The NHL is a tricky horse race. Analyzing the data shows that most forwards start their peak around 25, and start declining around 29-30. Defensemen reach their peak and declines slower and goaltenders are a total crapshoot. But even with all of the data a room full of analytics nerds can produce, hockey players are still human beings who are affected by a myriad of variables. Playing on a terrible team that generally scores less and allows more goals than every team they face will obviously negatively affect the statistical production of any players unlucky enough to pay for the sad-sack franchises. Cody Hodgson went from next big thing to reclamation project in just a few years with Buffalo. I doubt it’s because his skills have faded in his mid-20s. Buffalo has been bad and did an especially great job of being bad right before they won the right to draft potential savior (and Hodgson replacement) Jack Eichel. Sorry Cody, at least Nashville is in the habit of bargain shopping for centers.
It also seems like play style has a lot to do with declining effectiveness. Players that depend on speed and physicality usually see the quickest drop off as their bodies lose that extra step and injuries begin piling up, while a Datsyuk-type who dominates with stickhandling, playmaking, and hockey sense can remain effective far longer. Datsyuk is obviously a special case as he still put off over a point-per-game at the age of 36.
So what do GMs do with their aging players? The salary cap has introduced an extra dimension to the already tricky process of managing assets. You must have a blend of entry-level contracts, prime players and veterans all signed to deals that give the most bang for the buck. It used to be common knowledge to avoid ‘burning a year off’ a rookie contract by having them play too many games in the NHL. But doesn’t it make more sense to burn off that contract as quick as possible so you can sign the next long-term BEFORE their production prices them out of your budget? I’m sure Montreal would have loved to sign P.K. Subban before he had the greatest contract year of all time. It’s a betting man’s game and that’s why it’s so damn fun to be an arm-chair GM without all of that pesky responsibility and stress.
So let’s take a look from the arm-chair (or computer desk) at the top 15 NHL players in Decline.
15 Mikko Koivu
Koivu has given Minnesota ten years of incredible service. But at 32 he finally gave his worst PtsPG since his rookie year. Koivu hasn’t dropped off a cliff however, and if he can maintain .60 as a support scorer while still providing leadership and his stalwart defensive play, Minnesota should still be happy with their captain in the second-line center spot.
The Wild performed worse than expected last season and could definitely use some scoring help moving forward. Niederreiter and Zucker have emerged as 20-goal scorers but after dedicating so much cash to free-agency the last few years, they’ll still need some serious growth amongst their home-grown prospects.
14 Chris Kunitz
Kunitz was the perfect addition to the Penguins; affordable, big, with great hands. Throughout his time in Pittsburgh he’s had points-per-game averages of: 0.90, 0.64, 0.73, 0.74, 1.08, and 0.87. Great stuff for a guy who makes less than $4 million against the cap. 2014-15 wasn’t as kind as he dipped to his worst-ever NHL mark of just 0.54 while playing a relatively full season of 74 games.
While incoming sniper Phil Kessel plays on the opposite wing, Kunitz might still see a dropoff in power play time which could hurt his production even more. Some blogs have already projected him on the third line with Nick Bonino and Pascal Dupuis. Blogs don’t set the lines of course, but Kunitz could still potentially take a back seat.
13 Teddy Purcell
Purcell exploded onto the scene with an attention-getting 2011 playoff performance, scoring 17 points in 18 games. He maintained strong production for two seasons after but the last two have seen his goal production drop by half. Purcell’s banishment to Edmonton from the newly elite Tampa Bay must have been heart-breaking at the beginning of the year but with Connor McDavid on the way, Purcell has one year on his contract to prove that he can hang with the kids.
At 29 heading into free agency, millions of dollars are at stake this year. That’s a prospect that could motivate even Alex Semin.
12 David Legwand
Nashville’s first ever draft pick never became the franchise-center they wanted but he still gave years of dependable two-way production.
His first full year with Ottawa however was disappointing and is the first real sign of decline for the usually consistent 16-year veteran. His 0.34 points per game was the lowest of his entire career. He still managed to play 80 games and remained a plus-1 which still makes him a useful bottom-six contributor. But his best years are definitely behind him.
11 Ales Hemsky
His last bit of time in Edmonton had already shown signs of decline but he found late-season chemistry with Spezza in Ottawa, scoring 17 points in 20 games. The potential reunion in Dallas looked promising but it didn’t pan out for the 32-year-old. He tallied a meager 32 points in 76 games for his lowest points ratio yet.
Dallas had major problems on defense which can hinder the transitional game and ability to score, but it looks like Hemsky is now a secondary scorer at best.
10 The Sedins
The Sedins started their Vancouver careers slow, but after the 2004 lockout did away with clutch-and-grab hockey their careers really took off. The Sedins didn’t have elite speed or strength, but with a free-flowing game they could dominate. They would combine for two Art Ross, and a Hart trophy in the following years.
A disastrous season with coach John Tortorella in 2013 killed EVERYONE’S production but even though they were able to bounce back in 2014, the signs of decline are starting to show. Scoring is down across the league and the pair can still perform their patented ‘twin magic’ but their point-per-game days seem to be finished.
