Sam Gagner Brings Low-Risk, High-Reward to Flyers

New Flyers forward Sam Gagner knows uncertainty. At only 25, the London, Ontario native has now been traded under unusual circumstances in back-to-back offseasons. After the Tampa Bay Lightning traded for the former Edmonton Oiler in 2014, he was sent to Arizona after calling the Bolts his team for the duration of an hour.

This year, Gagner was on the move again, under the guise of that same perplexity. Flyers GM Ron Hextall has since decided to keep the 25-year-old forward in lieu of buying him out, which now begs the question, why Gagner in the first place?

The Multi-Purpose Acquisition

The addition of Gagner to the Flyers is the latest in a series of moves to pardon the organization from the type of salary cap mismanagement that’s made a habit of doling out big contracts on a whim.

The mere thought of buying out the former first-round pick after finding a suitor for the contracts of Nicklas Grossmann and Chris Pronger demonstrate the economical awareness of Philadelphia’s second-year GM. After all, it’s not like Hextall hasn’t been down this road before.

For the first time in years, the feeling around this team is it’s trending upward. There will be bumps along the way, but once it gets there, it’ll be fun.

And we can singlehandedly credit Hextall for that. Since the Scott Hartnell-R.J. Umberger trade, Hextall hasn’t made a questionable move. — Tom Dougherty, CSN Philly

Hextall’s overall body of work with the Flyers has overshadowed the trade that sent Hartnell to Columbus for Umberger’s shorter – although lengthy – contract last offseason. And while there are multiple factors that played into Umberger’s disappointing 15-point campaign, it was essentially a move to rid themselves of Hartnell’s deal that expires in 2019.

Although the Hartnell trade was a move that was questioned right off the bat, the agreement that landed Gagner in Philadelphia has been embraced, and rightfully so.

“We think Sam is a nice fit,”said Hextall, per CSN Philly’s Tim Panaccio. “Once we got him we had the option to buy him out, but he is a very skilled forward. I think in the right situation he can be a productive player for us. He is a player we were going to try and seek whether it was through a trade or free agency or what not.

“We felt like he was a good fit. We did our homework, we did our research, and everything came out good, so we feel good about Sam. Again, it upgrades the skill level of our team. It’s a one-year deal, which was attractive to us.

“We’re good with it, and quite frankly, I’ve always admired Sam’s skill. I think typical to a lot of young players. I think the defensive side of the game hasn’t been a strength, but I know he’s gotten better, and I know our coach and the rest of our players are going to demand that from him, as will everybody on our team.”

While there’s no reason to believe Hextall wasn’t diligent in reviewing Gagner, there’s no getting around the results of his past thoroughness in bringing Umberger aboard last year – after a single season, that is.

“He’s (Umberger) a versatile player, a good skater, a good two-way player,” Hextall said back in June of 2014 in an Associated Press report, via ESPN. “He plays all three positions and can kill penalties. He is an attractive guy for us moving forward.”

Perhaps this is splitting hairs, or even comparing apples to oranges. After all, Umberger rejoined the Flyers at age 32, and with three years left on his five-year, $23 million contract.

Gagner, on the other hand, arrives with one year left of on a deal that pops the organization for $1.4 million less in cap space, not to mention he’ll be seven years younger than Umberger at the start of upcoming season. If he’s not a fit, the Flyers will open $3.2 million of cap space the following season.

Whatever either team wants to say about this deal (and Flyers GM Ron Hextall already admitted it was a cap deal), and whatever contributions Grossman and Gagner might make on the ice for their new teams this season are secondary to the salary cap impact of this trade for both sides.

It helps clean up the Flyers’ salary cap situation and gets the Coyotes closer the floor. — Adam Gretz, CBS Sports

Based on past evidence, the addition of Gagner is an even bigger win for Hextall. Not only are the Flyers getting a 41-point scorer from a year ago, which would’ve been sixth among the team, they were successful in freeing up space from their crowded blue line, giving up the least value to boot.

