Wednesday, January 30, 2008

How the game has changed
Part 2: Youth is Served

This is the second entry in a series of posts on how the NHL's on-ice product has evolved from before the lockout to 2007-08. Part 1 on how penalty calls have changed can be found here.

If I was pressed to pick one player who defines how the game has changed since 2003-04, it would be Patrick Kane.

After all, I can't think of a single example in the Dead Puck Era of a frail 19-year-old sniper sitting among the scoring leaders at the 50-game mark. At 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, Kane is certainly undersized by any definition, but that hasn't held him back from leading the Blackhawks in scoring.

Whether its the result of the crackdown on obstruction or a sudden, inexplicable influx of new young talent, one of the defining characteristics of the league postlockout is just how youthful it is.

And especially among the scoring leaders.

Now that's a trend.

Looking through the names of the scoring leaders from 2000-01, there are all kinds of old-timers: Luc Robitaille, Adam Oates, Peter Bondra, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Mark Recchi and Mario Lemieux were all over 33 and among the top 30.

Only Daniel Alfredsson and Mats Sundin fit into that category this season.

Instead, what we've got is all sorts of youth, and 10 of the top 30 (as of last week when I put this together) are 25 or under: Ilya Kovalchuk, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Jason Spezza, Evgeni Malkin, Mike Richards, Paul Stastny, Eric Staal and Corey Perry.

In 2000-01, there were three: Patrick Elias, Petr Sykora and Alex Tanguay (who was then the only player under 24 among the top 30 scorers).

In fact, the majority of the top scorers that season were over 30 (17); this year, 23 are under 30 years old, with Jarome Iginla, Marc Savard and Danny Briere just barely over.

Given it has only been seven years, that's quite a swing. And while you can't pin this change down to just one factor, a few come to mind right away:

(a) The new rules favour speed and creativity over power and experience. Robitaille and Oates wouldn't fare nearly as well under these conditions, but they got by just fine when passing, shooting and hockey sense were better attributes to have than skating ability.

(b) The new rules also allow younger players, who might not be as physically developed, to contribute in a big way at a younger age. Kane likely wouldn't have even contributed as a 19-year-old even three years ago in the NHL. Ditto for someone like Kris Russell in Columbus.

(c) The new CBA necessitates that teams have to get more out of their young stars. There really just isn't as much room for passengers, especially on teams that are up against the cap, and the old-timers are frequently being pushed out earlier than they were previously. Big-ticket unrestricted free agents are younger than ever now.

(d) This is one freaky golden age for young hockey stars. It could all just be one big statistical blip.

I'm not sure that there's any one answer here, but I'm inclined to point to (a) and (b) as having a quantifiable effect. Being older, bigger and more experienced was simply more beneficial before the lockout.

NHL's top 30 scorers
Season Under
Under 25
2000-01 13 3
2001-02 18 4
2002-03 16 5
2003-04 17 8
2005-06 19 5
2006-07 20 7
2007-08 23 10

The Art Ross winners
2001: Jaromir Jagr (age 29.1)
2002: Jarome Iginla (24.8)
2003: Peter Forsberg (29.7)
2004: Martin St. Louis (28.8)
2006: Joe Thornton (26.8)
2007: Sidney Crosby (19.7)




At 9:09 a.m., January 30, 2008, Blogger Earl Sleek said...

Oh, so that's why it feels that I'm aging so fast!

At 10:32 a.m., January 30, 2008, Anonymous Danny said...

I think this has been one of my favorite posts from you James.

Perhaps in 2016 a 12 year old will be in the top 30

At 10:55 a.m., January 30, 2008, Blogger Mogen_david said...

The trend starts before the lockout and the new rules. Need to dig deeper.

At 11:34 a.m., January 30, 2008, Blogger Adam C said...

I want to agree with you, James, but I'm not sure the data backs this up - perhaps if you went back into the 1990s.

Otherwise, 2005 simply looks like a continuation of a trend that started earlier, calling into question factor (a).

I wouldn't dispute factor (b) - maybe that's what is pushing the trend even younger. Patrick Kane really is a great example.

Factor (c) makes sense when it encourages teams to gamble with a player such as Kane. However, it also may discourage teams from gambling in order to put off UFA status... it's difficult to say whether teams are gambling more (e.g. Jiri Tlusty) or whether the success of the Kanes and Staals is forcing their hand.

Which brings us to (d), and why it might be nice to go back just a little further. It may be that the end of the 1990s was really a dead zone for young talent - consider the first rounders from 1994 or 1996 or 1999.

At 11:48 a.m., January 30, 2008, Anonymous Firehead said...

