Long gone are the days when the NHL's most prolific players smoked between periods and played into their 40s. It's considered a slight modern miracle that Jaromir Jagr is still able to be so productive despite being 44-years-old, yet that's nothing compared to a 52-year-old Gordie Howe playing on the same team as two of his sons.
Superstars of the 70s, however, didn't have to play 82 games a year, nor did they have to deal with the travel schedule faced by today's players. And today more than ever, those factors are limiting the careers of one-time very good NHLers. Not to mention the game is much faster than it was back then, leading to bigger hits and more violent - and frequent - injuries. While it was once commonplace to keep a roster spot reserved for a 35-year-old veteran coming off of major rehab, the implementation of the salary cap has made keeping younger, cheaper options more appealing.
As a result, players who once deserved major headlines for retiring are struggling to earn contracts in their late 20s and early 30s. It happens every year, which is why we also have a 15 NHL players you didn't realize are retired list. Without further ado, here are 15 players on the bubble of making that list given their play in recent seasons.
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15 Roman Polak
It's pretty bad when you're the worst defenseman on one of the youngest bluelines in the league. That's the case with Roman Polak, who typically anchors the third pairing and plays crucial penalty kill minutes for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He brings a much-needed element of physicality to the Maple Leafs, but not much else.
Polak's possession numbers are among the league's worst and while possession statistics aren't the be-all end-all, they're a good indicator of a player's value, especially on defense. What's worse is that he's a turnover machine, accumulating more giveaways than takeaways in each of his 11 seasons. Toronto brought him back this season on a one-year contract despite a forgettable 2015-16 season, but they're unlikely they do so again next year. He might earn another one-year deal somewhere or sign on a tryout offer, but given the growing importance on possession metrics, that seems unlikely.
14 Andrei Markov
It feels wrong to group Andrei Markov with Roman Polak given the immense gap in skill between the two. Yet, despite being the Montreal Canadiens most reliable defenseman in decades, there's only so long Markov can keep up with the game. Though his minutes have dropped in the past few seasons, the 38-year-old veteran of 959 games has quieted doubters by continuing to be an effective power-play option. He even leads the Canadiens' defensemen in scoring this season with 21 points in 31 games.
It could be the case that Markov becomes the defensive version of Jagr, playing effective minutes into his 40s, but his injury history is concerning. He had a series of surgeries which limited him to just 65 games from 2009-12 and recently suffered a lower-body injury that has kept him out of action. Markov is in the final year of his three-year deal with the Canadiens and if he's unsure about his health, he would be wise to call it a career. After all, he has made $35 million in salary alone throughout his 16-year NHL career.
13 Zdeno Chara
It has become apparent, in the sixth year of a seven-year contract, that Zdeno Chara has finally lost a step. Never a truly great skater, the 6-foot-9 Slovakian rearguard made himself a defensive force with a great first step and a long reach that could surprise even the fastest of skaters. Chara is still a beast in his own zone, especially on the penalty kill where he can overpower the opposition, but he's getting beat wide more and more this season.
He has been fortunate enough to play on a strong Boston team for the majority of his career, so he always had a strong Corsi (possession percentage) above 50 percent - save for 49.1 last year - but this year's percentage of 53 is misleading. His CF% (possession stats when he is on the ice compared to when he's off) is -four percent, which is the lowest of his career and his second consecutive minus in that category. Prior to last year, he was always one of his team's driving offensive forces. He's also on pace for just 22 points, 15 fewer than last season.
12 Braydon Coburn
Once a potential elite defenseman, Braydon Coburn has struggled to meet expectations, but has put together a respectable career of 700-plus games between three teams - the Atlanta Thrashers, Philadelphia Flyers, and Tampa Bay Lightning. Unfortunately, it could soon be the end of the road for Coburn, despite not turning 32-years-old until February.
The 6-foot-5 Saskatchewan native gave the Lightning a huge boost on the back end when he was acquired from the Flyers prior to the 2015 trade deadline. He was a physical, shutdown force for the Lightning en route to the team reaching the Stanley Cup Finals and was rewarded with a four-year contract in the offseason. It's one of the few mistakes made by Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman, especially considering the contracts earned by the team's rising young stars in the last two offseasons. Coburn could very well become the victim of a cap crunch demotion to the AHL next season.
