Edmonton - May 29, 2013 - Coming in to what eventually turned out to be an abbreviated 2013 season, Edmonton Oilers centre Sam Gagner had to prove once and for all, he had what it took to be a legitimate top six NHL forward.
While he still has some obvious flaws in his game, the twenty-three year old has done enough to win over new general manager Craig MacTavish.
During the first six years of his National Hockey League career, Gagner has collected two hundred and fifty-eight points, ninety-one of which have been goals, in four hundred and fourteen games.
Few have ever questioned the compete level that burns inside the former sixth overall pick. The questions in the minds of many, including yours truly, have always revolved around the Oilers being able to compete with two small centres.
In my mind, there has never been any doubt as to if #89 had what it took to be a top six forward. The kid's talent is undeniable but so are his limitations. The fact he is small in stature, is average to poor in the faceoff dot and frankly needs a compass in his own end of the rink, are not exactly endearing qualities for a second line centre to have. Especially when the guy playing ahead of him is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who is equally challenged in two of those same areas.
MacTavish spoke very highly of Gagner during his season-ending press conference and again during last week's Teleconference with Oilers season ticket holders. At one point he went so far as to mention the Oilers young duo in the same sentence as the Detroit Red Wings Pavel Datsuyk and Henrik Zetterberg. Obviously not as a direct comparable but rather to point out that an organization can is capable of playing winning hockey, with a pair of "smallish" centres.
Having said that, talk has already started about the possibility of moving Gagner to the wing, something mentioned in this very blog nearly two years ago, and MacT hinting at looking to acquire a big centre in the off-season. Could that be the answer? Perhaps but I wouldn't bet on it. As we all know, finding that guy to play down the middle is no easy task. Though at the end of the day, it is really a moot point.
The GM has made it abundantly clear, he wants to sign Gagner to a long term deal. Though you can bet there will surely be some sort of line drawn in the sand, when it comes to dollars. In my opinion, the Oilers can not afford to have five forwards making between $4-$6 million, that all have similar body types and play the same type of game. It's a recipe for disaster. Meaning at least one of Jordan Eberle, Gagner, Taylor Hall, RNH or Nail Yakupov will be moved at some point.
Though it is starting to look less and less likely, that one of them will be changing addresses prior to the 2013-14 campaign. Unless of course, the Oilers receive an offer that knocks their socks off or Gagner and the club are not even close on the money front. If either of those situations arise, all bets are off.
Make no mistake, MacTavish will still be looking to overhaul his roster, with an upgrade to his blueline likely being at the very top of that list. With that being said, the only way the former Oilers bench boss can get that done, will be via trade. Hence, making Edmonton's seventh overall pick at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft his biggest bargaining chip.
Now should MacT somehow manage to work himself up the pecking order on draft day and have a legitimate shot a selecting Sasha Barkov with his first round pick, that would change everything. However, the likelihood of the rookie GM pulling off such a move, appears to be a long shot at best.
Craig MacTavish has a number of difficult decisions to make over the coming weeks but what he ultimately decides to do with Sam Gagner, will have the greatest impact on this roster. Should he remain in Orange and Blue, the front office would be sending a clear message they believe in Sam being part of the equation moving forward...at least for the time being.