Sudden Sam’s Playing Time

One of the major surprises this season for me in regard to Oilers roster decisions is Sam Gagner’s playing time and the nature of it.

Gagner of late has been playing some solid minutes and against some established NHL players. I’m wondering if this is MacT’s “baptism by fire” being applied to the 18-year old or if he really believes the kid is the best option available.

Either way, it’s a season in which first year Edmonton Oilers are taking a major number of at-bats that one would have thought would have been devoted to Pouliot, Jacques and Schremp.

In order to get a good glimpse of this season in historic terms, let’s look at all of the forwards during Craig MacTavish’s time as Oilers coach and their Average-Time-On-Ice (ATOI). Rookies Only:

  1. Jarret Stoll (03-04) 945:18
  2. Patrick Thoresen (06-07) 776:33
  3. Ales Hemsky (02-03) 712:12
  4. Jason Chimera (02-03) 710:06
  5. Sam Gagner (07-08) 618:24
  6. Andrew Cogliano (07-08) 613:33
  7. Marc Pouliot (06-07) 600:12
  8. Dom Pittis (00-01) 506:13
  9. Brad Winchester (06-07) 476:18
  10. Mike Comrie (00-01) 466:54
  11. Shawn Horcoff (00-01) 452:12
  12. Fernando Pisani (02-03) 375:18
  13. Jean Francois Jacques (06-07) 292:44
  14. Zach Stortini (06-07) 207:27
  15. Brian Swanson (00-01) 174:38
  16. Mike Bishai (03-04) 128:18
  17. Tony Salmlelainen (03-04) 125:27
  18. Michel Riesen (00-01) 118:53
  19. Jani Rita (02-03) 114:26
  20. Kyle Brodziak (05-06) 110:20

Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano are extremely likely to pass every other rookie MacT has employed as a forward since 2000.

Gagner played almost 16 minutes last night, over 15 against Calgary Sunday. Earlier in the month there was a game in which he played just over 7 minutes and another period which he was a HS (I believe the first two January games). Now he’s playing big minutes and against something other than the soft parade.

As a development technique, does this have value? Do we have any previous examples of this kind of thing working? Have the Oilers ever employed this technique with another skilled player? Do you recall Ales Hemsky getting this kind of treatment?

Louise sat with me at training camp and suggested that MacT saw something in Sudden Sam that was greater than his pure skill, more than his ability to impact a game with the puck. I didn’t see it then, and honestly I don’t see it now. I respect Louise’s opinion a great deal and am prepared to say that Gagner may one day develop into a more complete player, but it seems unreasonable and slightly irresponsible to use him in this way.

Having said that, Craig MacTavish is no dummy.


What am I missing?

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25 Responses to "Sudden Sam’s Playing Time"

  1. Showerhead says:

    I haven’t a clue if there’s anything you’re missing – I think this may simply be a case of MacTavish thinking it’s a good idea to develop the kids in this way. Personally, I’ve long since decided that Detroit’s model of bringing kids along slowly, promoting them only after they’ve shown dominance at lower levels and in lesser roles, is the best one. I don’t give much credence to the “Detroit can afford to do it, they’ve got the depth” arguments because it’s not as if Edmonton is going deep this year regardless of who is playing in their bottom 6.

  2. Lowetide says:

    That’s exactly how I see it, Showerhead. Earl Weaver used to say “never put a young player in a position to fail” and he NEVER let a pitcher start before he could get a feel for him in the bullpen. Sometimes those auditions in relief lasted a full year for some outstanding arms.

    Gagner’s clearly a tremendous talent and last night alone he could have scored two goals, but this development track he’s on is more mystery train than established wisdom.

  3. IceDragoon says:

    Good evening.

    Having said that, Craig MacTavish is no dummy.


    What am I missing?

    ummm… that he’s bat**** crazy?!?

    Listening to him talk about Gagner before the Kings game, you can hear the awe in his voice…

    … starts about 1:55 into the MacTavish audio… “I think he’s a special player.”

    Lain, I’ve been reading MacT for so long that I have a handle on most of his “**** me!!!” nuances. He has never put a player thru the paces that Gagner has endured. The kid has played every forward position, AND, with virtually every Oiler.

    An 18 year old kid checking opposing top guns… with a 4th line centre converted to wing, and a guy recovering from a mushed melon who has never shown he can carry the mail.

    bat **** crazy!!!


  4. PDO says:

    Just the kid I was talking about with Dennis last night.

