As Free Agents are Re-Signed and Players are Moved Around, It’s Worth Remembering that Age is a Factor. It’s one of the two silly seasons in hockey: the week or so leading up to the trade deadline (the other being the time in and around the start of free agency). With UFAs either getting moved as rentals or free agents getting a new contract before their previous one expires, we’ll be talking about the fate of some big name players between this season and next season.
But that re-signing thing can be perilous, especially under a salary cap. The Ducks recently re-upped Perry and Getzlaf for enormous deals, and just yesterday Alex Semin signed on for five more years with Carolina. While all three players are immensely talented (Semin perhaps the most underrated superstar in hockey), their contracts will end when Perry, Getzlaf, and Semin are 36, 36, and 34, respectively. Even the end of Sidney Crosby’s contract (albeit under the old CBA) is worth considering: it brings him through age 37 with the Penguins.
How well do players age, and will these guys be worth all that money in few years? The answer is probably “no,” but that’s how NHL contract structure works right now. Why is it that answer “no”? Let’s take a look at a histogram of 30 goal seasons in the NHL since the 1990-91 season by age. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff. The data is readily available on Hockey-Reference Play Index, others have studied this as a points-per-game peak, and the 30 goal mark itself was inspired by the illustrious Chemmy of PPP. His original Tweet from March 11 can be found here.
In this data set, there are 725 30 goal seasons. Since 1990-91, goal scoring has typically dropped off for players after their age 26 season. That is, 25-27 is the most common age for 30+ goals to be scored. That doesn’t players will simply fall off a cliff when they turn 27, it simply means that they’re far less likely to reach their career highs when in their late 20s and early 30s.
Based on this trend, we can probably say Getzlaf, Perry, and Semin are getting paid for what they’ve done rather than what they’re going to do for their teams. Upon further reflection, this system is somewhat odd. Paying for unknown production isn’t exactly desirable (see: Steve Mason), but there’s a gamble involved in paying for a player who is almost certain to lose skill with time.
What if you’re interested in more recent data sets? We can do that too.
Let’s take a quick look at the 30+ goal seasons since 1995-96, and 2000-01.
And the third set.
Here the distributions have widened somewhat, although the trend isn’t remarkably different. This suggests that improved physical training, medical support, and even coaching to maximize value from skill are all making impacts on damping the age factor. Daniel Sedin is a good example of the last category. He has gone from having 55-57% offensive zone starts to now 61-80% in the past few years. His usage chart is exceptionally favorable to offensive production. This manages to at least delay the aging problem for the player. Sedin is exceptionally talented, but it’s hard for me to imagine him reaching quite the same heights without his exclusively offensive role.
It’s also worth noting that the 2000-01 distribution is more susceptible to puck luck and suddenly favorable circumstances. We are dealing with fewer data points after all, and just one or two surprising years (either good or bad) can make a bigger percentage impact on these observations. Anson Carter’s 33 goal season at age 31 might have something to do with the aforementioned Sedins. Robert Lang’s one and only 30 goal season happening at age 30 might be aided by Jagr, Kovalev and the return of some Lemieux guy.
But in all three histograms, 26 is the peak and there is a considerable drop-off after age 31. While the Ducks and Hurricanes are wise to keep generally productive players around, they’re likely getting only a few more years of upper-echelon scoring before those superstar salaries start going to good-not-great players.
And if there’s interest, we can follow this up with assist totals, point production or points per game or something. Or you can check it out too. Hockey-Reference is very user friendly.
I Need Somebody to Explain What Ray Shero Is Doing. I regard Ray Shero as one of the best GMs in the NHL. Yes, he’s exceptionally lucky to have walked into the world of Crosby and Malkin, but he has made great trades and free agency decisions throughout his tenure to ensure that the Penguins don’t turn into the Islanders or Oilers (all offensive skill, no depth players, no defense). Shero got Marian Hossa for next-to-nothing, he added Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek when his defense needed shoring up, he got James Neal AND Matt Niskanen for only Goligoski, he traded a comitted-to-leaving Jordan Staal for a top 10 pick and one of the best shutdown forwards in hockey, and he picked up one of the best goalies of this generation. All the while, the Penguins have been amassing one of the most impressive defensive prospect groups in the NHL and have kept their salary cap in check (in the hopes of resigning Malkin and Letang).
It’s an absurd list of amazingly great trades and signings for the Penguins and it’s no surprise that their whole team is so impressive. Any one of those accomplishments would be reason to celebrate a GM. Shero is responsible for them all.
So when Shero decided to pull the trigger and pick up Brendan Morrow and Douglas Murray, I couldn’t help but be confused. Shero and his staff have made sparkling moves and recently have been reported as users of analytics to help inform their decision-making. Penguins director of player personnel Dan MacKinnon was quoted in a James Mirtle article from the Globe and Mail saying, “I don’t think we’ve made an impact decision since then [the Neal trade] without consulting the analytics.”
So it’s extremely odd to see Shero describe the past two Pens trades as being done without respect to analytics. The Murray move is a trade that Sharks fans describe as making no sense for Pittsburgh. Murray is slow and aging, his play ineffective against even weak competition. The Morrow isn’t nearly as bad, but it’s still perplexing. He’s a “grit” player but lacks the scoring skill and pure defensive ability to make him a high-level third liner. Sending the Penguins’ top prospect for Morrow seems like a very high price to pay.
These are perhaps the first Shero moves where he has done the wrong thing on paper. Seemingly he’s relying on these new additions regressing up toward former highs. Or maybe he’s just hoping that playing with some of the elite Penguins will cause Morrow and Murray to transform into players they haven’t been before. Either way, the Morrow trade came at a potentially steep price and the Murray trade seems ill-designed. We’ll see just how well these trades work in the next few weeks, but they look like a gamble that the Penguins just didn’t need to make.