Oilers Should Pass on Bringing Back Sam Gagner

While the Edmonton Oilers have most of their key players signed, they’re still looking to add bits and pieces from now and until the start of the regular season. Kurt Levins of the Edmonton Journal recently wrote a piece indicating that general manager (GM) Ken Holland has talked to former Oiler Sam Gagner about a possible return to Edmonton. Also, TSN 1260’s Tom Gazzola confirmed the rumour on a recent episode of the Oil Stream podcast, indicating that the possibility is high that he returns to the team that drafted him 15 years ago.

In Levins’ article, he mentioned the respectable campaign Gagner tallied last season with 31 points in 81 games. He also highlighted that the former Oiler logged 191 total minutes on the ice short-handed with the Detroit Red Wings last season and has re-invented himself defensively (from ‘Could the 3rd Time Be a Charm for the Edmonton Oilers and Sam Gagner: 9 Things,’ Edmonton Journal, 8/13/22).

Gagner was drafted sixth overall in 2007 by Edmonton. He’s had a great and long career, including 542 games played in with the orange and blue. But, at 33 years old, and in the latter half of his career, would he be a good fit on a Stanley Cup contending team like the Oilers?

Oilers Should Acquire More Size on the 4th Line

Edmonton cut ties with right-winger Zack Kassian when they traded him to the Arizona Coyotes last July, thus creating an opening in the bottom six. Despite his inconsistencies though, the Oilers lost some size and sandpaper in the lineup with his departure. As it stands now, the Oilers’ current depth on the right side consists of Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto, and Zach Hyman has slid over to the right side from time to time in his tenure in Edmonton. If the Oilers re-acquired Gagner, the spot most suitable for him at this point in his career would be the right side on the fourth line.  

At 5-foot-11, Gagner isn’t physically intimidating, even though he still might have some bite in his game. He averaged 13:37 time on ice (TOI) last season, and on a more established Oilers squad, I’d imagine he’d play even less — likely around the 10-minute mark. Call me old school, but it’d be more beneficial if the Oilers found a fourth-line player that can crash, bang, and create energy with those limited minutes. Edmonton has tough players in Darnell Nurse and Evander Kane, but both players are so important and they’re more valuable on the ice than in the penalty box. In addition, with the recent signing of Nazem Kadri by the Calgary Flames, the Battle of Alberta should remain lively, and a physical fourth liner would be more of an ideal dimension to add, rather than someone like Gagner.

On that note, Oilers forward Derek Ryan will fill in on the fourth line this upcoming season and both he and Gagner are similar players. Both are smaller in stature at 5-foot-10, not fleet-footed, and both right-handed shots. If he was put on a line with Ryan — because they both lack foot speed — they wouldn’t be beating many lines off the rush and would be physically outmatched against bigger fourth lines.

Gagner Was Out-Chanced at 5-On-5 Last Season

That said, the game has changed and NHL teams aren’t just deploying goons with limited skill on the fourth line anymore. Sportsnet’s Shayna Goldman analyzed last season what made a successful fourth line, and she concluded that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s fourth line was the most successful, and a component of their success was their ability to keep their opponents out of the high-danger areas of the ice.

Sam Gagner Detroit Red Wings
Sam Gagner, Formerly of the Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

Taking a look at Gagner’s underlying numbers last season, he was out-chanced 5-on-5 in high danger scoring chances 185 to 126 for a 40.51 HDCF%. Also, he posted a 38.24 HDGF%, the metric that measures the percentage of total goals off of high danger scoring chances.

Moreover, Gagner’s line was simply outplayed by other teams at 5-on-5 last season. According to Natural Stat Trick, he posted a 46.25 Corsi for percentage (CF%), a 46.82 SF% (count of shots for the selected team while that combination of players is on the ice), a 45.21 GF% (percentage of total goals while that player is on the ice), and a 30.7 xGF% (expected goal for percentage). Some of the Oilers fanbase defend players like Puljujarvi because of his excellent underlying analytics numbers, and with that in mind, Gagner’s less than impressive 5-on-5 analytics should be concerning.

What Role Would Gagner Have on the Oilers?

An argument can be made that Gagner would find a role on the Oilers’ penalty-killing unit. He led the Red Wings with 191 minutes on the penalty kill last season, while his previous career high was 76 minutes with the Oilers — almost a decade ago. While he changed his game to become more of a defensive asset while leading Detroit in short-handed minutes last season, it’s also worth noting that the Red Wings finished dead last in the NHL with a 73.8 penalty killing percentage.

Related: Oilers Have Been Linked to 3 UFA Right Wing Veterans

Gagner has re-invented himself defensively, and, kudos to him for carving out another niche in the NHL. Yet, he did so on a rebuilding NHL club, and the Oilers, with their final four finish, are transitioning to Stanley Cup contender status. I’d rather the Oilers give younger players like Yamamoto (who played 94:34 short-handed minutes last season) a bigger role, or even Puljujarvi (who is often praised for his defensive play) a chance to grow and flourish in that position.

We’ve often heard the term “Once an Oiler, always an Oiler” from past players, and Gagner — who posted an unforgettable eight-point night in an Oilers uniform — will without a doubt fit that description when he decides to hang up his skates. At the time of the writing; however, he has not yet signed with the Oilers, but if Holland brings him along for the ride for the upcoming season, his on-ice impact with the team may be limited.

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