MONTREAL- The Habs’ veteran blueliners were key parts of the team’s Conference Final run. Here is one explanation for their unusual longevity.
At even strength, the average NHL defenseman hits his peak in icetime and offensive production between the ages of 24 and 27. By age 30, a large proportion of lower-pairing defensemen would have already left the League due to injuries or decrease in performance. It seems that now, more than ever, hockey is a young man’s game.
With 35 year-old Andrei Markov and 36 year-old Mike Weaver suiting up for every single one of Montreal’s 17 playoff games in 2014 and 38 year-old Francis Bouillon taking part in nine matchups, the Habs’ blueline corps was the oldest one taking part in postseason play by some margin. Yet, Markov managed to carry his sterling regular-season form into the playoffs, Weaver was a rock on the penalty kill, and Bouillon’s versatility served the Habs well in a depth role. Poise, effort and experience might have helped their play, but perhaps some of it was plain old physics.
“Shorter players may perform better for a longer period of time due to experiencing less strain on impact and less wear and tear on their joints,” noted Philippe Renaud, a biomechanics researcher at McGill’s Ice Hockey Research Group. Renaud added that the laws of physics suggest the shoulders, hips, knees and ankles of a player such as Francis Bouillon, who is 5’8”, receive much less torsional amplitudes as those of a player standing at 6’6”. Not only do taller players put more stress on their bodies while pivoting and braking, but the longer length of their limbs also puts them at greater risk for a catastrophic injury while making an open-ice check or taking a hit along the boards.
In that light, it may not be too surprising to see that Markov (6’0”), Weaver (5’10”) and Bouillon have all been remarkably durable in recent years. Last season, Bouillon suited up for all 48 games as a 37 year-old. This season, Markov led all over-35 defensemen in this ice time while notching 43 points, his best offensive haul in five years. Contrast their performance with that of contemporaries Willie Mitchell and Ed Jovanovski, two veteran defensemen who stand at six-foot-three and tip the scale at close to 220 pound. Though their size and strength have made them forces to be reckoned with in seasons past, both have spent significant time on the sidelines since turning 30 due to career-threatening lower-body injuries. Mitchell sat out the entire 2012-13 season to recover from knee surgery, while Jovanovski, a former All-Star, now plays a depth role with the Florida Panthers after a hip ailment wiped out most of his last two NHL campaigns.
Over 80 young defensemen, aged 18 to 24, played at least 500 minutes in the NHL this season. Conversely, only 22 35-and-over blueliners took regular shifts in the league in 2013-14. Looking at the relationship between player age and height, it seems that Father Time is especially cruel to those 6’2” or taller.
“I’ve never thought about whether height has anything to do with getting hurt more often or not, to be honest,” offered Mike Weaver, who was on the receiving end of 49 hits in the 2014 playoffs but came out no worse for wear. “But when I played in Atlanta, my defense partner [Andy Sutton] was six-foot-six, and he had a lot of injury problems.”
Tellingly, Sutton never once completed a full 82-game schedule, while Weaver played consecutive 82-game seasons after the age of 32, a time when many of his former teammates were filing retirement papers.
By looking at the attributes of NHL defensemen playing at least 500 minutes in the 2013-14 regular season, we can see that height could very well influence how well a player holds up over time. The average NHL blueliner between 18 and 29 years of age stands at 6’2”. That average drops about an inch for every five additional years. At exactly six foot tall, 35 year-old Andrei Markov possesses a typical height for his age group, while other elder statesmen such as Mark Streit, Kimmo Timonen, Dan Boyle and Marek Zidlicky are shorter still. However, more investigative work is needed to determine how much a player’s body composition can really influence his career length.
“Height is only one of the factors involved. Things such as muscle mass and bone density could also have an influence on a players durability,” cautioned Renaud, whose lab frequently assists manufacturers in testing and developing protective equipment to minimize player injury.
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.