From this limited amount of data, your A, B and C factors are irrelevant, as the data does not seem to change the trend established in the years prior to the lockout (and new CBA.) That was an awfully long-winded, and useless, manipulation of data.

Perhaps Adam is correct in saying that more data will support your ideas, but there is also limited data on the post lockout years, and I sympathize with your task in that regard.

Normally a well-thought out blog, this reads like typical rubbish Canadian Sports "Journalism".

At 12:47 p.m., January 30, 2008, Blogger Adam C said...

Well, I'd certainly disagree that this post was "rubbish". I found it very interesting. I'm merely concerned that James's conclusions match my (and presumably his) expectations a little too easily given the data he's presented.

Maybe the answer really is just (d). There really is an astonishing youth movement in the NHL, and it isn't restricted to the small and wispy Patrick Kanes.

At 12:49 p.m., January 30, 2008, Anonymous vadim sharifijanov said...

there are obviously a lot of factors putting younger players in positions to succeed, or giving them experience early and giving them opportunities to succeed at younger ages. the much lower UFA age is one. the sudden decline/wave of retirement of an amazing generation of players, many of whom produced big numbers well beyond their prime is another. also, it's not just that the rule changes since the lockout reward speed and quickness, but that they no longer reward experience, positioning, on-ice intelligence, and and qualities that often players don't develop until 26 or 27 the way the dead puck-era rules (or non-calling of rules) did. imagine if pat kane was a rookie in 1998 and lecavalier were a rookie today. i'd imagine that kane would be in the AHL and lecavalier would be a calder candidate.

but maybe the high average scoring age at the beginning of this decade really just points to a paucity of high end scorers drafted between 1994 and 1996, and the players drafted 97 and later taking a little longer to develop (because their teams had a safety net of veterans that most don't have today). between '94 and '96, patrik elias and milan hejduk are really the only guys who came into the league and put up big points within three years. iginla and alfredsson didn't become high end scorers until midway through their careers, sullivan, savard, and briere all took considerably longer to develop, and a few guys here and there had career years that put them in the top 30, but those years just didn't produce a lot of scorers. the 1997 draft alone produced as many high end scorers as the three previous drafts.

At 12:50 p.m., January 30, 2008, Blogger CheGordito said...

Perhaps the numbers would make more sense considering average player ages in the NHL. I believe the average age has been dropping for years. I am not sure why - maybe it's due to higher incomes (option to retire early), a more violent/physically demanding game (burning out veterans from injuries or the possibility of injury) or just individuals valuing their own time more than with the NHL (see recent post about Selanne from The Puck Stops Here). In any case, a change in the distribution of player ages towards younger players would suggest younger top-scorers.

At 1:51 p.m., January 30, 2008, Blogger PJ Swenson said...

You should also factor in the defensive play of Sharks rookie center Torrey Mitchell. Standing next to him, he is not a large guy (5-11, 175 pounds).

But see him play out on the ice, and he is regularlly throwing his body around at guys 30-40 pounds heavier, he is either the top or second best penalty killer on the team, and he will stand in front of the net and try to create scoring chances.

Similar to Marco Sturm, if Torrey Mitchell can finish on even half of the breakaway chances he creates with his speed, he will be a future allstar. Zero press from the East Coast or Canadian media though.

At 1:56 p.m., January 30, 2008, Blogger PJ Swenson said...

The last graphic with the Art Ross winners and their ages is a definite exclamation point to your post.

Sidney Crosby winning at 19, the alleged crackdown on obstruction, and salary cap considerations may have opened the doors for a lot of younger players.

At 4:01 p.m., January 30, 2008, Anonymous Firehead said...

I still think everyone is looking for data to support their views.

The Art Ross 'data', for instance, is 6 instances, 4 before the lockout and 2 after. Crosby is one of these instances, and I don't think anyone wants to argue that he isn't an outlier - a unique event. Which leaves us with Jarome Iginla as the lone 'representative' statistic. Ridiculous to come to a meaningful conclusion from that.

If we look at the Norris Trophy, it's been Lidstrom, Lidstrom, Lidstrom, Niedermeyer LOCKOUT Lidstrom, Lidstrom. Thus, while Lidstrom was dominant before the lockout, now that he's older with the new rules, he is invincible. QED.

As for the Top 30 scorers, we have not reached the end of 07-08 yet, so these apples aren't comparable to the oranges of years past quite yet. Looking at the other years, the post lockout years seem to be continuing the trend of the pre-lockout years, but at no greater pace.

These statistics do not bear out the argument. Perhaps others do, but these do not.

At 5:08 p.m., January 30, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take a chill pill, Firehead.

No way is the post "rubbish" (maybe you'd rather have a tea, instead), it just strikes me as half-finished.