11 Brett Connolly
Unlike the first four names on this list (and most of the others), Brett Connolly still has youth on his side, but early returns on the 24-year-old aren't promising. Drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning with the sixth overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Connolly is already with his third team and has just 63 points in 229 career games.
He has shown flashes of the promise he once had in junior - 120 points in 131 AHL games - but hasn't been able to score at the NHL level. The Lightning dealt Connolly to the Boston Bruins prior to the 2015 trade deadline and he had his best season as a pro the following year, recording 25 points in 71 games. The Bruins opted not to re-sign him, however, and he signed a one-year deal with the Washington Capitals. Needless to say it hasn't gone well; Connolly has just 4 points through 19 games and has been a healthy scratch for most of the year.
10 Steve Ott
Many players will rejoice when Steve Ott announces he's hanging up his skates next season, assuming that happens. The 34-year-old pest with 1,522 career penalty minutes signed a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Detroit Red Wings in the offseason, which is typically the contract given to the aging veteran looking for one last shot to prove he can still play.
Unfortunately for Ott, he's simply not that effective anymore. Unlike some of the game's agitators, the PEI native had some skill in his prime, posting a career-high 46 points in 2008-09, but has been largely ineffective in the past few seasons. Ott has just 41 points in his last 212 games and owns a -53 plus/minus rating during that time. His best bet next season is the AHL.
9 Brian Gionta
We now come to the 'How is He Still Playing?' portion of our list, where we meet Brian Gionta, the 37-year-old Buffalo Sabre who has been a surprisingly effective winger for the past five seasons. While it's confusing that he once captained the Montreal Canadiens, you have to give it up for the New York native who could reach 1,000 games by the end of this season if he stays healthy.
However, the Sabres are a rebuilding team and Gionta is in the final year of a three-year, $12.75 million contract. While it might make sense to bring him back on a cheap deal to see if he has one more season left in the tank - he's always been a great skater - it's likely the Sabres find other avenues to improve on offense next year. And there won't be many suitors lining up to sign an undersized 38-year-old winger.
8 Ryan Miller
Ryan Miller was a dominant goaltender with the Buffalo Sabres, winning the Vezina Trophy in 2010, but the Michigan native has been rather pedestrian for the past three seasons as the starting goaltender for the Vancouver Canucks. This season, Miller is 7-10-1 with a .904 save percentage and a 2.96 goals against average, and while some of that can be attributed to the trainwreck that is the Vancouver Canucks, his declining skill set is evident.
Miller doesn't look as calm and confident as he once did between the pipes and his lateral movements have become a tad slower. He's in the final year of a three-year contract with the Canucks and there's not a chance the team re-signs him, especially if they opt to go all-in on a rebuild, as they should. He'll be 37-years-old next season and doesn't seem like the kind of guy to accept a backup role.
7 Jordin Tootoo
Jordin Tootoo is the type of player that is becoming more and more scarce in the modern NHL. He can - or used to - skate like the wind and hit like a truck. But given the game's renewed emphasis on speed and skill over toughness and physicality, fighters and revered pests now struggle to earn permanent roster spots. Tootoo, however, has managed to hang on for quite some time now due to the fact that he can at least be an effective bottom-six energy player.
But signs of the end have been there for the past three seasons. In fact, the former Nashville Predator spent most of the 2013-14 season in the AHL, but revitalized his career with a strong two-year stint in New Jersey. This year, however, Tootoo is pointless through 28 games with the Chicago Blackhawks. The 33-year-old will be replaced by a younger player next year.
6 Chris Stewart
It seems strange that, despite the physical nature of hockey, bigger players often break down much quicker than smaller, undersized players. Cam Neely and Eric Lindros were both deemed unstoppable, but injuries limited their careers, while players like Martin St. Louis and Ray Whitney withstood the grind of being diminutive forwards. Chris Stewart is a prime example of a former first round pick who played his best hockey in his first three seasons as a power forward.