    First things first, the Oilers page lists him as 5’11″ and 191. Must’ve been soaking wet and holding 10 lb weights in either hand. I think if he can get to a real 185, the Oilers would be sitting dandy; but that’s not the important thing in my eyes.

    When I ask this question, it’s honest; if Sam Gagner is the franchise, as he seems labeled, A) how is he going to score goals, and B) who are his comps, and what did they have to do from the time they were 18 until they were 25 to become elite players in this league?

    A is a question I honestly don’t have an answer for. My best guess is, he’s going to have to score his goals like Daniel Briere. He’s going to need to find another gear and a quicker first step, and from there he’ll score off the rush, utilizing his hands and a decent wrister. He’s not big enough, or right now fast enough, for that matter, to get through traffic and keep the puck. His shot isn’t heavy enough to score from the outside, and he certainly isn’t a bull in front of the net.

    Secondly, who do they think he can be? A poor mans Crosby? Zetterberg? Would a Datsyuk or a Samsonov (pre-surgery) type player be good enough with the way we’re throwing away games for him? Clearly, the Oilers have to believe that he is a 100 point guy who can play better than 95% of the league at both ends of the ice. If they think he’s any worse than that, well… they’re bat shit crazy ;).

    Just as an aside, since the new year…

    He has been on the ice for 3 goals, total, all at 5v5. The loan goal for came against the Islanders. It was Reasoners goal, and it was against the Guerin/Comrie line. The two goals against were the Phoenix garbage goal (against the Doan line), and Calgary’s goal (against the Iginla line).

    He’s -1. Playing with Stoll and Reasoner, against Guerin, Doan, Iginla and Kopitar, and he had absolutely nothing to do with that minus against Kopitar.

    … maybe that coach isn’t that crazy, and there really is something there?

    Anyway, sorry for the long rambler, just a lot of ideas in my head on the kid and the way he’s being used…

  5. godot10 says:

    MacT has no place to send Gagner. Gagner is an important part of the future. The season is sort of half-f^%$ed already because of injuries. Doesn’t that look like a perfect situation to accelerate Gagner’s development as much as possible, so he won’t be a liability next year.

  6. doritogrande says:

    Are those really ATOI minutes, or total minutes in a season? It seems like nitpicking a good blog, but wouldn’t ATOI be in a “per-game” kind of fashion?

    When it comes to developing talent, I’m of the Randy Carslyle belief. I’d love to see Gagner and Nilsson brought along in a way similar to Getzlaf and Perry were during their first three years (Cogliano’s different, he can actually play in his own end and not look like a 5’9″ thumb). Take for example:

    Their first year in the bigs, when they were in the NHL they played with one of “Uncle Todd (Fedoruk)” or Sami Pahlsson on the fourth line, supplimented with second-line powerplay duty. This I believe brought them along in their overall game while rewarding their efforts with time to showcase what originally brought them to the bigs, their budding offensive talent.

    The early second year was more of the same, until they proved reliable at EV, at which time they were joined with our own #27 to form a second-line. They were then given more powerplay time, and I believe in Getzlaf’s case some SH minutes. Note, they were only promoted when they proved to a very active coach they could handle 13-15 minutes per night.

    This year? They’ve developed into the first liners they were projected to be. Getzlaf is their most reliable forward in all aspects of the game, and Perry leads the tem in goals.

    How does all this apply to Nilsson and Gagner? Gagner centres a line with Mini-magik and one of Moreau/Pisani/Reasoner in a 4th line role, keeping them together for the majority of the year. The kids can learn the intricacies of two-way play at EV and are the basis of the second-line PP (with Cogliano, who develops as a second-line/shutdown speedster with the other two vets, by the way) after the PHH line does it’s thing. Next year when they’ve matured enough, give them someone like Stoll or Schremp to make a second scoring line and bump up their PP time. Hopefully by the third year, we’ll see the fruits of the hard work.

    Sorry for the run-on, but it’s probably the best example of player development I’ve yet to see.

  7. Lowetide says:

    I’m not really worried about Gagner as an offensive player, he seems to have that “Steve Shutt was in the right place again for crying out loud” feel for the game. It’s hard to describe but in baseball terms it always seemed like Reggie Jackson was coming to he plate in important situations and Shutt always seemed to be in the right place at the right time and just did it too often for it to be a fluke.

    Shutt was an outstanding player away from the puck (Shutt was maybe the smartest LW I’ve ever seen, if you get a chance to see those old Habs games, kind of a pre-Kurri Kurri on the LW) and he’s a guy who looked completely pedestrian at 20.

