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Cullen: Gagner, Ward, Kovalchuk changing expectations

Scott Cullen
2/3/2012 3:28:09 PM
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Edmonton Oilers centre Sam Gagner had a night of nights Thursday, scoring four goals and four assists in an 8-4 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.

The pertinent question though, is what does this mean for Gagner's career?

Is he a different player than the one who had two points in his previous nine games and 22 points in the first 43 games he played this season?

While Gagner is in his fifth NHL season, it's important to recognize that he's just 22-years-old so, for better or worse, inconsistency is still part of the package.

Gagner started the year going 19 games before he even tallied his first goal, but since then, he's put up nine goals, 14 assists and 23 points in 25 games. Certainly those numbers look a whole lot better after an eight-point outburst, but in the grand scheme, there is at least some indication that he's capable of contributing in an offensive role, if given the opportunity.

Over the last month, since Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was injured, Gagner played nearly 19 minutes per game -- ample opportunity -- yet results were mixed. Prior to Thursday's scoring extravaganza, he had six points in a dozen games with Nugent-Hopkins out of the lineup.

Part of the trouble for Gagner this year is that he hasn't been getting consistent playing time with offensive linemates. His most common linemates (via www.leftwinglock.com) have been Ales Hemsky and Taylor Hall, which is certainly a skilled enough group, but Gagner has also been on the wing with Eric Belanger and Ryan Jones or Magnus Paajarvi as well as spending time on the wing with Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff. There's something to be said for versatility, but that shuffling of positions and roles isn't necessarily conducive to point production.

Certainly skating with skilled sophomore wingers Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle (who both missed time recently with injuries) helped elevate Gagner's game, but even if Gagner is only keeping the No. 1 centre spot warm for Nugent-Hopkins, there has to be room for Gagner among Edmonton's top six forwards. That's the only way to find out if he can score more than 41-49 points, as he has for each of his first four seasons.

With rumours that Gagner could be available leading up the February 27th trade deadline, there would surely be other teams that could fit him into a second-line centre role, but dealing him would have to bring a substantial return to Edmonton. With Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky set to become unrestricted free agents in the summer, the Oilers don't have a lot of offence returning behind Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins.

But, after the best night of his career, Sam Gagner shouldn't have to worry about such things. Find him a steady second-line role and find out of he can put up 50-plus points. For a player that scored 49 points as an 18-year-old, that shouldn't be too much to ask.

WARD
One of the things that can be easy to do with players that are underperforming is to give up on them. "He's dead to me," is an all-too-common refrain from fantasy owners, who have seen their seasons derailed by players that haven't lived up to expectations.

While expectations wouldn't have been terribly high for G Cam Ward, considering the Hurricanes' rebuilding efforts, he was coming off a season in which he played a career-high 74 games and posted a career-best .923 save percentage.

Ward got off to a decent start (4-2-2, 2.34 GAA, .928 SV%) in September before the wheels fell off. In November and December, he recorded nine wins in 26 games and posted a 3.54 goals against average and .885 save percentage, numbers that are simply not acceptable for a starting goaltender.

However, Ward has turned his season around. Since the calendar turned to 2012, he's 6-3-3, with 1.65 goals against average and .951 save percentage, with Thursday's 47-save shutout of the Boston Bruins putting an exclamation on Ward's "I'm back!"

KOVALCHUK
Speaking of players that it would be easy enough to give up on, at least in terms of expectations, Ilya Kovalchuk ventured down that road last year, scoring 29 points and going minus-29 (!!!) in 48 games before the All-Star break. After signing a monster free agent contract, that kind of production was disastrous.

Since then, though, Kovalchuk has 75 points in 78 games and is minus-6. It may not be ideal, but it's much, much better. After scoring four goals in the first 17 games this season, Kovalchuk has tallied 16 goals in the next 28 and he leada all forwards, by a healthy margin, with 24:55 time on ice per game (linemate Zach Parise ranks second, at 22:09 per game).