Stewart has failed to reach 40 points in a single season since accomplishing the feat in 2010-11 when he did so with the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues. This year, the 6-foot-2, 231-pound winger has 9 points in 34 games with the Minnesota Wild. He's signed through next season, but with the Wild being a competitive cap team looking to upgrade, he could find himself elsewhere - and likely outside of the league.
5 Drew Stafford
Winnipeg trading Evander Kane was the best thing to ever happen to Drew Stafford. A former first round pick, Stafford had 24 points in 50 games in his 10th season with the Buffalo Sabres before the team shipped him to Winnipeg in a February of 2015 seven-player deal. A pending unrestricted free agent, Stafford was excellent with the Jets, recording 19 points in 26 games and earning himself a two-year, $8.7 million contract.
Stafford rewarded the Jets' trust in him with a 21-goal campaign in 2015-16, but has fallen off significantly through the first 30-plus games of this season. The 31-year-old has battled injuries and has been a healthy scratch on multiple occasions. He has just five points in 22 games. If his current pace keeps up, the best he can hope for next year is a tryout offer.
4 Jiri Hudler
The resurgence of Jiri Hudler was a big story in 2014-15 when the Czech Republic native recorded a career-high 76 points and won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy as a member of the Calgary Flames. Hudler played alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan that season and the impact they had on his success is becoming more and more apparent.
Hudler was traded to the Florida Panthers midway through the following season and finished with just 46 points. Hoping for a return to form, the Dallas Stars signed the soon-to-be 33-year-old to a one-year contract worth $2 million in August. Thus far, it hasn't worked out. Hudler has been limited to just 11 games due to an undisclosed illness and has just two assists. Even if he decides to play again next season, he would likely get more money from the KHL, where he has played in the past.
3 Marian Gaborik
There was nobody faster than Marian Gaborik when he first broke into the league with the Minnesota Wild. The Slovakian winger scored 30-plus goals in seven of his first 11 seasons and was often good for at least one breakaway a night. He possessed a decent shot and had above-average vision, but above all it was his speed that made him an elite player. Turning 35-years-old in February, Gaborik doesn't have the legs he once had and it shows.
Injuries have kept the former third overall pick from playing more than 50 games in two of the past four seasons and Gaborik is on pace to finish with far less than 50 points this year, as he has just four points through 12 games. He's only in his third year of a seven-year, $34.125 million contract, and is a prime candidate for a buyout. Should that be the case, Gaborik's injury history should keep him from seeking another job in the NHL.
2 Mark Streit
It's amazing that Mark Streit has been able to play in more than 700 NHL games given he made his league debut as a 28-year-old with the Montreal Canadiens in the 2005-06 season. The Swiss blueliner has been a consistent point producer for 11 seasons now and currently leads Philadelphia Flyers defensemen in scoring with 16 points in 31 games. But he'll turn 40-years-old next season and we're counting on all those miles catching up to him.
It's entirely possible that the Flyers want him back for another season given his current production, but would Streit want to go through the rigors of another season at that age? His four-year, $21 million contract expires at the end of this season and retirement should sound cozy.
1 Jarome Iginla
The cruel thing about the NHL is that players like Jarome Iginla can retire without having known what it's like to lift the Stanley Cup. The Calgary Flames captain reached the finals in 2003-04, his first time in the postseason since he was a rookie, but has failed to come close since. This is quite the shame, given his career point total of 1,282 and his incredible leadership qualities. Arguably the greatest power forward of his generation, the 39-year-old Iginla is still chasing Stanley Cup glory, though that isn't happening with his current team, the Colorado Avalanche.
He scored 22 goals for Colorado last season, extending his streak of 20-plus goal seasons to 16 (not counting the lockout shortened-year). But it has been a different story for Iginla this season; he has just five goals in 34 games for the disaster that is the Avalanche. In a perfect world, he gets traded to the Calgary Flames at the deadline and finally gets to taste from Lord Stanley's Cup. That's not likely, but maybe they can trade him to a real contender and get him the Cup he deserves.
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