National Hockey League forwards reach their peak scoring performance at age 28 and defencemen peak at age 29, while goaltenders show little change in performance based on age, says a new study that crunched the numbers.
Those are the key findings of a study by the UBC business school that looked at the data from the 14 regular seasons between 1997-98 and 2011-12.
For co-author James Brander, the bottom line of their study is that "the key to winning is having good, young players."
"This study provides a more complete and more accurate assessment of how that works," he added.
The study will be published in the June issue of the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports. Brander's co-authors are Edward Egan and Louisa Yeung. They analyzed peak performance in a number of ways, but the statistics they relied on were regular season points scored and plus-minus for skaters and save percentage for goalies.
Brander's team also found that forwards:
- Improve more quickly than they decline and typically begin "a significant decline in their early 30s."
- Perform within 90 per cent of their peak from 24 to 32 years old.
- 25 is their most common age, with 24-27 very similar.
Defencemen, the co-authors report:
- Improve and decline more slowly than forwards and do so very symmetrically.
- Perform within 90 per cent of their peak from 24 to 34 years old (two years longer than forwards).
- 26 is their most common age, with 25 and 27 very similar.
For goalies, they found that:
- Performance varies little by age.
- At every age between 20 and 37, their save percentage is between 90 per cent and a tiny fraction over 91 per cent.
- 28 is their most common age, with 26-29 very similar.
For former hockey superstar Adam Oates, who just wrapped up two seasons as the Washington Capitals coach, "Statistics are important, no question," but he adds, "Right now, everybody is way too involved with analytics."
When it comes to coaching and managing, Oates says, there are many intangibles to take into consideration in addition to player stats. There's the particular style a team plays, leadership on and off the ice, the ability to stay on the same wavelength as one's teammates, the capacity to stay healthy, and so on.
For Oates, at the end of the day, you want a combination of everything and "you want a combination of youth and veterans."
Elite NHLers improve faster, peak longer
Brander's study also looked at the NHL's elite players, which would include Oates.
Oates joined the NHL at age 23 and stayed for 19 seasons, playing for six teams. When he retired as a player, his assists total was the fifth highest in NHL history. A centre, his highest points per game seasons were when he was 28 and 30 years old. Oates played until he was 41.
Brander's study found that elite forwards are at their peak performance for scoring from age 27 to 29.
"Elite players improve faster initially, continue to improve for slightly longer and experience slower age-related decline," according to Brander. "They do not experience a major drop-off in performance until their late 30s."
Elite defencemen hit their scoring peak from 29 to 33.
Plus-minus a key metric for forwards
For forwards especially, another key metric that Brander analyzed was players' plus-minus number. In the NHL, plus-minus for a player compares the number of goals scored by his team when he's on the ice versus the goals scored by his opponents.
NHL forwards are at peak performance for this metric from age 23 to 25 and 23 to 30 for elite forwards. As the graph below shows, on average, forwards have a negative plus-minus until they are 22, positive from 23 to 29 and then it turns negative again in their 30s.
Brander also notes that "forwards who do not develop into consistent scorers by age 23 or 24 in most cases never will."
Why players peak when they do
What Brander and his team found for hockey corresponds to research on how physiology and intelligence relate to developing basic sports skills. "Skills related to reaction time and to speed and explosive power of muscle movement peak in the early to mid-20s," but "endurance and skill at complex physical tasks peak later — in the late 20s or early 30s."
Those skills are all critical for hockey. Oates excelled at playmaking, which requires "a high level of physical co-ordination and an understanding of patterns as they develop in the game," according to Brander.
Brander says that may also be why defencemen peak slightly later than forwards, because they "rely more on pattern recognition and anticipation — which improve with experience — to play a good positional game and to make good passes."
Experience and wear and tear are also critical for NHL players. "As players become more experienced their positional play improves and their ability to anticipate improves, implying improvement with age. But wear and tear works in the opposite direction," Brander writes.
Oates notes that today, "It's a lot easier for an older guy to train than it used to be, to maintain conditioning."
He told CBC News that during his later seasons he thought it was great to play on the same team as a bunch of 20-somethings. "It kept me feeling younger, it really did."
The performance of older elite players depends on their status and what they want to accomplish. As an example, Oates pointed to 43-year-old Teemu Selanne, another NHL superstar, now with the Anaheim Ducks.
Interviewed before the Ducks were eliminated from the playoffs on Friday night, Oates said "Selanne is obviously looking for something different, and he's in a way different place in his life than he was, say, five years ago, because he kind of knows this is it and he's enjoying it, whereas five years ago he might have been thinking about money and playing longer, he might have been thinking about [how much ice time he gets]."
What about the playoffs?
Brander's study looked at regular season stats, but the NHL playoffs are into the semi-finals. He plans to look at playoff numbers in a future study, but says they were left out of this one because the playoffs are different from the regular season. He expects "experience matters more in the playoffs in almost all sports" and a new study will test that hypothesis.
The playoffs have what some statisticians call the hot goaltender effect. Oates says in the playoffs a team should expect to face a hot goaltender in two out of the four series, if it goes all the way to the finals.
Brander told CBC News that "the playoffs are hard to predict based on systematic factors like age," but "if you look at the age profile and take account of both age and experience, just on paper a team like Chicago looks good."
The UBC professor did add that, as a Canadian, he's rooting for Montreal.
Oates said that other things matter more in the playoffs. For example, "You want to always, somehow, have a spark to your team." For the New York Rangers that spark was how the team rallied around veteran Martin St. Louis, whose mother died during the series against Pittsburgh.
The Rangers came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the favourite Penguins and then won game one against Montreal in the semi-finals, in which St. Louis scored the first goal