Edmonton - June 3, 2014 - Everyone says it has to be done. Sam Gagner, who nears the date of his NMC taking effect, has to move on to the next chapter of his young career. This chapter will not be headlined in copper and blue, but there will likely be a mention. This center just shy of 6’ will surely spend at least one night in the city he currently resides, on his way to new-found NHL successes.
According to anyone in or around the city of Edmonton, the London, Ontario native that was selected in the first round of the 2007 draft is being shopped and promoted to every GM in the league. The sole purpose of which is for him to be moved the moment Gary Bettman hands over the Stanley Cup to Dustin Brown or whomever the Rangers select, should they win it all this year (my guess is Martin St. Louis).
What if that wasn’t the case though? What if the Oilers had the option to give it one last hoorah with Sam Gagner before giving up all hope that Edmonton is the place for this young man to find his success? The Oilers entered last season with high aspirations, and one of the key pieces in perpetuating that notion was Sam Gagner. The first person to speak to the media at the start of training camp, his attitude was one of positivity, hope, and determination.
“The time is now to turn things around, it’s been said before, and it’s just a matter of us going out and being ready for it, and accomplishing it.”
“We've been through a lot as a core now, and it’s time for us to move forward as a group.”
“It’s important for us to reach that next level and it doesn’t matter what our label is, it’s just winning.”
It is no secret; that did not happen. The Oilers did not come out and turn things around. They were not ready for it. They did not move forward as a group, and they didn’t even come close to that next level of “just winning.”
The comments were hopeful. They breathed a sense of fresh perspective into a fan-base that was exhausted by the hint of the word “rebuilding.” No one wanted to call this team a young inexperienced group in 2013-2014, yet that’s exactly what they looked and played like.
It’s hard to fault Sam Gagner for not doing enough to step up this past season, though. After all the promise that came from the initial sound byte of training camp. After the rumors swirled of Sam Gagner’s leadership manifesting itself as a “C” on his jersey, or the overall “take-over” mentality that had stricken this young core of players, Sam Gagner was removed from the equation just 10 days later.
The infamous swing of Zach Kassian into the awaiting face of Gagner may not be a good enough excuse for a less-than satisfactory season, but it may be able to excuse a few parts of it. Gagner’s lack of production offensively began to take a turn from the better on a few occasions, setting up 4 multiple-game point streaks, and a run in the month of March better than any player on the roster. He had long offered the suggestion that players that do not get to participate in training camp will struggle, and judging by the slow start of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, maybe there is some truth to that.
But, whether he put up 50 points or 30, the critics will (and rightfully so) always go back to the defensive lapses in Sam Gagner’s game. The somewhat expected performances of 89 in his own end were the straw that broke the back of a future for Gagner in Edmonton. A dreadfully low +/- on the season, a poor ability to hit a quality stretch pass, and the lack of a desire to muscle people off the puck will ultimately be the reason the Oilers will choose to move on without him.
I for one would love to see what Gagner could have done with a full season, but living in the past is only going to cause more problems than it will solve. Of course living in the present, the Oilers may have the option to give him another season. It was no secret that Craig MacTavish was very interested to have Gagner remain an Oiler this time last season.
“Sam has really developed into a leader here… he’s a guy that’s really developed into the type of character we want and that’s going to be important when I’m making the decisions, is that we have the type of culture in that room. I would weigh rather take a marginal step backwards and have the culture that we want because I know it’s going to be more impactful going forward. We’ve had a few years of too much of a circus in there and that’s going to change.”
So, what has changed since then? The Oilers went through yet another season of heartbreak, and frustrations last season, and are still looking for their young players to stand up and lead by example. It was very encouraging to see guys like Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle have great years, but that kind of individual player performance isn’t what makes the Chicago Blackhawks or LA Kings elite teams. It takes a cohesive balance of leadership, tenacity and fortitude to jump to that next level, and that’s something that the Oilers will not find externally.
Within the organization, there are a few guys who have always displayed a sense of leadership; Matt Hendricks, Andrew Ferrence, and Sam Gagner. (Honorable mention to Ben Scrivens, who has really shown what a player looks like on and off the ice.) These three guys have what it takes to assist Dallas Eakins in building a core of young players, and developing prospects into a playoff team.
At this point in the article, I know what you are all saying. “Give me a break, he’s had 7 years! Sam Gagner is not good enough defensively, nor does he have the size that it takes to play in the NHL. We need to get bigger down the middle.”
I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. The reality is; I just don’t think the Oilers are going to have that kind of player available to them. In the same respect, I don’t see MacT making a bad deal just to get rid of 89. He will have a list of requirements, and if the deal that is offered in exchange for Sam Gagner does not benefit them, I don’t think that even he will be as eager to move him.
Gagner does have a NMC that will take effect on July 1st of this year, but haven’t we seen how little that means to players on struggling teams? Not to mention the fact that MacTavish made a verbal commitment to Sam Gagner that he would not trade him even when his NMC was not in effect, yet the idea was more than just thrown around last year.
I would be willing to bet that if Gagner and MacT were to give this thing one last shot, and it didn’t work out, there would still be the option available to the Oilers to trade him to a more successful team like the Kings or the Blackhawks, both of which have showed some sort of vested interest in him.
If the price is right, MacTavish and company has to make the deal, that is something you will not hear me dispute. If the Oilers have the opportunity to address a lacking defensive unit, or increase the size in the top 6 at the expense of Sam Gagner, I will be the first to commend the pulling of the trigger, however if the deal is struck at the draft, and Gagner goes to replace one or more of the early round picks that the Oilers are lacking, it will be a bittersweet ending to a disappointing saga.
At the end of the day, there will be changes made in the Oilers locker room. By all accounts, Sam Gagner will not be there to see them. I just get this feeling that letting him go to another team, while doing nothing to help this year’s cause is a mistake. Imagine a healthy Sam Gagner entering training camp in 2014, with the same positive outlook, the same drive and determination, and an actual opportunity to see it through. It’s been some time since the Oilers have been this absent of a leader, and shipping Gagner away may be a step further in the wrong direction.
Feel free to disagree with me on twitter @Jthompson2380