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Center depth isn’t going to be a problem for the Devils in the years to come. Between Pavel Zacha, Michael McLeod, and John Quenneville, they’ll have their fair share of options down the middle. And that doesn’t include the prospect of adding Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier at the Entry Draft in Chicago. Things will be looking good for New Jersey down the middle come the end of June, but you can’t have enough centers, right?
Enter Sam Gagner, who finished the season with Columbus with a career-high 50 points in 81 games- a 34-point increase from his 2015-16 totals.
I know what you might be thinking: “Why would the Devils need another center with all the prospects they have coming up?” That’s a fair question to ask and I’ll answer that in a bit, but before we get to that, let’s take a look at Sam Gagner’s numbers to make sense of why he’d fit in with New Jersey.
Despite being on some very poor Edmonton teams, Gagner has always had respectable numbers. From his rookie until he departed after the 2013-14 season, he averaged 50.2 points per 82 games. He was also one of the top 5-on-5 scorers during his stint with the Oilers. Over his seven-year tenure in oil country, he averaged 1.72 points per 60 minutes, the sixth best mark for forwards on Edmonton. Despite his possession being in the red, his relative possession was -0.2%, which is not bad considering Edmonton had some awful teams in his time there.
Once Gagner left Edmonton for greener pastures, he began to see a sharp uptick in his play at 5-on-5. While with Edmonton, he was a 47% possession player. In the three seasons since, he is at 52.5% possession with a relative Corsi For% of +3.5%. He’s averaged 59.1 shot attempts per 60 minutes while averaging 53.1 shot attempts against per 60 minutes. The teams he’s been on have generally been better with him on the ice, especially in 2016-17.
Gagner enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career in Columbus. When Gagner was on the ice, Columbus’ possession was 54.1%, as opposed to 49.2% when he was off. He averaged 1.95 points per 60 minutes and his 32 assists were the most since his rookie season (36). He was a great shot suppressor (51 shot attempts against per 60 minutes) and was one of Columbus’ best defensive forwards throughout the season. On top of his great 5-on-5 numbers, he also contributed a fair amount to Columbus’ power play with 193 minutes on the season- the fourth-highest total among their forwards, and scoring 18 points.
The Takeaway: All-in-all, Gagner had a redemptive season in Columbus, and returned to performing to his past output after only tallying 16 points in 2015-16. I mentioned at the top of this post that there is a fit for Gagner with the Devils plans and a few reasons why. First off, he’ll only be 28 at the start of next season and fits in to Shero’s plan of acquiring more young talent, especially up front.
Despite the number of young centers, none are proven players. They’re all very promising prospects, but still developing. You never know how or which of these players will pan out and instead of rushing them into the NHL, Gagner would give them time to develop at the right pace.
It’s also worth mentioning that Sam Gagner is a very effective player for what he is, especially in a more defensive role and he can contribute on the power play, which is another plus. The Devils do have the need for scoring depth, especially for a middle-six center. It’s probably a safe bet that if NJ selects Hischier or Patrick, they’ll be playing in the NHL next season. The issue here is the Devil’s logjam at center. One or two players would have to move out to the wing; be it Adam Henrique or Pavel Zacha. Henrique would be the preferable choice and I don’t think the Devils see Zacha as a long-term winger, but could still be forced out wide if sign Gagner and draft one of Hischier/Patrick.
The Devils could find a spot for Gagner on their roster, but it’s more about striking the right contract. The Devils shouldn’t be looking to sign him for anything more than 3-4 years. He’s a useful player, especially if not thrust into an offense first role and could serve as a stop gap until their prospects are ready for full-time gigs. For the right term and dollar, Gagner would be a nice depth addition who has some scoring punch and would certainly help the Devils on both ends of the ice, which is something they could use a bit of.
All advanced stats are from Hockey Analysis