When is the end for a goal scorer?
A study of 50-goal men throughout history
The Ovechkin email continues to come:
I don’t think the risk factor is quite as bad as you portray. Alex has proven to be remarkably durable and remarkably willing to play through pain. Bure is a decent comparison (for lots of reasons), but even if he has to hang ‘em up at 31, we get nine more years, which beats losing him as a UFA in four. Another thing ... the overwhelming majority of guys play well into their 30s, with the rare exception (Orr, Kluzak, Bure). Hockey has been lucky in terms of career-ending injuries (knock on wood).— A friend from Washington
If you're expecting numbers and line charts, you get a gold star ...
Even though he's just 22, Alex Ovechkin belongs to some pretty exclusive clubs. Only two modern players, for instance, sit ahead of his .632 career goals-per-game average (Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux). And the fact he's notched 252 points in his first 207 NHL games, as of last night, puts him in heady territory.
But one of the most exclusive groups Ovechkin's a part of is one he joined in his first season when he broke the 50-goal barrier.
Only 87 players in NHL history have scored 50 goals in a season, and that's a group that includes the majority of the game's top-producing players of all time. Of the 87, Ovechkin is one of 18 active players.
But for the purposes of this post, it's the other 69 fellows I'm interested in.
How long did they play for? How productive were they? And at what age does a former 50-goal scorer's ability to produce decline?
What are the chances, in other words, that Ovechkin's still filling the net 14 years down the road?
Quite a few of these stars retired early, with 15 (or about 22 per cent) playing their last 60-plus game season before age 31. More than half were gone before turning 34, but 22 managed to play at least 60 games in a season after age 35 (32 per cent).
Five former 50-goal scorers have played into their 40s: John Bucyk, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille and Dave Andreychuk.
Here are the ages when retired 50-goal men played their last 60-plus game season, plotted on a graph:
There's the big bulge, between 30 and 39, when the game's stars move on. As I mentioned above, 22 per cent are gone by 30, 35 per cent are gone by 31 and Mark Messier's the freak of nature at the end.
What are the chances Ovechkin's playing at 35? Decent enough, it would seem — or a little less than 40 per cent anyway if you trust historical averages — but the next question is just how productive will he be? When does a player's goal-scoring ability leave him?
Here's a look at what age these 50-goal scorers had their last 40-goal season:
Forty goals, during any era, was still a star turn, and an awful lot of players were pulling that off after age 30. But you certainly can see a definitive peak here, from 27 to 30, and it's from that point onward the goals began to fade.
Fifty-seven per cent fit into that range of longevity. Seventy-eight per cent had their last 40-goal season before turning 31.
On the freak end of the scale: Phil Esposito and John Bucyk beat Father Time by putting up 40 at age 37. Joe Mullen and Messier were the only other two who managed it after 33. (And Teemu Selanne joins these four when he officially calls it quits.)
But a goal scorer doesn't necessarily need to pot 40 every year to be of use. What if we take it down a notch, to 30 goals, and see how the numbers shift. Do more superstars produce in that range late in their career?
It's sad to say, but 30's the magic number. Fifty-seven per cent had their last 30-goal season before turning 31.
On the flip side, one-third of these stars were able to manage a 30-goal season at 32 or older. Luc Robitaille and Marcel Dionne were 36 in their last really productive season, Dino Ciccarelli and Mike Gartner were 37. Brett Hull managed one at 38, while Mr. Bucyk really deserves some credit for being the lone 40-year-old 30-goal man in the group.
Keep in mind that those fellows are the extremes. The average is somewhere near the graph's pointy edges, which means if I had to pick out players representative of the rise and fall of the average superstar career based on the numbers, they'd be Dale Hawerchuk and Michel Goulet.
Hawerchuk was an Ovechkin-like star right out of the gate, the first-overall pick in 1981, and he won the Calder the next summer after a 45-goal, 103-point campaign at age 18. He would have six 100-point campaigns in the next seven seasons, notching 70 per cent of his 518 goals by the time he was 25.
Hawerchuk was over the 80-point mark up until age 30, ran into all kinds of injury woes the following season and scored just 34 total goals over the last three years of his career. He retired with arthritis in his hip a few weeks after his 34th birthday in May, 1997.
Goulet was three years older, but hit his stride at about the same time. His first 40-goal season came in 1981-82 when he was 21, and he would score 50 four consecutive years after that. He fell off the 40- (and 30-) goal pace by age 28 and never bettered 65 points over his final six seasons.
In March, 1994, Goulet suffered a serious concussion at the Montreal Forum while playing for Chicago, and he retired at 33.
Both are in the Hall of Fame, and both are still among the top 40 goal scorers in NHL history. In terms of production and longevity when it comes to 50-goal men, they represent the average.
Average age they last played 60 games in a season: 33.3
Average age they last scored 40 goals in a season: 28.5
Average age they last scored 30 goals in a season: 30.5
For every Messier, there's a Cam Neely — and it's actually quite sad how many 50-goal scorers never even made it to age 30.
Eleven of the 69 former 50-goal men (16 per cent) played their last 60-game season before their 30th birthday.
Scoring by Age: An In-Depth Look [Dan Tolensky]
The Lucrative Long-Term Deal [Dan Tolensky]