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Photo Credit: Billy Hurst - USA TODAY Sports

Canucks Army Year in Review: Sam Gagner

There’s something to be said about avoiding free agents coming off of banner years — a harsh lesson that the Vancouver Canucks have learned in consecutive off-seasons.

Loui Eriksson is the most prominent example of this, but the most recent one would be Sam Gagner.

The 28-year-old forward was coming off of a career-high 50 point season with the Columbus Blue Jackets when Vancouver inked him to a three-year deal worth 9.45 million dollars.

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Gagner has failed to bring that same offensive production to the Canucks, registering just 31 points in 74 games — a career-low if you discount Gagner’s injury-riddled 2015-16 season. The underwhelming results weren’t for a lack of opportunity either.

Graph courtesy Sean Tierney

Gagner’s struggles were particularly apparent at 5-on-5 where his 1.04 points per hour ranked 13th among Canucks’ forwards and 335th among 389 forwards league-wide(minimum 400 minutes TOI). He wasn’t as effective on the man advantage either, collecting just seven primary points compared to 14 last season.

Never the greatest two-way player, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gagner underperformed defensively as well.

Goaltending can’t be used as a scapegoat for the poor on-ice goal differential either since Markstrom, and Nilsson combined for a five-on-five save percentage just two ticks below the .921 team average with Gagner deployed.

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This lacklustre performance trickled down on his most common linemates, with the majority faring better without Gagner on the ice.

One area where luck may have played a part was with Gagner’s middling counting stats, many of which appear to have been hurt by below average individual and on-ice shooting percentages.

Gagner’s personal shooting percentage of 6.1% was more than three percent below his career norm, while his 5.1% on-ice conversion rate ranked him bottom-five among Canucks’ forwards. The results of these below-average rates were reflected when comparing expected goal totals to the results.

Gagner’s individual expected goals mark has him scoring four more five-on-five goals for the season than the six he actually tallied. The caveat is that Corsica’s expected goals model doesn’t accurately account for finishing ability — part of the reason why we see above average converters like Boeser, Horvat, and Baertschi with goal totals above their calculated marks. The question to ask then is whether Gagner’s mediocre results relative to his expected totals are driven by unfortunate luck or poor finishing ability. As is the case with most of these situations, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

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Even still, Gagner’s expected goals for rates aren’t all that impressive- it’s just fair to point out that he likely deserved a better fate with the few scoring opportunities that he and his linemates created.

Unfavourable Circumstances

It was a disappointing season for Gagner, but the circumstances around him are also partially to blame.

In Columbus, Gagner was used in a well-defined role that suited his strengths while mitigating his defensive weakness. That meant slotting in on the right wing of a scoring fourth line at five-on-five and skating on the top powerplay unit. That line was able to feast on lesser competition in limited even-strength minutes.

This year, injuries and a lack of scoring depth caused Gagner’s role to fluctuate throughout the year to fit in line with the team’s needs. That meant a slight uptick in even-strength, but more importantly, tougher quality of competition.

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Injuries to Bo Horvat and Brandon Sutter also forced Gagner, whose better suited for the wing, to play up the middle as the de facto second-line centre during parts of the season. He had the luxury of playing alongside Boeser during much of this stretch, but it’s certainly not a role that Gagner should be expected to play.

The experiments continued on the man advantage, where Gagner spent a large portion of the season manning the point.

Gagner’s creativity, vision, and soft hands make him a much better option as the setup man in the slot of a 1-3-1 formation compared to the point.

Conclusion

Sam Gagner’s had a mediocre start to his Canucks’ tenure; underwhelming both on the powerplay, and to a greater extent, at even-strength. Looking forward, Gagner will have to rely on more suitable deployment and some puck luck to help orchestrate a modest comeback.



  • Gagner is getting a lot of unnecessary flack. When he was signed, we knew his numbers were inflated by power play time and 4th line sheltering. To criticize Gagner for lacking a good defensive game, that’s shame on you: it’s SAM GAGNER. He’s been the same player for the last 10 years. If you were expecting something else, you clearly did not do your homework.

    If anything, I have to take issue with Green’s power play deployments. With Gagner, he was used as a set-up man to CBJ’s success and instead of playing to that strength, he put Gagner as the shooter. Same with Eriksson. He told Green that he doesn’t have a good shot but made him a shooter rather than a net-front / garbage goal presence, where he traditionally excelled. A 21.4% power play is ok but to get to an elite territory (25%), obviously we need better players but Green needs to learn to deploy them better.

    • Dirty30

      Put him on waivers. He had a year to prove himself and if he has to be sheltered more than cotton candy in a thunderstorm then it’s time to move on. Forget about trades or retained salary, throw him on waivers and let some other team take him or let him ride the bus until he works his way back up.

      • Ser Jaime Lannister

        Agreed waivers or let him sit and be the 13th forward….nah just waive and send him to the minors. Time to bring in some winners and competitive players please!

        • DogBreath

          I hear lots of people pencilling Dahlen and Pettersson in. Not sure I want it yet. Next year looks like a near bottom finish again. Leadership will be weaker with the sedin’s gone.Hate to say this but would rather they overpay for a few more mediocre veterans and let the kids play in Utica and bring them up when they’ve proven they’re ready (not because the fans are clamouring for them to be on the ice).

  • TD

    As indicated in the article, Gagner is a powerplay specialist. He did not get first PP time except for when injuries struck. I wonder if he will get first PP time with the Sedins gone. I would prefer the kids to get the PP time, but maybe he could be a stabilizing factor on the PP if the kids struggle.

    • crofton

      He did get PP time on the first unit after Boeser went down. He was unimpressive and largely forgettable. I don’t guess he is going anywhere, so he could become a 2nd unit staple

      • TD

        The problem with his deployment was trying to be the shooter. I think everyone can agree he is not suited to be the shooter on the pp. With Columbus Gagner was the passer which was Henrik’s job. Putting Gagner as the shooter seems insane to me. He would be as effective as a penalty killer. I thought they should have put Virtanen there.

  • Break The Canuck's Curse

    Had the coaching staff been fair and sat him for some games when he earned that designation, maybe there would be less grumbling about him. Favoring vets this year did not help the team

  • argoleas

    I just do not see him getting that favorable deployment this year. They may put him on the RW with Gaudette on the 4th line, but not sure how that will work out. He may be drafted to be Pettersson’s Center in a 3rd line role, behind Horvat and Sutter.

    Not ideal. Not ideal at all.

  • Killer Marmot

    There’s just not much room anymore for poor-skating one-way players. Many NHL teams are fast and talented on all four lines. There are few “protected minutes” to be had.

  • I think it was a fairly open secret that Columbus wanted to keep Gagner around but couldn’t afford him. Any chance the Canucks send him back to the Jackets in a retained-salary transaction?