Both those things are easily correctable. If the guy wants to put the work in at the gym, that will take care of the second problem. And MacT should take care of the first thing.

    I’m not sure if we want him playing this year though. I know there’s an argument that the more he plays this year, the more he’ll be prepared for next year. But at this point, shouldn’t he already pretty much know the areas in which he needs to improve?

    Fernie’s on the way and we’ve got some kids champing at the bit in the A so I’d send him to the world juniors and just see how we look without him.

  12. Jonathan says:

    It makes good sense to me to send Gagner to the WJC, although I doubt the Oilers will. One of the reasons I think he had such a good TC was because of the Canada-Russia series. He had a bit of a head star on other guys, plus his confidence had to be sky-high coming in. At this point, he’s not nearly as effective as he was out of training camp, so the Oilers probably won’t lose anything by plugging in one of the AHL guys (especially if its Thoreson), and it gives Gagner a chance to be a star for a little bit before he comes back.

  13. godot10 says:

    Gagner is not going to figure out how to play in the NHL by dominating a bunch of juniors again.

    Plus, the World Juniors are not going to play him in a checking role. Sutter and Turris will get the harder match roles and the penalty-killing.

    From the shootout, we know Gagner’s scoring confidence is not a problem, the problem is the speed of the game, and the only way to fix that is by not being sent away to play against inferior competition.

  14. Shawn says:

    Interesting you say that Denis because in junior Samwise was known for being strong on the puck. He’s just too small and not strong enough yet.

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