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The Progress Report: Something About Gagner

21-year old "veteran" quietly takes charge of his two-way development

Wednesday, 08.12.2010 / 5:10 PM / Features
By Ryan Dittrick  - edmontonoilers.com
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The Progress Report: Something About Gagner
Sam Gagner vs. the Ottawa Senators, Nov. 29/10
What we’ve learned early in the 2010-11 season is that the need for veterans and leaders to emerge goes well beyond the headship in the dressing room. While the young rookies find their footing in the new world of NHL life, veterans are leaned on to produce on the ice and guide the way for others.

Ask an Oiler: Sam Gagner

Leaders, both vocal and for those that do so by example, come in all forms. 21-year old Sam Gagner has taken on a much different role this season, with his production resulting in the veteran label and increased responsibilities on both sides of the puck.

Due to having a roster loaded with young offensive talent, the designation for line numbers is seemingly a way of the past. Instead, the Oilers have chosen to balance the lineup with offence and roll three scoring lines. For a player like Gagner, the restructured designation has been paying off.

On the whole, Gagner’s game has been steadily improving in each of the three years he’s been in the NHL. Although his offensive numbers were levelled, even on a slight decline, his overall game was becoming much more refined.

But like any smaller-sized forward with the hands and offensive instincts that Gagner possesses, most would agree that being a consistent point-producer is the ultimate goal. With 18 points in 27 games, Gagner is off to his best start of his NHL career. Of those 18 points, eight have been goals as he looks to shatter his previous personal-best of 16 that he recorded in 2008-2009.

It’s no secret that the Oilers have long been searching for more depth and ability at the centre position. Sam Gagner is definitely part of the equation moving forward, but that only makes up one piece of a reasonably large puzzle.

It would be perfectly acceptable to surmise that Gagner’s hot start this season could be attributed to further experience and development time. After all, the highly-skilled centre is only 21-years old and playing in his fourth NHL season; growth and a greater adaptation to the professional game was inevitable.

A lot of Gagner’s progression could be due to physical maturity. The 5-foot-11 191-pound centre is making strides as he looks to further develop his frame. Of note, the way in which he asserts himself on the forecheck is drastically improved. Rather than shying away from contact, Gagner is the initiator in a more aggressive style than we’ve become accustomed to.

An influx of talent helps, no doubt. So, too, does the resurgence of the team’s captain, who looked poised to have an excellent comeback season as the responsibilities are further balanced at centre.

Of course, this is where the true test comes to fruition. With the captain now sidelined for up to two months, the pressure on young Sam Gagner has increased significantly over the past 12 hours.

Gagner is finding his way and the results have done the talking so far through this young season. Now, with an even greater role at the doorstep, accepting the challenge will reveal a lot about his game.

THE STAT PACK

Sam Gagner celebrates a goal with his teammates.
In case you were wary of the progression in Gagner’s game, the underlying statistical numbers back up his two-way improvement.

From the basics, his rookie season -21 total was a bit of a red flag. Although his offensive game was strong, particularly in the latter half of the season, his defensive game struggled. He was often overmatched defensively and struggled to physically handle his assignments.

But one of the things that separates Gagner from other young forwards is his ability to read the game. His hockey IQ is spectacular and, combined with physical maturity, would surely net in positive results with further experience.

Indeed, that has been the case.

His plus-minus has been improving each year and he now boasts one of the most respectable totals on the team. Although a difficult night vs. Anaheim currently has him listed with a -1 rating, he’s often been in the black this year as he continues to improve on his defensive coverage.

Perhaps even more impressively is that his defensive game has taken a giant leap without missing a beat at the other end of the rink. In fact, his offensive game has thrived:

For every 60 minutes played at even strength, Gagner averages 2.02 points. That’s third-best on the team, just behind Ryan Jones and Ales Hemsky who lead the team in this regard. In his rookie season, he finished with a total of 1.96 points per 60-minutes played.

While on the surface these totals appear nearly equal, the situations in which they were collected bears the standard. On the powerplay in 2007-08, Gagner’s average in the same category was an incredible 3.88 points. This season, however, Gagner is only producing with a 2.25 rate. Still respectable, though extraordinarily revealing about his even strength play.

When all is said and done, even with the varying line matchups and extra responsibilities put on the shoulders of the young forward, he’s responded by producing at a much higher clip at even strength.

Similar ice-time, dissimilar matchups, and a greater rate of production at even strength; Sam Gagner is becoming one of the team’s most dynamic five-on-five forwards.

In many ways, this is Gagner’s make or break season. After signing a two-year deal this past off-season following a so-so 2009-10 campaign, Gagner is looking to take the next step in his development. So far, the results of the accepted challenge have been nothing but positive.

With another void created by the injury to captain Shawn Horcoff, the challenge just got more intense. If the early season numbers are any indication, it appears that the London, Ontario native is poised for the undertaking.

Author: Ryan Dittrick | edmontonoilers.com
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