2017 Free Agency Target: Sam Gagner is not the top-line centre the Canadiens are looking for
A resurgent season from the Blue Jackets forward makes him a notable name in a weak forward crop.
The Montreal Canadiens have certainly not sat idle this off-season as they pursue additional offene, as their moves have been hallmarked by the acquisition of Jonathan Drouin. However, while the Habs find themselves with more winger firepower than they’ve had since perhaps 1993, their depth at centre remains relatively unchanged.
One possible option for this void down the middle is soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Sam Gagner, a 27-year-old forward coming off a resurgent 2016-17 campaign with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Undisputed offensive punch
Gagner’s 18 goals, 32 assists, and 50 points in 81 games puts him at or near the top among centres who will have UFA status on July 1. He is third in goal-scoring (behind Mike Fisher and Martin Hanzal) and second in both assists and points (behind Joe Thornton). To make Gagner’s offensive prowess more impressive, his average time on ice per game is significantly lower than his UFA peers, to the point where Gagner (13:42) played almost five minutes less than Hanzal (18:35).
Gagner’s underlying stats are also solid. He clocks in with a 54.1 Corsi-for percentage and an unadjusted relative CF% of 5.8 (second-best among Columbus forwards). Combine that with his career history of eight roughly 40-point seasons out of nine prior to 2016-17, and it’s accurate to surmise that his tenure with the Blue Jackets is more representative of Gagner’s talents than his time with the Philadelphia Flyers.
A deployment that favours offence
When we look at his season with the Blue Jackets, we have to apply some context to those 50 points. Gagner’s relatively low TOI wasn’t necessarily a case of a player making the most of what he was given, but a concerted plan by a coach to shelter a player and maximize his talents.
At even strength, John Tortorella played Gagner as a third- or fourth-liner against third- or fourth-line opposition (below).
In the regular season, Gagner’s five-on-five TOI per game was good for 11th among Columbus forwards who played more than 50 minutes. In contrast, he played the fourth-most five-on-four minutes per game, and the gap between first (Nick Foligno, 2:35) and Gagner in fourth (2:23) was far smaller than the gap between Gagner and Brandon Saad in fifth (1:34).
Make no mistake, with 28 five-on-five points, Gagner was far from just a power-play specialist. In Tortorella’s eyes, Gagner’s job was to provide offensive depth and strike against potentially vulnerable bottom-six players in addition to his power-play duties, and he performed both tasks with aplomb.
Good, but not great, and not the answer
Ultimately, the main strike against Gagner is that a 40- to 50-point-scorer is a solid and very useful NHLer, but does not fill the top-line centre void of the Montreal Canadiens.
In essence, the Canadiens do not need a version of Phillip Danault with more power-play punch but less defensive reliability. Coupled with the fact that this is probably Gagner’s last chance for a long-term contract and a big payday, the risk presented in a substantial contract likely far exceeds the reward.
Gagner could be an effective depth option, but he is not the Canadiens’ answer at top-line centre.