Saturday, July 07, 2012

Peak performance in hockey

When I worked for the Buffalo Sabres from 1986 to 1992, one of my jobs was to look over statistics to see if I could come up with interesting facts for the team's media guide and press notes for each game. Since I had been reading baseball analyst Bill James for a few years at this point, my work went beyond traditional areas. In other words, I was concerned with more than how Phil Housley did in home games versus road games. In addition, general manager Gerry Meehan liked this sort of work and encouraged me to do it.

One of the basic pieces of information in evaluating hockey talent centers around age. In question form:, it's expressed as "When does a hockey player peak in terms of offensive production?" So, I tried to find out.

I took a bunch of active players who had played for at least six years in the NHL, and in some cases many more, and wrote down their points year by year. A player's best season got a score of 100, and his others were a percentage of that figure. So, if Dave Andreychuk scored 100 points at age 28 for a career high, age 28 received a score of 100. If he scored 50 points at age 22, that received a 50. Do that for about 80 players, average the numbers, and the classic bell curve emerges.

The averages peak around the age of 25 in hockey, which is younger than I thought it would be. I assigned that age a rating of 100, and expressed the other ages as a percentage of that. For example, a 24-year-old scores 96.5 percent as many points on average as he does at 25. (Ages were taken on January 1 of a given year.)

I redid the numbers a few years ago using the same system, and the results were close to identical. It's not a perfect bell curve, particularly at the extremes because of a small sample size, but close. Here are the numbers:

Age 18 - 53.9                                      Age 29 - 81.2
Age 19 - 70.1                                      Age 30 - 78.6
Age 20 - 78.1                                      Age 31 - 75.7
Age 21 - 92.8                                      Age 32 - 69.8
Age 22 - 93.6                                      Age 33 - 72.9
Age 23 - 89.5                                      Age 34 - 62.9
Age 24 - 96.5                                      Age 35 - 64.0
Age 25 - 100.0                                    Age 36 - 59.2
Age 26 - 98.3                                      Age 37 - 66.9
Age 27 - 87.2                                      Age 38 - 89.1
Age 28 - 85.8                                      Age 39 - 43.9

By the way, I only had one player-season for ages 38 and 39, and two for age 18, so don't take those numbers too seriously.

This obviously has implications for player decisions. We might think that a team is getting a "young player" when a newcomer trades for a 25-year-old. Yet, statistically, the numbers tell us that his level of scoring at that point is about as high as it ever will be. It's a young man's game.

Think about free agency. Any player who is eligible for unrestricted free agency is going to be over the age of 25. Therefore, he should not be expected to produce as much as he did in the previous year. A slightly lower scoring total might be considered "disappointing" by fans, but you can't fight Father Time.

Admittedly, this is just the average number. Some players might peak later in their careers, perhaps because they are in a better situation (more ice time, better linemates, better team, etc.). This also doesn't judge intangibles. A hockey player might be a better all-around performer at 28 than at 25 because he's had more experience, but it might not be reflected in points.

I once exchanged letters with another hockey fans who tried to answer the same question in a different way. I forget his method, but his conclusion about when a player peaked was the same one that I drew -- which we both considered a sign that we were on the right track.

Therefore, don't expect Zach Parise, who will be 28 later this month, to pick up his game several notches when he joins the Minnesota Wild in the fall. The odds say his production will drop from what he did in New Jersey.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

No comments: