When is an NHL player's prime age?

He’s our captain. And he’s still just 27 with his best hockey years ahead of him.

-Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher on Mikko Koivu

Update: Correction of Fletcher's name (not his dad Cliff, sorry Chuck!) and bolding of Iginla's best single season.

Are Mikko Koivu's best years really ahead of him? Conventional wisdom pegs it at ages 27 to 32, so going by those standards, Fletcher's right and Koivu should get even better over the next five years. However, at the start of the 09-10 season, Brian Costello of The Hockey News looked at Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin and figured the dynamic duo were in their prime right now. His evidence? Costello looked at the best years of Wayne Gretzky (21), Mario Lemieux (22), and Bobby Orr (23); he points to 27 as the breaking point when players begin to lose their statistical wizardry.

So which is it? Do players get better at 27 or is it all downhill from there? In terms of general performance, an athletic male hits muscle mass peaks in his 30s, thought that varies based on diet, genetics, workout plan, and type of sport. For example, tennis players tend to peak around 24 while baseball players around 28. Basketball and soccer players are considered in the similar range as the 27-32 span we generally use for hockey players.

If you put all this info together, much of the commonly accepted wisdom about peak performance seems to stem from A) physical strength peaking from mid-20s to early 30s and B) mental maturity from the mid-20s onward leading to more focused and successful athlete.

I've decided to put this to the test by looking at 11 NHL star players. I've tabbed their best five seasons (in some cases, the "best" meant points-per-game due to fewer games from injury; I'm not looking at overall point totals but rather performance when they were actually able to go), along with their age. Do they support conventional wisdom or does Brian Costello's theory hold true? Join me after the jump for a look.

Some disclaimers here:

-I've picked players that started playing around the trap era so they wouldn't have elevated stats from the run-n-gun form of the 1980s/early 1990s. I've tried to pick players that have had pretty full career spans, so everyone here is at least 33 and some guys are retired. The key here is that they were all in their prime during the same era.

-In some cases, things like linemates can create an unexpeted spike. Who would have thought that a guy would have his best statistical season at the age of 33? Yet, Daniel Alfredsson did that, and a big part of that was the chemistry between him, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley.

-Most star players got a boost following the lockout thanks to the up-tempo style of play. But since these players are all around the same age and same era, I figured it wouldn't create too much a discrepancy.

-I'm going by birth year. I didn't calculate month into it because then it becomes a debate of age at the start of the season vs. end of the season. Every player goes by birth year for simplicity and consistency.

-I've bolded a player's best statistical year. More on this later.

Paul Kariya (Born in 1974)
95-96 (Age 21): 108
96-97 (22): 99
97-98 (23): 31 (only played 22 games)
98-99 (24): 101
99-00 (25): 86

Patrik Elias (1976)
99-00 (23): 72
00-01 (24): 96
03-04 (27): 81
05-06 (29): 45 (only played 38 games)
08-09 (32): 78

Pavol Demitra (1974)
98-99 (24): 89
99-00 (25): 75 (only played 71 games)
00-01 (26): 45 (only played 44 games)
02-03 (28): 93
05-06 (31): 62 (only played 58 games)

Jarome Iginla (1977)
01-02 (24): 96
03-04 (26): 73
06-07 (29): 94
07-08 (30): 98
08-09 (31): 89

Markus Naslund (1973)
00-01 (27): 75
01-02 (28): 90
02-03 (29): 104
03-04 (30): 84
05-06 (31): 79

Ray Whitney (1972)
97-98 (25): 61 (only played 68 games)
99-00 (27): 71
02-03 (30): 76
06-07 (34): 83
08-09 (36): 77

Ziggy Palffy (1972)
96-97 (24): 90
97-98 (25): 87
00-01 (28): 89
02-03 (30): 85
03-04 (31): 41 (only played 35 games)

Alex Kovalev (1973)
00-01 (27): 95
01-02 (28): 76 (only played 67 games)
02-03 (29): 64 (only played 54 games)
05-06 (32): 65 (only played 69 games)
06-07 (33): 84

Milan Hejduk (1976)
99-00 (23): 72
00-01 (24): 79
02-03 (26): 98
03-04 (27): 75
06-07 (30): 70

Doug Weight (1971)
95-96 (24): 104
96-97 (25): 82
99-00 (27): 72
00-01 (29): 90
04-05 (33): 44 (only played 47 games)

Daniel Alfredsson (1972)
99-00 (26): 59 (only played 57 games)
00-01 (27): 70 (only played 68 games)
05-06 (33): 103
06-07 (34): 87
07-08 (35): 89

Just from glancing at this, you can see that Kariya peaked early while Alfreddson and Whitney were more late bloomers -- and I'm pretty sure Alfredsson wouldn't have hit those numbers if he didn't have lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry with Spezza and Heatley. Most everyone roughly follows the mid-20s to early-30s window. Here is the data in table and graph form.

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36
Kariya 1 1 1 1 1
Elias 1 1 1 1 1
Demitra 1 1 1 1 1
Iginla 1 1 1 1 1
Naslund 1 1 1 1 1
Whitney 1 1 1 1 1
Palffy 1 1 1 1 1
Kovalev 1 1 1 1 1
Hejduk 1 1 1 1 1
Weight 1 1 1 1 1
Alfredsson 1 1 1 1 1

 

Nhl_prime_age_medium

Since you've only got 11 players here, you're not going to get a smooth bell curve. However, even at this small sample size, we can see that peak performance does seem to roughly follow the general notion of 27 - 32. Perhaps the only real difference is that you could really expand that range to 24 - 32. This list only looks at star players; a good follow-up would be to look at second-tier players who aren't known for good seasons year-in, year-out.

Does that dispel Costello's notion that we've already seen the best of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby? Yes and no. Here's another thing to consider: age of their best season.

Kariya: 21
Elias: 24
Demitra: 28
Iginla: 30
Naslund: 29
Whitney: 34
Palffy: 24
Kovalev: 27
Hejduk: 24
Weight: 24
Alfredsson: 33

Even with Kariya, Alfredsson, and Whitney recognized as outliers, you've got the bulk of these players hitting their best mark at age 24. But if you look at the above data, it's not like they're flash-in-the-pans; these guys continued to put up their best career numbers, usually over a span until their early 30s.

This small sample size tells us that star players tend to explode as the enter their mid-20s, then they have sustained excellence until their early 30s -- but they generally won't exceed that established high mark. Why do they hit their peak statistical year so young? That actually might not have as much to do with maturity or physical strength. Instead, a breakout season usually occurs when a player elevates from being a second-liner to All-Star caliber. During seasons like that, it takes time for the opposition to catch on and try to figure out how to shut down a player. In the following seasons, these players have had their videos deconstructed so many times that there's no element of surprise anymore. In addition, the cumulative damage of NHL seasons usually starts to present some nagging injuries.

Which brings us back to the discussion of Ovechkin and Crosby. Have we seen the very best of them yet? Based on this data, I would say no -- but it will happen sooner rather than later. The goal, then, is to sustain a level similar to that like Joe Sakic, who managed to eclipse a point-per-game five times after turning 30.

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