While Pronger continues to account for cap space, despite last playing in 2011, Grossmann’s 46.21 percent five-on-five SAT percentage was dead last among Flyers defensemen who appeared in 30 or more games. With Grossmann’s $3 million AAV in Arizona, the Flyers will only take on an additional $200,000 of cap space with Gagner had the 30-year-old defenseman he was traded for remained on the roster.

Considering the goods Gagner brings to the table, the deal gets even sweeter.

Answering Other Needs

Despite the previous rumors of a buyout, there are reasons beyond age and salary as to why Hextall chose to keep the eight-year veteran.

Before Gagner was even acquired, the 51-year-old GM made it known he was in the market for a skilled, mid-level forward. With Gagner, that’s exactly what he now has.

Gagner led all Coyotes forwards last season in goals (15) and points (41). Arizona GM Don Maloney didn’t see Gagner as a fit, but the 2007 sixth-overall pick is ready to put up numbers. — Dave Isaac, Courier-Post

Although the Coyotes are unquestionably committed to the youth movement, Gagner’s team-leading production in Arizona stands to be a shot in the arm for a projected third line in Philadelphia that consisted last season of Sean Couturier, Matt Read, and Umberger with a 7.52 percent even-strength frequency.

“I knew that [buyout] was an option, Hextall told Philly.com’s Jeff Neiburg. “But quite frankly, we didn’t think too much about that. Again, it’s a skill level that he brings. And we felt like we had to add to the skill level of our top 9 [forwards]. Given the price and the space that we cleared out, we think he’s a good fit.

“I can tell you I’ve talked to Sam three or four times now through the process. He’s extremely excited to be here. He really wants to prove himself. He’s hungry right now and he’s going to play the game the right way for us.”

Spending most of his even-strength time of deployment with Martin Erat and Martin Hanzal last season, Gagner was fifth among Coyote forwards in average time on ice with 17:14.

Nine of his 15 goals were scored at even-strength, while his six power play goals matched a career-high, set in three of his seven seasons in Edmonton. In eight seasons in the league, the 5’11”, 202-pound forward has tallied 41 points or more in all but two of them.

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“I’m as motivated as you can get,” said Gagner, per Rob Parent on The Mercury. “I was motivated coming into the season, regardless. I feel like I still have a lot to prove. Now it’s even a little more heightened. I have a lot of people to prove wrong and I plan on doing that.

“I think for myself I always wanted to be the best I can be, and it hasn’t happened yet.”

One of Gagner’s better qualities, though, could very well be in the department of stealing games, primarily in the shootout.

According to the previously cited Dougherty, Philadelphia’s new forward owns a career shootout mark of 19-for-62, glowing numbers for a Flyers team that’s gone 11-28 in the skills competition, dating back to the 2011-12 season.

In 562 career regular season games in the NHL, Gagner has notched 170 of his 336 points on the road, scoring 62 goals as a visitor, compared to the 54 lamps lit at home – a welcoming sight for a Flyers team that ranked 23rd in road goals for.

Gagner’s career splits show a slow starter that gets stronger in each passing month – with the exception of April, which hosts the fewest regular season games of any month throughout the season.

Here is the breakdown:

  • October: 7 Goals, 20 Assists – 27 Points
  • Novembver: 12 Goals, 29 Assists – 41 Points
  • December: 18 Goals, 33 Assists – 51 Points
  • January: 18 Goals, 40 Assists – 58 Points
  • February: 23 Goals, 39 Assists – 62 Points
  • March: 31 Goals, 48 Assists – 79 Points
  • April: 7 Goals, 11 Assists – 18 Points

Against new division rival Columbus, Gagner has deposited 10 goals and 15 assists for 25 points in 26 games. This serves as the best measurement against divisional opponents since the Blue Jackets were part of the Western Conference up until the 2013-14 season.

Regardless, whether it’s from a financial standpoint, or an upgrade in scoring on a line below the top, Gagner appears to be a home run acquisition, which explains why Hextall chose to keep him.

With the kind of offseason Hextall’s had, does anyone dare to doubt him?