  8. Lord Bob says:

    LT, the most obvious possibility that you’re missing would be that Craig MacTavish is, in fact, a dummy. :P

    That said, baptism by fire seems to have worked for Rick Nash and Joni Pitkanen, that I can name off the top of my head, and while they were both transcendent talents, MacT may see that sort of potential in Gagner’s game.

  9. KlingonHockey says:

    That special element is there. He loses footraces, is bad along the boards and gets squeezed off the puck – just as you would expect with a kid playing against men. But when his body isn’t getting in the way, he looks like a veteran. Considering the mileage he’s getting out of lessons he learned in junior, after he adjusts to the big leagues and grows up a bit I expect him to be an elite player.

  10. Dennis says:

    That’s a nice dig on his events since joining that checking line, PDO. I still think MacT’s nuts for doing this but as you point out, 89′s not getting killed in the process, either.

    I think it was a mistake to waste this year on him but I’ll change my mind if he shows up and scores 20 goals with 45 points and is a plus player in ’09. One thing I’ve liked about him lately is he’s still losing board battles but he’s learning how to stick his ass into the defender and give himself a little more room. Also, last night he moved to the slot and ripped a shot off the goalie’s shoulder and he has more of a shot then I’ve given him credit for.

    Also, I’ve been more of a Cogs fan than 89 but 89′s seemingly getting a chance to score each and every night which is more than we can say for Cogs these days. If Gagner had popped an extra three or four goals, this wouldn’t be such a topic for debate maybe.

    Regarding how Hemsky was broken in, without looking at the roster at the time, he started out playing with 18-19 and I certianly don’t remember them being the checking line, which was what we called tough min at the time;)

  11. Ribs says:

    The answer is obvious, people. Sam Gagner is being pushed to learn all facets of the game as soon as possible for he is to be paired on the Oilers next great line…

    The impending force that is Jonathan Tavares is the answer to all of your questions.

  12. Oilman says:

    First player that came to mind for me that played big minutes out of Junoir and went on to be an impact guy was Eric Stall….looks like he played almost 17mins/game as a rookie and put up 31 points…went to 19.5 in his second year and scored 100 (although he was aided by a year in the A due to the lockout and some tightened checking rules when the NHL resumed)….I know he’s not the same type of player that Gagner is, and I have no idea how he was used in those minutes, but that was a lot of TOI – over 1300 minutes – can you shelter a player for 1300 minutes?

  13. RiversQ says:

    Yeah, it’s nuts and Gagner looks like a speed bump most nights. I’m going to go ahead and totally disagree with Dennis and say even now with two veteran linemates he looks overmatched 95% of the time.

    Is this good for him?

    I have no idea. I have also always thought the young players were better off having a chance to succeed than losing all the time. However, if I’m a coach and my young players are succeeding in lesser roles, I’m probably winning games. How worried could I be about the kids’ development anyway?

    Conversely, the proponents of the opposite tack are depending on kids and most assuredly getting their asses handed to them every night, so they need an excuse.

    It’s all in the optics of the situation and I think you’ll probably find coaches changing with the wind on this one.

    Personally, I think the true talent will shine out. If Gagner’s any good, it won’t matter if he has a nice clean 55 point year and a near even EV+/- or if he finishes with 35 points and a -20.

    I worry a little about Gagner’s speed. He doesn’t even make it to a lot of pucks to get in the battles and nor does he pull away from many players when he’s carrying it. He may get quicker as he gets stronger, but this is a serious need for an elite player IMO.

  14. Lowetide says:

    Gagner has tremendous puck handling skills and I think we need to keep in mind he’s a year younger than a guy like Kane (actually 9 months). More than his footspeed I worry about injury.

  15. DBO says:

    The interesting twill be what happens when he puts on 15 pounds of strength, and gets a bit faster. right now ggner can’t compete physically and gets pushed off the puck too easily. this time next year he’ll be a much better player, as a summer at the LA moreau training camp, and just plain getting older will make him a better player.
    i do however agree that as a checker he’s totally miscast. Is anyone surprised? MacT miscast Stortini, and has a tendency to make dumb moves lineup wise. Just put Gagner back with Cogs and Pisani, and move Moreau to the Stoll line and have a true checking line, and a second line with more scoring. I realize the kids are vulnerable, but at least you’re letting them use their skill together instead of killing it completely with no offense wingers.

