A Simple Look at Age in the NHL

By #jontent

With the summer and free agency season approaching, it seems like a good time to review age and the NHL. I’m not sure anyone still holds the perception that when you are signing an unrestricted free agent, they are just entering their prime, but if you do this post is one to essentially tell you that you are wrong.

In its simplest form, this is age in the NHL after the lost season of 2 CBA’s ago. The league is filled with a ton of 22-28 year olds with a steep incline for the uber-talented on the younger side, and a steady decline for veterans after their 28th birthday.

Basically, the cap area favours roster filler in the form of young players just off their entry level deal and that’s good enough to make up half the league or so. It’s also a good reminder that you probably shouldn’t treat that 23 year old as top prospect, and instead start to ask yourself why he hasn’t made it to the NHL yet. There are plenty of late bloomer stories out there, but it seems much more likely that expectations need to be sharply adjusted downward.

This is basically the same graph, but with games played instead of strictly a player count. The trend reminds pretty much the same, but adjusts for any argument that it’s AHL callups playing one game and heading back down influencing the numbers. The NHL really does favour youth now, as much it loves to tout its veterans. A smart team is probably limiting the number of 30 year olds and certainly not pursuing any long term contracts with anyone but an absolute superstar.

The final graph cleans things up a bit and looks at all the data together. The majority of the players, games played, and points produced all come from players in the 22-27 age range. The interesting thing is the points per game trend.

The 18 year olds entering the league have to demonstrate that they are fantastic and better than average to overcome the desire to slide their entry level contract for a year.

Players over the age of 27 not surprisingly have to show the ability to keep up the same standard in the league, and by age there is around an 8-10% drop off every year in the number of players.

Over 35 you start seeing the spike in PPG, as teams are only willing to take chances on the Joe Thornton and Jaromir Jagrs of the world, since they are on the hook for a guaranteed cap hit, which should set the standard for a long term post 30 contract as being something you only offer future hall of famers.

Currently teams have 25% of their rosters consisting of players over the age of 30, meaning they’ve likely received an inflated unrestricted free agency contract to produce at the same level as a twenty year old on an affordable entry level contract. This seems like giving up an awful lot of cap resources for the assumed intangibles of leadership, locker room presence, etc. A lot of those qualities can also be found in coaches, why not just hire a former player as a conditioning coach and he can be your locker room fan club while your GM has more money to put back on the ice?

ARGUMENTS AGAINST YOUTH MOVEMENTS

The leadership, veteran presence, being good in the room argument is probably the obvious one. It’s going to be made by everyone who still gets in heated arguments over who the next captain of your team should be and by the person who gets irate when a player says “I” in an intermission interview instead of “we”.

I’m not completely dismissive of this point of view, because as far as I know NHL Players aren’t robots (except for maybe Toews). As much as the numbers show players like Matthews, Marner, and Nylander have thrived, there is also no questioning that they’ve formed relationships with players like Matt Martin and Leo Komarov, who outsiders view as “dime a dozen” type players.

The happy medium here is that players like Martin and Komarov get paid for the players they are on the ice, and receive short term contracts for as long as they can hold that on ice job. In Martin’s case, that ship may have already sailed.

There is also the fact that we’ve seen a reverse effect of the positive influence of veterans. Players like Milan Michalek and Brooks Laich have been quite vocal about their demotions and can bring a negativity to an organization when they are frustrated about their declining playing time. Paying for past prime players is a double edged sword, so that’s why it’s probably best to avoid doing so unless it’s for a future hall of famer. (Obviously the Leafs acquired Laich, Michalek, etc. for the purpose of demoting them and receiving another asset in return, but still using the Leafs as an example, the Lupul and Phaneuf contracts are excellent examples of bad ideas.)

Another common argument of the over 28 crowd is their playoff experience, and they will do better in the post season. The information supports that players up to 30 years old are still contributors, there is still no ignoring that steep cliff and the fact that the main influencer for all of this data is whether or not a player gets played by his team. With the salary cap out the window in the post season, the old bias of experience over youth can reign supreme. Even if veterans do in fact deserve the edge here, it’s more of a case for trade deadline rentals, than committing to long term free agency deals.

The argument against youth is also that it either rushes guys to the NHL who haven’t fully developed, or players haven’t earned their spot.

The earning your spot argument is somewhat foolish, and can be easily ignored because often the player is more talented and someone just isn’t comfortable with a veteran being unseated by a rookie who isn’t at their full potential yet. Since cap management is an important part of the game now, tie should go the cheaper contract.

As for the developing players argument, by age 20 all your players have likely had a training camp with your club, by age 22 they’ve all had experience playing in either the AHL, NHL, or over in Europe against pros. As soon as they’ve shown the ability to keep up and not get completely destroyed, they are probably ready to slot into your depth chart on their merit, and not held back because they aren’t at their full potential.

Of course everyone develops differently, and a player might benefit for more time in the AHL, where another might learn better in the NHL, but I don’t think you can reasonably hold back NHL opportunities because you believe in the AHL learning curve. In the current NHL that’s wasting assets.

AGE AND THE SUMMER

As much as I want to make the argument to avoid unrestricted free agency at all costs, always, it obviously has its place. Some of these players will hold their value and health and conditioning and their current statistical trends should help inform that.

There is also the matter of cup windows, and if a team views this as their best chance at the cup, they’ll rightfully take a bit of a gamble in free agency, though the smart ones will sell the player on their chances rather than scorch the earth for any future additions by cutting a blank check for players (see: Wild, Minnesota).

Signing a 27 year old to a max contract pretty means as follows:

There is pretty much a 30% chance that player is still in the league when a max term deal has ended. This is the story the majority of the time. There are few Hossas, Jagrs, and Thorntons. There are a lot of Parises, Lecavaliers, Gomez’, and Phaneufs.

Do. Not. Scorch. The. Earth. (Unless you are Ken Holland. It’s funny when you do it.)

As for the expansion draft. Give up the veterans. Vegas isn’t stupid and is probably going to take your best young player available anyway, but asset wise, that 28 year old on the $4M x 4 yr. deal who has been doing okay for you, might not be as valuable as the 22 year old who has been solid in the AHL. Cap space and time are two undervalued assets in the NHL. Take advantage of them.

In short, unrestricted free agency is bad, long term contracts are bad, and taking a chance on a kid over a guy who has had three knee surgeries in the past four seasons is good.

Data sourced from Hockey-Reference.com

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