The curious case of Sam Gagner began in his rookie season, when he scored a career-high in points. Yes, you read that right and yes that is very unusual. The nine-year NHL veteran, who turns only 27 next month, finds his career in a tailspin, despite being in the prime of his career. The sixth overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft broke into the league at 18 and excelled, but it has been all downhill from there.
The Edmonton Oilers were excited to select Gagner early in the first round of the ’07 draft. He was coming off a dominant season with the London Knights of the OHL, when he scored 118 points in 53 games and, along with Patrick Kane and Sergei Kostitsyn, led the Knights to a league-leading 104 regular season points. The Oilers were even more excited when Gagner made the team in his first season and went on to score 49 points, including another career-high of 36 assists. The young play maker continued to play well in Edmonton, scoring over 40 points in each of the next five seasons, and then putting up 38 points in 48 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season.
Gagner signed a three-year, $14.4MM contract the following off-season, and with it came a steep decline in production. In his final season in Edmonton, Gagner managed to score only 37 points and was a -29. The Oilers, disappointed in the drop-off under the new contract, traded Gagner to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Teddy Purcell. That same day, Gagner was dealt again, along with B.J. Crombeen, to the Arizona Coyotes for a 6th round draft pick in a salary dump by Tampa. Gagner’s production remained the same in Arizona, as he scored 41 points, but struggled defensively yet again at -28. He was traded again last summer, this time to the Philadelphia Flyers, in exchange for Nicklas Grossman and the contract of Chris Pronger. The wheels fell off completely in Philadelphia, as Gagner played in only 53 games, recording just eight goals and eight assists for 16 points, 22 points less than the 38 he had in five less games only three years prior.
Gagner now finds himself in a precarious situation. Last season was a dismal effort offensively, and the options for a player that is not defensively inclined looking to find a role with those numbers will be few. He must find a team where he would be a good fit in the top nine and that can help him get his scoring back on track. Another down year could signal the end of a once promising career.
Gagner remains unsigned, but there have been teams that have considered the reclamation project. Gagner’s best chance to re-boot his career would be to find a team with thin forward depth, where he could work his way into a top six role, or a talented offensive team where he could fill a hole and boost his statistics. Vancouver and Ottawa have kicked the tires on the forward, while a team like Chicago or San Jose could try to squeeze him in under the cap as well.
Despite his recent struggles, his offensive potential (and a thin market) has him ranked within our Top 50 NHL Free Agents list, at #46. With many of those names off of the list following the free agent frenzy on July 1st and over the past few days, Gagner’s market may be gaining steam as he is likely one of the best dozen players that remain unsigned. We have predicted that Gagner will sign a one-year, $1MM deal with the Blackhawks. Some of the younger, rebuilding teams may be interested in a multi-year deal for Gagner, but his best option would be to sign a one-year “show me” deal with a good fit and try to redeem his numbers before hitting the open market again next year.