A great beginning. What about the ages of scoring leaders in the 80s? When Gretzky potted 92 goals, how old were the leaders then?

I have no doubt the new rules benefit smaller players, but what if we're just seeing the fruits of a particularly talented rookie crop, the kind that cycle in every few years?

It's possible guys like Crosby and Getzlaf will be at the top of the scoring charts in 5 years to come, along with a lot of these other guys. In which case, your chart will show an uptrend.

I bet if you look over history, you'd see a peak in age of average scoring, then a decline, then a ramping-up again until another decline.

At 5:22 p.m., January 30, 2008, Anonymous Firehead said...

Rubbish was harsh. The concept is fine, and I tend to agree with it. But whether it's unfinished or not, it doesn't support the argument in it's current state, and I think James would agree. Regardless, I do enjoy this space - still my favorite hockey blog.

At 5:32 p.m., January 30, 2008, Blogger Pooch said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5:39 p.m., January 30, 2008, Blogger Pooch said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5:45 p.m., January 30, 2008, Blogger Pooch said...

Though you can disagree with the statistics here (and everyone makes good arguments), when the stats are in doubt its always good to look elsewhere. The case of college hockey gives a particularly good example of how youth are getting the credence in the NHL, in many ways by looking at the expense it has had on the sport of college hockey.

Its certainly true that the new CBA led to more "demand" for cheap, young talent. In watching college hockey all my life, I've noticed a massive difference in college hockey since the implementation of the CBA. For one, the number of those who sign contracts early (formerly reserved for freakish talents, like Paul Kariya)has drastically increased. Now, those with even a whiff of potential forgo a college degree for a contract.

There's also no doubt that the CBA has played a role in recruiting, and has had a massive impact on parity on college hockey. College hockey used to be more like college football--where you could recruit high class talent, and built a team, four years at a time. Now, as players go straight to the pros after their juniors, or duck out of college after a year or two, its starting to look a lot more like college basketball.

Its effect on all of the storied college hockey teams--especially the hockey east and WCHA powerhouses--has been dramatic. Maine (my alma mater), Minnesota, and North Dakota have all been especially hard hit by players leaving early, which really was a minor problem in the past. And who knows how it has impacted the potential recruiting pools, with the greater talent choosing to sign a minor league or NHL contract rather than play in relative obscurity in college.

One thing's for sure, parity reigns like never before in college hockey (i.e. Miami-Ohio currently has a death grip on first place in the polls).

Feel free to disagree, but in my mind it's a whole new ball game in College hockey, and we have the CBA and dollar signs in the eyes of young prospects to thank. My biggest beef with it is if these kids don't make it, then they've missed their chance at a full scholarship and a free college degree--something they would desperately need to compete in society were hockey not to work out ... we'll see how it fairs, i guess.

At 12:17 p.m., January 31, 2008, Blogger HockeyTownTodd said...

"After all, I can't think of a single example in the Dead Puck Era of a frail 19-year-old sniper sitting among the scoring leaders at the 50-game mark. At 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, Kane is certainly undersized by any definition, but that hasn't held him back from leading the Blackhawks in scoring."

I think perhaps you are giving too much credit to the New NHL, when the credit should go to Patrick Kane himself.

Consult your father or grandfather and you will find that Steve Yzerman was of the same stature as Kane.

At 1:13 p.m., January 31, 2008, Blogger said...

Here is the MSG-TV "before" and "after" footage of Kane's stop with the Blackhawks in his hometown of Buffalo:
Many more memories to come for Patrick Kane but Dec. 15 in Buffalo WAS very special!
There were 500 or so family and friends in attendance.

At 1:32 p.m., January 31, 2008, Blogger Adam C said...

Yzerman was (allegedly) two inches taller than Kane.

More importantly, 1983 was far and away removed from the "Dead Puck Era".

At 2:48 p.m., January 31, 2008, Blogger HockeyTownTodd said...

I have seen Yzerman standing next to my 5' 11' son, and 5' 9' is about right.

"Dead Puck era" is a media coined phrase and open to interpretation.

At 3:24 p.m., January 31, 2008, Blogger Adam C said...

In 2007 the Buffalo Sabres led the league with 308 goals. In 1984 that same total (over 80 games) would have had them tied for 12th in a 21 team league.

"Interpret" away, though...

At 4:07 p.m., January 31, 2008, Blogger HockeyTownTodd said...

I will interpret that as saying more about the other 20 teams than it does about the Sabres or the New NHL.

In 1984 the Islanders led the league with 357 goals. If 308 lead the league in 2006-07, what exactly has been accomplished in 23 years?


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