Once upon a time there were two players in the NHL. Lets call them Player A and Player B. Both Player A and Player B are under 23-years-old and both play center. Player A was drafted two spots behind Player B.
Both Player A and Player B finished the 2010-2011 regular season with positive Corsi differentials, meaning that both players were on the ice for more shots at the opposing team's net than shots on their own team's net.
Both players ranked 7th out of their team's 12 regular forwards in terms of the quality of competition faced.
Player A scored 56 points in 79 GP this year for a PPG pace of 0.709 PPG. Player B scored 42 points in 68 GP for a PPG pace of 0.618 PPG.
Player A scored 2.18 points/60 minutes of ice time at even strength this year, and 4.26 points/60 minutes of PP time. Player B scored 1.91 points/60 minutes of even strength ice time this year, and 2.51 points/60 minutes of PP time.
Player A played with Ryan Clowe and Dany Heatley for much of the year and was a member of the second best team in the Western Conference. Player B played with Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark and was a member of the worst team in the NHL.
Player A is a finalist for a major award.
Player A is Logan Couture.
Player B is Sam Gagner.
There is not a lot separating Sam Gagner and Logan Couture at this point in their careers. Had Gagner played a full season, he was on pace to score 50 points. If Logan Couture had played 82 games, he would have scored 58 points. If Gagner played on a team with Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe and Dan Boyle, it is likely that he would have scored 58 points as well. Maybe even more.
The major difference between Sam Gagner and Logan Couture is that Couture is a rookie while Sam Gagner is in his fourth year in the league. That's simply a case of the Oilers being stupid and the Sharks being smart.
Gagner should not have played in the NHL when he was 18. He should have been sent back to junior and then spent at least one season in the AHL. Unfortunately for Gagner, Kevin Lowe needed something to show to the fans that the 2006-2007 season wasn't a complete and utter disaster (which it was). So when Gagner came into training camp and impressed, Kevin Lowe threw him to the wolves in order to appease the fanbase, and to show that there was still hope for the Oilers.
Against all odds, Gagner survived. In fact, he didn't just survive. He thrived. Gagner's 18-year-old season was nothing short of remarkable. Since 1994-95, 24 players have played a minimum of 30 games in the NHL at 18 years of age. Gagner's 18-year-old season was the fourth best among these players.
He ranks behind only Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk and Jeff Skinner in terms of PPG as an 18-year-old. He's ahead of Steven Stamkos, Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, Jordan Staal, Patrick Marleau, Vincent Lecavalier and Joe Thornton.
As a 19-year-old many of those players have passed him, but there's no shame in being a lesser player than Stamkos, Nash or Gaborik. He's still ahead of Thornton and Staal.
At 20, Joe Thornton began his rapid acceleration into the ranks of the NHL's elite and passes Sam Gagner, but Gagner is still ahead of Marleau and tied with Staal.
In terms of 21-year-old players, Gagner is still ahead of Staal and, interestingly Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Smyth, and is tied with Marleau and Gaborik.
When Daniel Sedin was 21-years-old he scored 34 points in 75 games with Vancouver. It took Sedin until his fourth year to break 50 points, and it wasn't until eight years after he was drafted that he scored a point-per-game over a full season. Sedin also had Markus Naslund to shelter him during the early years of his career.
When Martin St. Louis was 21 he wasn't even playing in the NHL. In his fourth season in the NHL Lecavalier scored 37 points in 76 games. Lecavalier didn't approach scoring at a PPG until eight years after he was drafted.
In his fourth season in the NHL as a 21-year-old Gagner would have scored 50 points if it wasn't for Ryan Jones' skate blade, and he was on pace for 60 earlier in the year. Did I mention that he also played with two rookies as wingers for much of the year and played on the worst team in the NHL?
I'm not saying Gagner will ever be a Sedin or Lecavalier, but he is in some very elite company in terms of his development and I'd be willing to bet that he, Couture and Skinner all end up having very similar careers.
"He's not improving." Actually, yes he is. Like I said, he was a poorly timed water break away from having his best ever offensive season. He spent most of the year playing with two rookies for wingers and the Oilers sucked. Look, improvement isn't necessarily a linear thing. For every Thornton who slowly but surely improves his offensive totals from his rookie year until he finally scores 82 in 82, there are a dozen Smyths and Marleaus who fluctuate wildly during their first years in the league. The fact that Gagner belongs to the latter group should not be an indictment on his talent.
That Gagner's offensive totals haven't completely fallen off the face of the earth while the team he plays for has steadily gotten worse should be considered very encouraging. How many 21-year-olds playing in the best league in the world, with marginal-at-best teammates much of the time would be able to keep their heads above water? Not many. Sam Gagner is one of them.
"He sucks at faceoffs." Yes. Yes he does. 43.8 percent is simply not good enough and he's going to have to get better if he wants to continue playing in the NHL. Gagner's not perfect. He's a long ways away from being a player a coach can send out against the opposition's top players, but again, he's 21-freaking-years-old.
How many 21-year-old centermen had over 50 percent on faceoffs, faced top opposition and were also able to put up good offensive numbers? Crosby, Stamkos, Toews, Thornton maybe. So that's maybe four players in the past 15 years. How many of them did it while playing with rookie wingers and on a team with back-to-back last place finishes? None of them. It's unreasonable to expect Gagner to be able do this.
"He'll never be Martin St. Louis." Probably not. St. Louis scored 99 points this year, one of only five players to score more than 90 points this season. I don't think Gagner will ever score 90 points. I don't think he'll ever score 80, either. Only nine players scored 80 or more points this year. If there's approximately 700 players in the NHL, that means that only 1.28 percent of them were able to score 80 points. Just because Gagner likely won't reach a threshold that only 1.28 percent of players were able to reach this year doesn't mean he's a bad hockey player.
65-70 points seems like a reasonable number for Gagner when he enters his prime. Only 5 percent of all players scored 65 points this year. So even if Sam Gagner "only" scores 65 points during his best offensive seasons, he'd still be better than 95 percent of all hockey players.
If Gagner had scored 50 points this year that would have put him in the top 14 percent of players in the NHL. I know I sound like a broken record here, but he's 21-years-old, and that is mighty impressive.
"Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will make him expendable." This is probably my favourite. So a guy that the Oilers may or may not draft, and who may or may not turn out to be a better player than Gagner is already pushing him out of the lineup before he's even Oilers property? That makes a lot of sense.
Just for arguments sake let's assume the Oilers draft Hopkins and that he becomes everything he's advertised to be, and is able to score 80 points. That would make Hopkins better than 98 percent of all NHL players. Opposing teams would then key in on the theoretical Hall-Hopkins-Eberle line, leaving the theoretical second line of Paajarvi-Gagner-X with weaker competition. This makes it even more likely that Gagner is able to reach the 65 point mark.
This scenario would mean that the Oilers top two centers are better than 95 percent of all other players in hockey. Still think Gagner's expendable?
"You wouldn't trade Sam Gagner for anything?" Not true. I'd trade him for John Tavares. Or Matt Duchene. Or maybe even for Zach Bogosian. If the return was good enough I'd trade Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. The key would be getting a good return, and right now I can't see that happening.
I would not trade Gagner to Columbus for the 8th overall pick in the draft because any player the Oilers could choose with the 8th pick will probably not end up being better than Gagner; and that doesn't help the Oilers win next year and it doesn't help the rebuild.