Lost in all the (certainly justified) exuberant celebrations following the crown jewel of Ron Hextall’s tenure to date, moving Nicklas Grossmann (!!) and Chris Pronger’s contract (!!!!!) without giving up an asset (!!!!!!!!) AND getting a draft pick in return (!!!!!!!!!!) was the last piece of the trade, newest Flyer Sam Gagner. Gagner was drafted 6th overall in 2007, and after spending 6 years in Edmonton that would probably best be described as “inconsistent”, the Oilers shipped him to Tampa last offseason, and the Lightning quickly flipped him to Arizona. The Coyotes obviously soured on him similarly to the Oilers, and that brings us to today.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Gagner is so poorly valued both around the league and by the teams that have employed him. I get that he’s not a great or even good defensive player. I get that he can be a pretty streaky scorer. And I get that he hasn’t lived up to the expectations that go along with his draft slot (although 2007 was a weak draft, with only 4 All-Stars in the first 30 picks). But the fact that Arizona was going to buy him out if they didn’t trade him and the fact that the Flyers are strongly considering it right now is, to me, fairly ridiculous.
Scott gave a brief overview of the case for not buying out Gagner already, but I wanted to take a closer look to help emphasize the point. On the surface, Gagner’s 15-26-41 line in 81 games for Arizona doesn’t look very impressive. Then you take a closer look at the numbers and realize that 1) he led all forwards on Arizona in points last year (to be fair, a low bar to clear) and 2) his 0.51 PPG, still a solid number, was the lowest of his career. In addition, his 1.41 ES points/60 were 2nd among Coyotes who played at least half the season behind only Mikkel Boedker. Among Flyers that played half the season, his 1.41 ES P/60 would have ranked 6th behind Voracek, Lecavalier (lol), Giroux, Simmonds, and Raffl. His possession numbers were also very solid, as his 51.8% CF% was 3rd among Coyotes who played half the season and he was one of only 5 regular Coyotes to post a CF% above 50%. And for all the heat he takes defensively, Domenic Galamini’s wonderful evaluation tools at http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com/ show that Gagner’s CF/60 was 5.5 higher than his teammates’ and his CA/60 was 2.6 lower–meaning he made Arizona better both offensively and defensively when he was on the ice. His CorsiRel was a very robust 12.6. These numbers were sheltered by the favorable deployment in terms of zone starts he got, but they illustrate that he’s still capable of being an NHL-caliber player, despite what Don Maloney says.
For all the talk about his inconsistency, Sam Gagner’s actually been pretty consistent in his overall production throughout the years. His goals per game has hovered between 0.15 and 0.29, his assists per game has fluctuated between 0.32 and 0.5, and he’s clocked in between 0.51 and 0.79 PPG, with his career year a 14-24-38 line in the 48 game lockout-shortened season. For his career, he’s a 0.21 GPG, 0.39 APG, and 0.60 PPG player. For comparison, Brayden Schenn (who is 2 years younger) is a 0.21 GPG, 0.28 APG, and 0.49 PPG player in his NHL career. And then there was this interesting list of players since the lockout who played in 500+ games and scored 100+ goals and 200+ assists before their 26th birthday.
Pretty good company to be keeping. Out of the group of him, Jordan Staal, Voracek, Kopitar, Kane, and Kessel who qualified, Gagner had the lowest GPG, was ahead of Staal and Kessel in APG, and beat out Staal in PPG. All of these guys demonstrated much more of a linear development with clear progression over the years, but it’s still an interesting list for him to be a part of.
So now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that Gagner is somewhat undervalued as a player, it’s time to talk about the fit he has with the Flyers next year. He definitely needs to be sheltered, but he can absolutely help this Flyers team. Here are his stats relative to other NHL forwards for the past 3 years:
Via Own the Puck
As you can see, he’s probably a 3rd-line forward when looking at him relative to his peers. An important aspect of figuring out what his role with the team is going to be is how the Flyers feel about Scott Laughton. If they see him as the team’s 3C to start the season, Gagner would be a 9th and final top-9 forward for a team that, with Laughton in the fold, currently have 8 under contract for next season: Giroux, Voracek, Simmonds, Couturier, Raffl, Schenn, Read, and Laughton. With that group, I would organize my lines as follows:
You can give them 3rd-line minutes but shelter the Laughton line to both ease Laughton in and give Schenn/Gagner favorable zone starts, dividing the defensive responsibilities among the rest of the lines. Both the Giroux and Couturier lines could handle some DZ starts, but a 4th line consisting of actual hockey players (and White-Bellemare-Vandevelde intrigues me) could actually take some tough defensive minutes off the hands of the other lines. If the Flyers deem Laughton to need more season in the AHL before becoming a regular lineup fixture, they could make Gagner the 3C and give him Brayden Schenn as a wing and someone from the Umberger/White/Lecavalier group as the other while sheltering them, though that’s much less exciting to me. And, admittedly, I’ve had some fever dreams about Gagner figuring it all out and translating his considerable skill to solid on-ice production as a top-line LW, giving the Flyers 4 lines of:
Either way, Gagner says he can play either wing per Dave Isaac and he has plenty of past experience at C, so Dave Hakstol is going to have options with regards to how he uses Gagner.
Best case scenario? Gagner has a big season, and the Flyers are able to move him for a solid package at the trade deadline. Worst case scenario? Gagner struggles, is off the Flyers’ salary cap after the season, and his Flyers tenure is a footnote to the salary cap ramifications of the incredible trade that brought him here. Either way, I think the clear best course of action is to keep him in the fold and see what he can do. It gets him off the cap either way after this season, rather than giving them a (small) chunk of dead space this year and next. The only reasons I would see for letting him go are, like Kurt from BSH outlined here, 1) they think Laughton is ready to be the 3C, don’t want to move him to wing, and don’t think Gagner can play wing or 2) need the $2.7M in cap space they’d gain from a Gagner buyout for a very specific purpose. With as piss-poor of a free agent class as this is, I’d prefer that they simply wait until next summer to utilize their cap space, as they’ll need to give Voracek, Raffl, Schenn, and Couturier all contract extensions. And hey, at the very least, Gagner might be able to help the Flyers in the shootout, right?