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.