The Sedins are adamant about finishing their careers in Vancouver, and since they’ve never relied on speed they could still remain a productive 1B or second line as Vancouver’s younger players hit their own prime years.
9 Stephen Weiss
For years Weiss was thought of as a great player on a bad Florida team. His move to a classy organization like Detroit seemed like the perfect fit for the skilled forward. Injuries and inconsistency however, have damaged his stock in the NHL and produced a rare black mark on Detroit’s player management record. After just two disappointing seasons, his contract was bought out.
Weiss’ best bet now is to take a low-risk deal like what Nashville gave Mike Ribeiro and prove to the league he can still perform.
8 Zdeno Chara
It seems like just a few years ago that Chara was one of the very best in the game. His dominant and downright frightening two-way game led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup and served as a consistent reminder of how terrible a GM Mike MIlbury was (Chara AND Spezza for Yashin….).
The 38-year-old Chara still has three years left on his contract and remains positive about his future, but fans have quietly wondered what they could acquire in a trade for the big-name cache of their captain. Chara has admitted to having permanent PCL damage, which sounds like a hindrance for the already slow-footed defender.
Chara may not have the same on-ice impact as in years before but he could still be effective in a reduced role and also as a guiding presence for Boston’s up-and-coming defenders and future captains.
7 Milan Lucic
Lucic’s notoriety and numerous controversies with Montreal players have distracted from a frightening decline in production and bloated cap hit. He’s entering the last year of his three-year, $18 million pact, and it might have come at the perfect time. His trade to L.A. could potentially be a fantastic fit for his brand of physical goal-scoring. The Kings also have a confidence in their team-play and seem to worry less about straight statistical production. If he fits in well with their system and gets along with coach Sutter he could find himself another healthy contract.
6 Alex Burrows
Burrows story of clawing his way up from Roller-Hockey and the East Coast Leagues to have four seasons of 26+ goals in the NHL is inspiring.
He had perhaps the worst season of any Canuck with Tortorella and fans were excited to see him bounce back in 2014-15. While he did improve over last year, his game has appeared to fallen off from his previous heights. At 34 this isn’t a surprise, and he still remains a useful penalty-killer and fan favourite who can chip in offensively.
5 Patrik Elias
Patrik Elias fought father time for years but finally posted his lowest-ever point total in 2014-15. To be fair, the Devils team was a cast of elderly misfits, but can we really expect the 39-year-old to bounce back? Elias has proven to be a special player but it would be a nice surprise if he gets back to 50-point territory. And with the Devils looking to be even worse this season, an Elias comeback looks less likely.
4 R.J. Umberger
Umberger never quite established himself as a top center, peaking with just 57 points in 2010-11, but he was still very consistent. In the last few years however, his production has been consistently low. His last two Columbus seasons have seen .38 and .46 PtsPG and his stint in Philly saw a disastrous 9 goals and 6 assists. Flyer fans must be wondering why in the world fan-favourite Scott Hartnell was traded for this guy.
At 33, on a poor Flyers team, it’s safe to say Umberger is not a safe fantasy hockey pick.
3 Kevin Bieksa
Kevin Bieksa has long been a sturdy, hard-nosed, smooth skating defender with leadership and toughness. But his time was up on the Vancouver blue line. The Calgary Flames hungry forecheck turned the tide of the series and badly exposed the veteran. When Bieksa first started dismissing Michael Furland to the press, fans immediately thought back to his similar comments about eventual Cup-winner Dustin Byfuglien. It seems Bieksa is quite the star-maker.
Now anyone who watched that series without a bias is well aware that Furland was charging like a maniac and the officiating allowed him to do it. But that’s the playoffs and teams must persevere through any rough situation. Bieksa is no longer able to do so and many fans of the team immediately called for his trade. They got their wish and a few months later he was traded to San Jose, a city quite familiar with folding under playoff pressure.
2 Vincent Lecavalier
After years of excellent production in Tampa, Lecavalier dropped off big time in his first year with Philadelphia, and performed even worse the following year.
It’s obviously a poor fit, but issues with foot speed are also equally to blame. He’s found a regular spot on the fourth line on a struggling team and a trade has been sought out. Finding a suitor might be difficult. The league is trending towards speed, youth, and affordability. Lecavalier possesses none of those qualities and his 20 points last season aren’t making it any easier.
1 Mike Richards
It’s insane to think Mike Richards just turned 30 this year.
Philadelphia shocked the league when they traded their two franchise leaders Richards and Carter, especially after locking them into long-term contracts. The immediate Stanley Cup wins for the pair must have stung Flyers fans but Philadelphia has come out the obvious winner for the long-term.
Richards fell quite low on the Kings depth chart when they won their championships, but was still thought of as a useful (albeit expensive) two-way center. The last few seasons however have been ugly. The inability to find a trading partner, his demotion to the AHL and run-ins with the law have left a giant black mark on what was once a promising career.