What Happens Next For Sam Gagner?
After 580 NHL games, Sam Gagner was placed on waivers by the Philadelphia Flyers yesterday.
At the time of writing, Gagner hasn’t cleared – but there seems a good chance he will, as his $3.2m cap hit looks to be too rich for potential suitors to make a claim for the Ontario native.
It feels like a hefty fall for 2007’s 6th overall pick.
Gagner was the first in a wave of top picks for the Oilers, with Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins et al all following the former London Knight to Alberta over the coming seasons.
Edmonton wasted little time inserting Gagner in to the line up, despite a palpable lack of supporting talent, placing the 18-year old on the clubs second line. Gagner would go on to spend the majority of his rookie year with Robert Nilsson, but still managed to finish third in team scoring with 13 goals and 49 points.
The then 19-year old was saddled with Nilsson again the following season, undergoing a sort of sophmore slump as he potted 16 goals but just 41 points. Not terrible per se, but a variety of minor injuries would keep taking Gagner out of the line up over the coming seasons, preventing him from breaking milestones such as 20 goals or 50 points, despite posting outputs in the teens and mid to high 40s respectively and recording a historic eight-point night against Chicago in March 2012.
By the time Edmonton added it’s third straight first overall pick in 2012, Gagner’s place in the line up should perhaps have been assured. He was the experienced hand among the clubs dynamic new youth movement, already a veteran of five NHL seasons despite being just 23, while showing some ability as a playmaker.
Gagner registered an impressive 38 points during the lock out shortened 2012/2013 season, second behind only Taylor Hall, as the Oilers looked to end their play-off drought – his vision and strong puck moving skills coming to the fore as he partnered Nail Yakupov and Ales Hemsky on the clubs second line, earning Gagner a three-year contract extension.
But where the truncated season might have signalled a turning point for Gagner, a broken jaw sustained during the following preseason seemed to derail him, keeping him out of the line up for 13 games as his numbers dipped.
As the clubs log jam of talent began to bite, Edmonton would go on to trade Gagner to Tampa Bay during the summer of 2014, only for the Lightning to immediately move Gagner, along with B.J. Crombeen, to Arizona for a 6th round pick at the 2015 draft.
Another preseason injury followed, disrupting his transition from Edmonton’s more free wheeling approach to Dave Tippett’s rigid defensive system in Arizona. Gagner would again finish as one of his clubs highest scorers, with 15 goals and 41 points in 81 games, but reports of clashes with Tippett were rife and the Coyotes parted company with Gagner last summer, shipping the 26-year old to Philadelphia along with a conditional draft pick in exchange for defenceman Nicklas Grossman and Chris Pronger’s contract.
Sadly another chance at a fresh start seems to have fallen by the way side for Gagner, who has averaged just under 12 minutes per night in Pennsylvania this season – a career low – as he struggled to assert himself with ever changing line mates.
An unrestricted free agent in the summer, Gagner’s future now looks unclear. Bleak perhaps.
A lower value, short term deal might entice a club to take a chance on the former top ten pick in July, but a lack of statistical punch, in the traditional sense, and difficult spells at his last two clubs will do little to attract potential suitors.
It is worth noting however that, for someone seen primarily as a set-up man, Gagner’s career Corsi For stands at 53.05%, with his season in Arizona proving to be his best (57.31%).
Despite his difficulties in the desert, for a team with a sound defensive system and a willingness to allow the 5’11” centre to rebuild his confidence, there are potential rewards to the team brave enough to give Gagner another shot.
Whilst defence is a team effort, blaming Gagner for the defensive wasteland that was Edmonton, or the Flyers compositional problems, would be unfair – here is a player partially blighted by his surroundings.
This is not to say Gagner is going to transform a team from a basement dweller to a contender; but his 341 career points at least show some ability to help a team in need of a boost at centre.
Gagner may still need to prove he can stay healthy, that he can battle night in, night out. But his puck skills should afford him another chance.
Whether they will is a different matter.