Even though it was easily the most forgettable moment of the piece, I really meant what I said when I delivered my lone line in the viral video sensation "S**t Edmontonians Say".
"Hey, I said all along that we shouldn't trade Gagner."
Indeed, I have said that all along, in response to the critics who have prematurely tried to run the Oilers 2007 first round draft choice out of town. In some ways, I always viewed the criticism (a vocal minority in my estimation) as a compliment to Sam's ability. When someone takes a run at a guy for "only" 41 points as a 20 year old, they clearly think quite highly of his ability as a player.
In a market that, like many others, tends to overvalue its players, I've always found it curious that some of the fans here underappreciated Sam Gagner. I've done my absolute best to communicate to my audience how valuable I think Sam is as a player, and in honour of his 10-game point streak to start the season, I'll take some time to do it again.
Let's start with the obvious, that Sam is an immensely talented player. He had 118 points in his last OHL season before being drafted 6th overall and making the NHL as an 18 year old. He scored 49 points as a rookie, only one player (Patrick Kane) from the 2007 draft class has scored more goals than he has and he's one of only 13 players in NHL history to record 8+ points in a single game. Sam Gagner's talent is not, and never has been, in question.
But, we've all seen a bunch of guys come through here with a lot of talent that just don't cut it at the NHL level. You know the names. So, why is Sam Gagner different?
Sorry to go all cliche on you here, but the answer is character. There's never been a doubt in my mind that Sam Gagner will continue to improve as a player and have an excellent NHL career as a top six forward because he's got the talent to do it and the desire to put in the work. I've had more conversations with Sam over the last six years than I'm sure he'd care to remember, and I've always tried to impress upon people how genuine he is and how much he gets it.
Since "character" and "it" are stupid cliches, let me put a more vivid description on this. January 13, 2012. The Anaheim Ducks were visiting Edmonton and, sorry to say, they were pounding the Oilers. The final score was 5-0 and the physical intimidation matched up with that. On one particular shift, Sam Gagner had seen enough. Francois Beauchemin had taken a run at a couple of players that night, and an open ice attempt at Taylor Hall was the last straw. Gagner was the only Oiler that stepped up to confront Beauchemin and, way outside his weight class, he did his best to show that he wasn't shutting it down and accepting the loss. He defended his teammate and his team by, sorry for another cliche, "leading by example".
I'll also tell you that I've never seen Sam Gagner satisfied. I sat talking to him one-on-one in a corner of the Oilers dressing room less than a month after that fight on the night that he scored eight points. At that juncture, he'd had a fairly rough year battling a couple injuries and not producing as much as he'd like. the thing that stands out from that conversation was how many times he mentioned hoping that it started a roll for him. To him, eight points in a night was awesome, but not as awesome as producing again the next night. And the night after. And after. It's tough to be hungry when you're full, and I've never once gotten the sense that Sam has been full, even on a night when nobody would have blamed him if he was.
Sam has never been rattled by the critics that I referenced earlier because none of those critics is as harsh as he is on himself. Sam knows that he needs to establish consistent production to lock down his position as a second line centre and he knows that his face-offs could be better and he knows that he's the most important guy on his line every night when it comes to making sure things go OK in his own end.
You've watched Sam Gagner for more than five seasons now. Does he look quicker to you? He sure does to me, and I don't think it happened by accident. He knew that he had to be quicker, so he got quicker. That's the most obvious example to illustrate the work that he's put into improving game.
Is there more work? Sure. There always will be for a guy that's never satisfied. And that's why he's a keeper. He's young and talented and smart and busts his butt and he's already pretty good and he's going to get better.
The only thing he won't ever get is bigger, and I see the argument for an upgrade in size in the Oilers forward group, but if you're removing Sam Gagner for a bigger body, I just think it better be one hell of a hockey player. I've always been pretty sure that there are a lot of GM's sitting around waiting for the Oilers to decide that they want a bigger body in there somewhere, hoping that they might decide to listen to offers for Gagner. I think the number of those GMs is probably somewhere around 29.
Sam Gagner is 23 years old. I know that we're in a generation of instant gratification and impatience, and I know that fans in this market are witnessing a lot of younger players do amazing things. But, I think it's so important to keep perspective when discussing Sam. He's already played nearly 376 NHL games and has 231 points. If he only plays until he's 35 and "only" produces at roughly the same level as he has so far, he'll be well over 1,000 games in the league and probably close to 800 points. With the early jump that he got to his career, it's easily imaginable that Sam could be a 1,000 point player if he finds just one extra gear. I don't know about you, but I like the idea of including guys like that on my team.
And, if this piece lacks hardcore statistical analysis or scoring chance breakdowns or comes across as too flowery, please know that I'm not sorry. You can break down the numbers however you want. The point of this is that over six years of getting to know Sam Gagner a little bit, he's earned as much respect as I have to give through his character, and when I reconcile that with his obvious talent, I see a guy that's going to have an incredibly successful career.
Dan Tencer is the host of 630 CHED's Inside Sports which can be heard weeknights from 6 to 9 pm.