  16. namflashback says:

    On the flip side:

    - while he is definitely getting pushed around, he wins a few more battles than you would expect for a 18 year old smallish forward
    - while he may not make the play, you can visually see that he was trying to make the right play

    All that I can imagine (and hope) is that MacT and guys like Horcoff have drilled into the young rookies minds that for this team to be really good they need to be strong 2-way all the way down the roster.

    Maybe Sam said, “Coach, I want to be that type of player”.

    On the positive side, if he can:
    - avoid injury
    - keep head above water

    His counting stats are going to suffer — and he will, if willing, really be learning how to be a player.

  17. toqueboy says:

    LT wrote: More than his footspeed I worry about injury.

    ugh…can you think of an impact player in recent years, whose come in at a young age and been SLOW?

    when you compare gags to the great 18/19 year olds of the last 5/6 years, he has 1/3 of their production, half their speed and none of their strength. sometimes i think people overlook how slow this kid is…not sugar tits slow, but closer to sugar tits than AO, that’s for sure. although hemsky was a year older, i think he showed a lot more “wow” in his game than sam has, which isn’t to say sam won’t have it, but the longer this year wears on, the more he looks like a future slower horcoff (better hands) than a future briere, to me.

    i can think of a lot of guys who’ve been impact players in their mid 20s who didn’t have much foot juice, but not in their teens.

  18. godot10 says:

    Luc Robitaille may be a good comparable for Sam Gagner.

  19. Bruce says:

    Interesting discussion of an interesting player. Funny, I don’t recall reading the word “shootout” anywhere above so I’ll mention it here as one way Gagner has really helped the Oilers this year, with 5 “goals” contributing to five Oiler “wins”.

    Maybe that should read “the one way”, since in real hockey Gagner seems to have little enough impact on the game in any of the three zones. I suspect he’s one of these guys who needs the game to slow down for him to have his greatest effect, and so far the only time he truly controls the game is with the puck on his stick in the skills competition.

    I do think the game will slow down for him with experience, some of which is being particularly hard-won in the current season. He’s starting to get scoring opportunities again but has shown a definite lack of finish, often seems not to have made the most of the chance. Result is 3 goals in over 600 minutes, which is almost Staios-ian. I think he has to, can, and will learn to outsmart NHL goalies, to outwait them or surprise them with a quick release.

    That said, if 35-83-118 in London is to be believed, he is first and foremost a playmaker. At times I have been impressed with how quickly the puck goes from Gagner’s stick to the danger area in front of the net, none of this Nureyev of the Half Boards from Sam. At other times the puck simply hasn’t been on his stick much at all.

    The other night I saw Gagner beat a Flame 1-on-1 in the neutral zone with a slick move and I tried to think of the last time I’d seen him do that in a game situation and just drew a blank. One thing Sam will have to do is find space and time for himself, both of which are far more limited in the best league in the world. As I recall Hemsky was doing that sort of thing from early days, but we must remember Gagner is TWO years underage, just 18, with just one season of junior hockey experience under his belt.

    All of which makes me question the force-feeding at the NHL level, but that said it’s clear that MacT sees something special in this kid and is doing everything in his power to get him to experience as many different aspects of the game as possible (shy of the penalty kill). Having him on in the last five minutes against Iginla & Co., protecting a 2-1 lead, was pretty gutsy, but Oilers survived and 89 is probably a little better, and a little more confident, for the experience. Oftentimes progress must be measured in baby steps.

    Comparable: Marc Savard?

  20. toqueboy says:

    not to compare him to reasoner, but it’s always seemed to me that reasoner’s shot is 15% too slow to have made the move from prolific Uni scorer to successful NHL sniper.

    it just doesn’t have the umphff to score against NHL goalies or get to the open corners quick enough.

    i’m curious how many prospects encounter this. and if gagne could?

    for comparables, i’m throwing
    Weight into the mix. he’s a guy i never felt had the natshot speed but still had decent hands and vision…and was at best an average skater with an effective juke

  21. Dennis says:

    Weight was a slippery fucker and if Gagner turns out to do for the Oilers what Weight used to do, then a Horc-Gagner tandem could carry us a long ways.

    In comparing the two, Weight was a better skater but I don’t think he could shoot the puck as hard as 89. But, Weight had excellent vision and IMO was one of the most underrated playmakers of his time.

    Not to jack this thread, but how about MacT going away from the PVP deal with Horc and instead feeing that line the soft min? Tonight will be G48 so just for shits and giggles, we’ll say 24 games for a half. Oilers 10-13-1 in first half so they’ve gone 11-9-3 with the next G24 going tonight. So, I’m wondering, has it been the right move to play 16 plus vs the tough opp and how long has it been going on?

