Sam Gagner is in a far different position entering free agency this summer as opposed to last summer. Then, Gagner was coming off of the worst season of his career and settled for a one-year, prove-it deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Now, Gagner is coming off of the best offensive season of his career, and will have no shortage of suitors. He’s a player that should interest the Sharks, no matter what happens with its own pending free agents.
The biggest area Gagner can help the Sharks is on the power play. He was a key component of Columbus’ 12th-ranked power play, and scored 18 (eight goals, ten assists) of his 50 points with an opponent in the penalty box. He emerged as a power play specialist, averaging the lowest total ice time (13:43) of his career while playing 2:26 on the power play.
His power play production slowed as the season went on, but his play on the man advantage over the last four seasons is better than most of the forwards on San Jose’s roster. He scored primary points (2.58 5v4 Pri.Pts/60) and primary assists (1.34 5v4 First A/60) with the man advantage at a higher rate than all but three Sharks forwards that played more than 200 power play minutes since 2013, according to Puckalytics. He also generated shot attempts (18.76 5v4 iCorsi/60) and shots on goal (10.62 5v4 shots/60) than all but three Sharks under the same criteria.
While he was used like one last season, Gagner is far from just a power play specialist. He’s a strong possession player, and has finished with a positive corsi-for percentage relative to his teammates in seven of his ten NHL seasons. Gagner can fill in on any line, and can play effectively on the middle or down the wing. Most of his underlying numbers compare favorably to an archetypal second line center or winger, as the following charts from Own the Puck demonstrate.
As the charts show, Gagner’s goal-scoring numbers leave a bit to be desired, but he’s managed comparable numbers in less ice time than a typical top six forward. Despite limited ice time, Gagner’s 50 points last season would have tied for fourth on the team. Even multiplying his points-per-game mark from his career-worst season in 2015-16 (0.30) by an 82-game season would have put him at about 25 points, and placed him seventh among Sharks forwards.
San Jose’s depth up front was not good enough last season, and Gagner would go a long way towards addressing it. He’d provide the Sharks another reliable, middle-six forward that can move up or down the lineup, and a fresh face to a power play that desperately needs one. The former will be particularly important as young players like Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc look to take the next step in their careers.
Gagner is a sensible option, regardless of what happens to Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton in free agency. If they return, he improves San Jose’s depth up front, and allows the team to potentially explore trading a forward to clear salary cap space. If they don’t, he’ll be a cheaper option that can mitigate some (but not all) of their lost production.
It’s an open question whether or not San Jose will have the necessary salary cap space to sign all three players, as well as restricted free agents Chris Tierney and Marcus Sorensen. The Sharks have a little under $19 million in salary cap space, but also need to consider contract extensions for Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic set to kick in next summer. That could be enough room, but bad contracts are the norm, not the exception on July 1.
Regardless, Gagner should be high on General Manager Doug Wilson’s wishlist. He’d help San Jose on the power play, as well as even strength, and bolster a forward group in need of offensive talent. Whether as a supplement to the existing core, or as a stopgap replacement while the team’s younger players develop, Gagner would fit well in San Jose.