By Stan Smith & The Old Prof
Hockey is a strange sport to play. When players enter the NHL, they usually are young with lots of energy, and in great physical shape. As they gain more experience, their play improves because they learn how to engage their increasing skills with their increasing experience.
Both skills and experience work together to help NHL players improve. Players also learn from making mistakes how not to keep making those same mistakes. Eventually, hockey players reach what is called “their prime.”
But there also comes a time when a hockey player’s skills begin to erode.
There Is for Hockey Players a Time When Their Abilities Diminish
All hockey fans know what it means for a player to be past his prime. Make no mistake, it does happen. Even a great NHL hockey player’s skills and abilities begin to decline due to age or injury, and he’s no longer able to perform at the same level as he did during his peak years.
Being past one’s prime can manifest itself in many ways. A player loses his skating speed, his endurance, or his physical strength. His skills, such as shooting accuracy, decrease. He loses the ability to make his body do what his head knows he should be able to do.
This Post Started With a Question About Ryan O’Reilly
In this post, we are taking the question of a hockey player being past his prime seriously. To be honest, the question began with a post we read about Toronto Maple Leafs’ newcomer Ryan O’Reilly.
The writer noted that the Maple Leafs had erred in believing that the O’Reilly they had traded for was the same player that he had been when he helped lead the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup in 2019 and had won the Conn Smythe Award as the postseason’s best player.
The writer went on to imply that O’Reilly was past his prime. That is a crucial question to ask and poses a criticism that must be considered. However, in this post, Stan and I work together to ask that same question about Auston Matthews. First, we want to look at some of the research on scorers in the NHL.
Research Reveals that NHL Scoring Is a Young Man’s Skill
What we know about an NHL player’s scoring prime is that it tends to peak in a player’s mid-20s. After that, offensive performance begins to decline by about age 29 and then accelerates further into a player’s mid-30s. That decline is seen more in even-strength scoring because getting shots off depends upon speed in both shooting performance (being quick enough to get a shot off) and skating (being able to skate quickly enough to get to the place where you can get a good shot off).
Declining play is a natural part of the aging process for most NHL players, and only a few can maintain their scoring prowess well into their 30s and, especially, beyond. This decline might be due to factors such as declining physical abilities, increased injury risk, or changes in playing style or team dynamics.
The Analytics Community Believes 23 Years of Age Is Peak for NHL Players
Some people in the analytics community claim that 23 is the peak age for NHL players. But, we disagree. Either their data is flawed or, for the most part, they are younger and have a biased towards younger players and that bias influences their interpretation of the data.
Research bias does happen. Then again, we have to point the finger back at ourselves as well. Of course, it’s possible we think they are wrong because we are both older (about 145 years combined) and might be rooting for older players.
We can agree that a player’s raw physical development might peak by the time they are 23. We say “raw” in the sense that their height, weight, and possibly their speed will be reached by that age and possibly even younger. However, we believe their strength, their mental development their ability to learn, and just as importantly their muscle memory continue to develop well beyond that age.
Now About Auston Matthews: Is He Moving Past His Prime?
Let’s consider the specific case of Auston Matthews. He was born on September 17, 1997. That makes him almost 25 and a half years of age. He scored 60 goals last season. Many hockey writers predicted that he might even score 70 goals this season. But he hasn’t.
Because he had gotten better at scoring goals each season in the NHL, we had no way of knowing if that was the most goals he could and would score in his career. Would he reach 65 this season? We had no way of knowing.
This season he’s on pace to score 40. Part of that is because he’s missed seven games due to injury. Did he miss those seven games because he couldn’t play? Or, was it because the Maple Leafs didn’t feel the need to have him play if he wasn’t 100%? (Note: He missed nine games last season and still scored 60 goals.)
Injuries aside, is his goal-scoring down by 33% because he peaked last season? Anyone who didn’t watch him play day-to-day or didn’t hear what he is saying in interviews might think he’s reached his peak and is already on the downside of his abilities.
We Believe Matthews Has Changed His Game
Those of us who watch him and listen to him realize that he wants to win a Stanley Cup. With that goal in mind, he’s working on becoming a better defensive player.
If we look at an old-school stat that is an indicator of defensive play we can see he has already set a career-high for blocked shots with 66 in 50 games. His previous high was 62 in 73 games last season. He needs five more hits to surpass the 67 he had last season.
Our analysis is that Matthews has not reached his prime yet. He’s just morphed his game.
We Know Matthews Will Pass His Prime, but We Don’t Know When
One day, Matthews will eventually pass his prime. He will no longer be the player he once was. When that happens, we don’t know. But it isn’t this season.
As with any physical activity, a player’s age and experience can impact their performance on the ice. As players age, they begin to lose some of their physical abilities, such as speed or agility. That erosion will affect their overall performance.
Many players compensate for these changes by relying on their experience and knowledge of the game, as well as their ability to read and anticipate the play. Some players maintain their skills and performance well into their 30s or even 40s, while others may see a decline earlier in their careers.
Gordie Howe Played Until He Was 52
In 1980, at the age of 52, Gordie Howe retired from hockey for good. Jaromir Jagr has played 22 games this season with the Kladno Knights in the Czech Republic. He has scored four goals and added eight assists. He’s 51 years of age.
We don’t think Matthews will play that long, but we don’t think he’s yet reached his peak.