If I told you that the average age for forwards at the NHL-level has stayed relatively flat for the last dozen or so years, would you believe me?
I don’t know if I would necessarily believe myself. But it’s the truth. In the last twelve years, the average age for a forward has pretty much held at a shade over 27-years-old, with minor annual fluctuations.
The reason why it’s hard to believe? Anecdotally speaking, it’s impossible to not notice how many young forwards are critically impacting the sport. The league’s teeming with brilliant scorers who seem more prepared for the speed and physicality of NHL-level competition. And, the scorers are truly scattered around the league – no matter what match-up you tune into on a nightly basis, there are likely going to be a couple of kids filling up the stat sheet.
There’s an interesting contrast of sorts here, though. While player development may be at an all-time high (and still improving!), so is modern medicine. Advances here have really allowed for skilled veteran players to log more impactful minutes over their career, extending prime playing years and perhaps mitigating some of the disastrous aging effects that used to take a toll on older talent.
But, that balance just doesn’t seem to exist. My anecdote from above holds water – younger scorers are making real headway in league scoring races, and older scorers continue to diminish in quantity.
Let’s just look at our top-fifty scorers at even-strength since the 2002-2003 season. I’ve binned it by two groups (18-27, 28+). The change is pretty incredible.
That’s a pretty radical change in a relatively short timeframe. In five of the last six seasons, about 60% of our quality even-strength scorers sit under the age of 28. The reverse of that was true both before and after the 2004-2005 lockout.
And this isn’t data manipulation. We can basically change our criteria in any direction and show a similar relationship. Let’s pull out the historical prime years and see if our graph shows a similar upwards trend.
So, pretty much the same story here. Even our really young scorers are having a bigger scoring impact relative to what we were accustomed to just a decade ago.
All this does is quantify (and reiterate) what many of us have already observed – that younger forwards are making real strides in the scoring department. What it does not answer, specifically, is why this trend has materialized.
I think part of the answer clearly is tied into player development. The kids entering the league now are more ready than ever before, pinned against credible competition and logging hour after hour in the weight room. Of course, cultivation of hockey skills are game intelligence are vital here too – without those, you’re a player toiling in the AHL at this age, just hoping things break your way.
I think there’s a collective bargaining agreement element to this too. There’s more incentive than ever before to thrust young players on cheap first or second contracts into bigger roles. It paves the road for opportunity to produce, largely at the expense of veteran players who carry relatively burdensome contracts. It’s probably why we also have observed a marginal age drop, though again, there’s not a whole lot to dissect there.
Beyond the above thoughts, I’m curious to hear what you think about this trend. Why is there such a pronounced change in scoring impact for young players? And, is it a tendency we are going to continue observing, or will these numbers correct after a few more seasons?