The History of 50-Goal Scorers After Age 26

Before you read this post, I want you to play the following thought experiment.

We’ve all heard the various hypothetical/rumored long-term deals bandied about for Ilya Kovalchuk, everything from a (now considered shortish) seven years to an unimaginable 15 years. It’s generally assumed that any deal cap-friendly enough for the Kings (or Devils) would have to be in the 10 year (plus) range, front-loaded, to bring the cap hit down. Which means it’s likely that whoever signs Kovalchuk will be getting him for 10 years or more. Which is — um — a long time.

Here’s the thought experiment: You sign IK for 10 years at a $7MM cap hit. How many 50 goal, 40 goal and 30 goal seasons do you need to get out of him to make the deal worth it? Assume he’s going to play all ten years. How many times does he have to hit each milestone? Take your time. Get the number in your head and hold it there and don’t change it. Ready?

Okay. Now, here are some charts. Actually, it’s one chart, rendered in two different formats. The first is a series of screen captures (which you have to click on to get the high-res version), because I wanted you to see the color graphics which I couldn’t embed in the second chart. The second chart is the same data as the first chart(s), but it’s sortable.

What’s in the charts?

The charts show every player in the history of the NHL to have scored 50 goals in a season at least once. It shows the player’s output (goals only) for each season of his career, each season indicated by the age of the player in that season. So you can, for example, look down the first column to see who scored how many goals at age 18, etc.. The second row calculates the average number of goals for all the players in this group who were active at that particular age (e.g. at age 25, the average output — for this elite group of once-or-future 50 goal scorers — is 37 goals). The color charts use the following exciting color code:

red = 50+

orange = 40-49

yellow = 30-39

pale yellow with gray font = 20-29

gray with dark gray font = 10-19

white with gray font = 0-9

black = retired

pale green = lockout year

The black vertical line divides the chart between ages 26 and 27, because Kovalchuk is 27 and what we’re interested in is, how well players of his caliber (defined broadly to include everyone who has ever scored 50 goals in a season) do after this age.

The red horizontal line is my subjective line in the sand, above which the careers post-age-26 are acceptable for a long term $7MM deal, below which, less than acceptable. Your results may vary. [2011 UPDATE: I omitted this line; it was previously in the neighborhood of Bobby Hull and Teemu Selanne.]

The first thing I invite you to do is to shrink down your page as much as possible, so you can see all the color charts on one screen. Don’t worry about reading the data. Just look at the pattern of the colors, in relation to the vertical black line and the horizontal red one. Those of us feeling especially optimistic about signing IK at $10MM cap hit for 10 years, or whatever, ought to be somewhat alarmed to see that there really isn’t that much red or orange to the right of the black line.

[remember to click on the colored charts to get the hi-res versions]




Let me make some other observations:

  • Look at the numbers for the Great One and Super Mario. If you knew how they were going to perform from age 27 on, what kind of contract would you offer them? Neither one of them had careers to speak of after five years (age 32). Look at the other names in their neighborhood. Messier, The Rocket, Bossy. You wouldn’t want to be paying $10MM a year (or even $7MM a year) for the careers of any of these guys after the age of 32.
  • Who has the best numbers from age 32 on? The sortable list is best for this. Or you can use the color charts and look for clumps of red and/or orange on the right side of the chart.
  • But there aren’t any. The best you can hope for is (Esposito, Mullen, Gartner, Bucyk, Selanne) a bunch of 30 goal seasons with a 40 goal season thrown in once or twice.
  • Before I ran these numbers, my vague notion was that the super big money for Kovy would be worth it if we got a couple of 50 goal seasons and maybe four or five 40 goal seasons out of him. And I thought I was being reasonable. How many players in the history of the league have been able to pull this off?
  • Esposito (five 50 goal seasons and two 40 goal seasons). Dionne (five 50 goal seaons and one 40 goal season). Bobby Hull (four 50 goal seasons and two 40 goal seasons). That’s it. Three guys. Nobody in the last thirty years. But three of the biggest scorers in the history of the sport. They did it.
  • Gartner had a pretty good run of six 40 goal seasons. Mullen, too (one 50 and five 40s). Shanahan had four 40s and one of them was at age 37.
  • Bucyk scored 50 (for the first time!) at age 35. He’s the oldest to do it. Shanahan and Bucyk both scored 40 at age 37. Selanne is the oldest player to have back-to-back 40 goal seasons (at age 35-36). Esposito had back to back 60 goal seasons at 31-32.
  • Just as an aside, look at Mike Bossy’s numbers. Holy ****!
  • It occurred to me to look up how many players have tallied two 50 and four 40 goal seasons (or better) by age 27, as Kovalchuk has. Here they are:
  • Gretzky, Lemieux, Bossy, Robitaille, Yzerman, Bure, Kurri, Lafleur, Goulet, Ovechkin. There are two extremely pessimistic conclusions to draw from this comparison. (1) Six of these ten are the most spectacularly elite Hall of Fame players in NHL history; (2) none of them put up numbers to speak of after age 32. Ovechkin obviously hasn’t had his chance yet. Three of these guys (at least) were limited by injuries (which is of course part of the problem; people get old). Lemieux, Robitaille and especially Yzerman became on-ice leaders with immeasurable value outside of goal-scoring. Maybe Kovalchuk is one of those guys. A hall-of-famer and a true leader. He hasn’t demonstrated that yet. But neither did Yzerman, really.
  • With the sortable chart, it’s fun to play with the columns to see which of these guys did the best (and worst at each age). Play around with it.
[2012 UPDATE: the sortable chart has its own page now.]

I’m not arguing against signing Kovalchuk. I like Kovalchuk.

But when people decry the lack of “balls” of Kings management, and wonder why they don’t just “man up” and sign the guy at $100MM/10 years, this is why. He won’t be worth it in ten years. Or even five. But he will be more than worth it at the right price, with a contract that is not only affordable, but is a valuable tradable asset five years from now. Instead of an albatross.