    We know that 14-16-46 were matched up vs Sid on Wed Dec 5th, for instance and I’m thinking that MacT went 14-16 plus vs tough opp a few games beforehand.

    Not to throw away 10′s season because I’ve been a Horc fan for a long time, but he hasn’t been taking on the tough min this year like he has the last few years.

    So, to sum it up, considering what Horc Plus is doing vs the soft and how the Oilers have turned it around a little lately, is MacT doing the right thing by going 16 vs tough opp and should we start giving a little more praise to 16 for being low event at EV?

  22. Bruce says:

    We know that 14-16-46 were matched up vs Sid on Wed Dec 5th, for instance and I’m thinking that MacT went 14-16 plus vs tough opp a few games beforehand.

    Dennis, that was the “checking line” [archaic term meaning tough min.] for 9 games, of which Edmonton won 6; but after losing the Pittsburgh game MacT benched both 14 and 16.

    is MacT doing the right thing by going 16 vs tough opp and should we start giving a little more praise to 16 for being low event at EV?

    In a recent post I mentioned how Lowe didn’t plan to go the first 2 or 3 months without Pisani and Moreau, and I really should have mentioned Jarret (Dead Man Skating)Stoll in the same vein. But there are real signs he’s coming around, and his game log certainly supports that.

    Before Christmas:

    36 GP, 3-11-14, -13


    10 GP, 3-4-7, +1

    I’m certainly prepared to see how Stoll plays the next 10-game stretch before making him trade bait. If he continues to compete as he has in recent games an extension or at least a qualifying offer might still be in order. When on his game he’s a useful guy to have around. He’s still just 25, and now that Oilers have given him 250 games to develop it would seem silly to pull the plug.

  23. namflashback says:


    The point-attaining prowess of 27-10-83 coincides almost precisely with the move to 16 versus the toughs.

    I think the strategy is sound in that he can run the same lines on the road, and not have to worry about opposing coaches ambushing his kids (as much). As long as we don’t see Vinnie out too much against Brodziak on and EV shift — he’s probably setup okay.

    I noticed, during the Calgary game, that MacT, even with last change, would changeout Stoll BEFORE Iginla left the ice. Went out with 18-13-34 a couple of times late in the Iginla shift, then a couple of other times, moved 27-10-83 out there.

    He’s keeping the kids spread out.

    If he isolated the kids into the lines, and went — say:

    You can’t hide two whole lines from the hurt.

  24. IceDragoon says:

    I do think the game will slow down for him with experience

    The game doesn’t have to slow down for him, Bruce. He has to get up to speed. His brain already reads, reacts & even anticipates(wow) at NHL speed. His body, on the other hand, has a long way to go to catch up.

    Thankfully, what he needs doesn’t take much more than hard work… and… time. Both Gagner and Cogliano are demons in the gym… very much in the Shawn Horcoff mould.
    And with Sam’s work ethic, and the resources available to him, I expect to see his skating improve for a number of years.

    More than his footspeed I worry about injury.

    My worry also, Lain. Hockey’s a collision sport and he’s a boy among men.

    Speaking of boys…

    I’m on my way to Calgary in the morning. Daughter #1 is in hospital, about to give birth to my first grandchild.

    I’ll be staying with her for a few weeks and she doesn’t have internet… so… see ya…


  25. Bruce says:

    Grandma Louise: Agreed, I think we’re saying the same thing in different ways. Obviously the pace of the game won’t slow, but he will learn to move into its cracks and crevasses. As you say, that first and foremost involves skating, and Sam is several years away from reaching his peak in this dept. A 23-year-old man is stronger and smarter than an 18-year-old boy, and that shows up in skating as much as it does strength on the wall or estabishing position around the crease or [list].

    I remember driving down to Calgary for the Prspects game (the one that’ll be in our backyard next week) a few years ago with a friend who is a knowledgeable hockey man. About five minutes into the pre-game skate I said to him “These kids may be fast, but there’s NO WAY they skate like big leaguers.” My friend wholeheartedly agreed, and we spent much of that night concentrating on that. For sure there were some elite skaters in the group, and they were really able to press their advantage against others who were poor lateral skaters, didn’t have the quick first step, had trouble turning from backwards to forwards or even turned the wrong way in one instance. Stops and starts, acceleration, balance, cutting and driving to the net, the list goes on and on …

    Sam is just one year removed from playing in that Prospects Game himself, playing against guys 5 or 10 or 15 years removed from it. He’ll get stronger, and his skating will get stronger.

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