Whoever came up with the saying “one game doesn’t make a season” never followed Sam Gagner’s NHL career. In this case not only did one game save Gagner’s season, it has altered it as well.
Just last Thursday, the speculation was swirling about the 22-year-old’s future in Edmonton. Some even thought that the game against the Chicago Blackhawks was to be a showcase for a prospective trade partner. The Blackhawks have been in the market for a second-line centre and because Gagner was a teammate of Patrick Kane with the London Knights in 2006-07 — where the two combined for more than 260 points during the regular season — it seemed to be a natural fit.
Early in the second period, the Hawks led 2-0 and the Oilers appeared to be on their way to their 27th loss in 37 games. Then Gagner set up Taylor Hall with a great stretch pass to cut the lead in half. Five minutes later Gagner scored his sixth goal of the year and another five minutes later he added a assist on Ryan Whitney’s power-play goal. (And regardless if it was a phantom assist, it doesn’t change a thing.) Chicago would tie the game before the period ended and well, you all know what happened in that third period. Those who witnessed it will never forget the most prolific scoring burst since the wide-open days of the ‘80s.
Four goals and four assists for eight points.
Tying Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey for most points in a game by an Oiler.
The first star. The second star. The third star.
The emerging star.
Gagner seized the opportunity of playing with young guns Hall and Jordan Eberle in a way that few have ever before. And the hockey world was suddenly reminded that Gagner still may be the second-best player in his 2007 draft class behind his buddy Kane.
As impressive as his breakout game was, Gagner followed up that transcendent performance with a three-point game, capped off with a dazzling shootout goal against the Wings on Saturday night. In that game he was creating opportunities seemingly every shift in about 17 minutes of ice time.
In all, Gagner finished with 11 points in two games against two of the top teams in the West, going head-to-head against world-class defenders like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall.
Despite missing some time due to injury, then playing hurt and finding it difficult to crack the Oilers’ roster, Gagner is now fifth in team scoring. His big night now has him on a pace for 60 points this season. That’s no different than Milan Michalek, Derek Stepan, and Mikko Koivu, who are all considered to be having banner years. Not bad company considering where he was a week ago.
So what’s next for Sam Gagner? It now comes down to the Oilers trading him or signing him. With his stock soaring enough to warrant a top young defenceman, the timing couldn’t have been better for GM Steve Tambellini.
The curveball in all of this is that Gagner is set to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season, with arbitration rights. On the cusp of his fifth connective 40-point season — all coming before his 23rd birthday — Gagner will now cost the Oilers as much as $4-5M annually on his next deal. That’s a pretty penny for a guy who was a third-line winger only a short while ago.
With new contracts coming to Hall and Eberle as soon as next July, the Oilers must ask themselves if they can even afford to spend that kind of money on another forward, when they have a need for defencemen. So many scenarios and so few answers.
In Gagner’s case, nothing can truly be answered until Tambellini decides on whether or not he envisions a Stanley Cup team one day with Gagner as his No. 1 or No. 2 centreman. If he doesn’t, surely this past week other teams were convinced he could be.
So hurry up Steve, and decide. The clock is ticking.