This isn't to absolve Kovalchuk of responsibility for subpar production, only to emphasize that when he's scoring about a point per game, he's essentially doing what could have been reasonably expected.

CLARKSON
Coming from the other end of the expectations spectrum for the Devils, RW David Clarkson now ranks second on the team with 19 goals, one behind Kovalchuk.

Undrafted out of Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League, Clarkson scrapped his way into the NHL lineup, fighting 41 times in his first two NHL seasons (2007-2008 and 2008-2009). Clarkson doesn't scrap as often any more, but he's hardly an angel, with 88 penalty minutes in 50 games this season.

More importantly, however, he has the trust of new Devils coach Peter DeBoer, who coached Clarkson with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, and Clarkson is playing more than 16 minutes per game this season, a significant bump on the 12-14 minutes he played through his first four seasons.

There are only two players in the league with at least 15 goals and 80 penalty minutes this season -- Clarkson and Boston Bruins LW Milan Lucic.

SIMMONDS
I wrote recently about the increase in power play ice time that Wayne Simmonds has received in Philadelphia this season and he's justified the decision to give him more ice time with his production.

Simmonds scored a pair of goals Thursday, giving him 15 on the season, which is one shy of his career-high. Impressively, he also registered ten shots on goal in 14:30 of ice time, prompting me to look for the players registering the most shots on goal per minute this season.

Big Shooters (minimum 10 GP)

RANK PLAYER TEAM POS. SOG/60
1. Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh C 13.41
2. Tyler Kennedy Pittsburgh RW 13.39
3. James Neal Pittsburgh LW 13.06
4. Patrick Eaves Detroit RW 13.04
5. Evander Kane Winnipeg LW 12.83
6. Max Pacioretty Montreal LW 12.52
7. Jason Blake Anaheim LW 12.42
8. Michal Repik Florida RW 12.06
9. Rick Nash Columbus LW 12.02
10. Patrick Sharp Chicago LW 11.93
11. James van Riemsdyk Philadelphia LW 11.44
12. John Tavares N.Y. Islanders C 11.25
13. Alexander Ovechkin Washington LW 11.23
14. Viktor Stalberg Chicago LW 11.04
15. Peter Mueller Colorado LW 10.94
16. Taylor Hall Edmonton LW 10.77
17. Daniel Sedin Vancouver LW 10.76
18. Dan Cleary Detroit RW 10.72
19. Phil Kessel Toronto RW 10.68
20. Jeff Skinner Carolina RW 10.67
21. Darcy Hordichuk Edmonton LW 10.67
22. Harry Zolnierczyk Philadelphia LW 10.65
23. Craig Smith Nashville C 10.55
24. Marian Gaborik N.Y. Rangers RW 10.49
25. Sean Bergenheim Florida LW 10.43
26. Tyler Seguin Boston RW 10.43
27. David Moss Calgary RW 10.38
28. Patric Hornqvist Nashville RW 10.23
29. Justin Williams Los Angeles RW 10.15
30. David Booth Vancouver LW 10.13

HEATLEY
After his game dropped so dramatically last season (to 26 goals, 64 points from his usual 39+ goals and 80+ points), Wild LW Dany Heatley wasn't facing great expectations coming into a new situation in Minnesota. Maybe there was a chance for some bounceback but a winger on the North side of 30 that isn't known for elite conditioning brought some questions, at the very least.

While Heatley doesn't appear that he's ever going to be a 40-goal scorer again, there is a lot to like about how he's played lately. He has a point-per-game in the last 16 games, scoring eight goals and adding eight assists and his plus-9 rating on the season is tied for the team lead with Mikko Koivu.

One factor that probably makes Heatley more valuable in reality vs. fantasy, is that he has only 14 penalty minutes in 51 games. His previous low, in a season with more than 70 games played, was 54 with San Jose in 2009-2010. More discipline helps the team, if not the fantasy owner who wants more penalty minutes.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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