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Shot-volume, power play points, and aging in the NHL

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Do some players simply age better than others or are there certain traits that should be looked for in players if a team wants to know if a player will remain effective for a long time.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Some players seem to fall off of a cliff once they reach the age of 30. While possession remains an important part of the game, is shooting percentage influenced by age and how does power play time affect scoring? For teams to get good value out of players 30 and older, they need to be able to learn how to maximize the players assets without it being a detriment to a younger, better player. Are their certain types of veterans that should be targeted? Do certain types of players decline in a more linear fashion making it easier for slowly move them down in the line-up? If teams can better maximize a players value as they age, they can have succession plans for those players as they age.

Player PPG Before 30 PPG After 30 Difference Shooting % Before 30 Shooting % After 30 Difference
Thomas Vanek 1.36 0.76 -0.60 15.34% 11.18% -4.16%
Brenden Morrow 0.65 0.43 -0.22 13.86% 16.88% +3.02%
Daniel Briere 0.78 0.65 -0.13 16.91% 14.77% -2.14%
Vincent Lecavalier 0.85 0.76 -0.11 12.19% 11.78% -0.41%
Dany Heatley 1.06 0.75 -0.31 15.63% 9.24% -6.39%
Brad Richards 1.03 0.72 -0.31 8.88% 6.98% -1.9%
Erik Cole 0.67 0.53 -0.14 12.34% 13.1% +0.76%
Radim Vrbata 0.56 0.85 +0.29 8.89% 11.4% +2.51%
Marian Hossa 1.05 0.93 -0.12 13.02% 12.14% -1.06%
Michael Ryder 0.64 0.46 -0.18 12.52% 11.68% -0.84%

When looking at players before and after they turn 30, there is a noticeable decline in most players scoring rates. This could be for multiple reasons, but power play time may be the main culprit. What is more interesting is the fall-off in points per game (PPG) for players who are generally considered low-volume shooters. If players who already have a harder time generating shots are no longer getting power play time, they will struggle even more to get shots on goal. This will adversely effect their shooting percentage and their scoring.

There are some interesting outliers in this group though. Radim Vrbata is the most interesting one because his path to the NHL was not smooth at all. He made the NHL quickly enough, but jumped around the league, unable to establish himself. He left the Tampa Bay Lightning (either bought out or was loaned out) to go to the Czech Republic where he did not put up very good numbers, but when he came back to the NHL he was a player who all of a sudden could score just under a PPG pace. There are not many players like Vrbata in the NHL.

There are players like Hossa whose boxcars have gone down, but who have remained constant key pieces on teams because he plays in a defensive role and is a shot producer wherever he goes. Players like Hossa look to stay useful longer because they do the things that lead a team to a 109 PDO.

Using this knowledge of scoring in general and combining it with the already accepted that players hit their peak around the age of 25, it is important to look to see if there is anything significant about the age of 30 that leads to players seemingly falling off of the proverbial cliff. There could be another factor that teams can look at beyond shot volume to tell them if a player is going to continue to be a useful NHLer as their scoring falls off.

Power Play Scoring

Is there some tangible reason other than a player not being a volume shooter that there seems to be a pattern of points declining for players once they turn 30? One thought is that power play time declines, leading to a decline in power play points. To see if this was an influence on players point totals, I added all their power play points together for the seasons before 30 and divided by the number of games played. I repeated this for power play points per game after the age of 30.

Player Power play points per game <30 Power play points per game >30
Thomas Vanek 0.24 0.22
Brendan Morrow 0.17 0.13
Daniel Briere 0.21 0.22
Vincent Lecavalier 0.29 0.22
Dany Heatley 0.55 0.24
Brad Richards 0.41 0.35
Erik Cole 0.18 0.12
Radim Vrbata 0.18 0.30
Marian Hossa 0.35 0.23
Michael Ryder 0.27 0.15

As you can see, the numbers are fairly even for players after they turn 30. There is some fall-off, but not as much as one would assume. For a player like Hossa or Ryder, the decline might be indicative of being moved off of the first unit and onto the second unit. For other players like Daniel Briere or Thomas Vanek, there is no real change and nothing really to see.

The odd player is Radin Vrbata again. Much like his journey to becoming an established NHL player, his journey to being an offence-producing player seems tied to his later career. It can probably be assumed that he did the opposite of what most players have done and did not get first unit power play time until he was nearing 30 and playing for the Arizona Coyotes. He seems to have continued to receive those minutes with the Vancouver Canucks, which has led to him improving the clip that he produces at.

Conclusion

This is still mostly speculation on my part. It seems like if you want to sign a player long-term around the age of 30, the type of player that should be targeted as a free-agent are the point-producing, shot-producing forwards who have defensive awareness as they tend to age better and stay NHL calibre for longer than forwards who do not hold these skills. If teams target forwards like Vanek or Briere for long-term contracts, they will probably end up disappointed because players who are one dimensional and rely on shooting percentage to score goals. There will always be an outlier in a group, but for the most part if a player is over 30 and not a volume shooter, they are probably causing a team some headaches because they are hard to slot into the line-up in a place where they and the team will be successful.

Hockey is shifting to younger players. At first it seemed to be because of the salary cap and entry-level contracts being cheaper, but now it is probably tied to the speed at which hockey is played at suits younger, faster players more. There is still some value in having older players in the NHL, but the best older players are the ones who age in a way that allows for them to play in a defensive role or simply not be counted on for points until they are out of the NHL. Looking at possession stats plus points is probably a good indicator of what players will have longevity in the league.

All stats calculated from NHL.com and Hockey-Reference.com.