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Weekly Warmup: May 5

Hockey analytics experts use an "aging curve" to evaluate a player's projected NHL career value, but a healthy number of older players defy the statistics

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

While the data maestros of hockey analytics pursue the perfect aging curve to determine when an NHL player reaches peak performance before declining, there are any number of league veterans clearly defying the advanced metrics.

For a special Cinco de Mayo (hey, the columns starts with "Five-on-Five") the first Weekly Warmup of May, here's a look at the oldest active NHL players and more.

 

FIVE-ON-FIVE

Enduring Elder
Boston Zdeno Chara stands tall as the NHL's oldest player at 43, playing 68 games so far in his 22nd NHL season. And we do mean "tall" literally and figuratively-the 6-foot-9 Chara is the league's longest tenured captain, first earning the "C" and its requisite leadership duties for the Bruins in the 2006-07 season. Drafted in the third round of the 1996 NHL Draft, Chara helped Boston win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and get back to Final last season during which he played with a broken jaw wired up. Among his five goals this season, two were game-winners for one of the league's top teams. His career average for ice-time per game is roughly 24 minutes and he logged an average of 21 minutes this season. "It's hard to believe I'm now the oldest active player in the NHL," Chara posted on Instagram last summer. "It's been a long time since my rookie season but this game always keeps me young. Having the opportunity to play in the League all these years with and against the best players in the world has taught me time and time again that it's a humbling game and age is just a number."

Moving Forward
Chara inherited the oldest-player honor when Pittsburgh center Matt Cullen, 136 days older than Chara, retired after the 2018-19 season. Two long-time forwards and teammates, San Jose's Joe Thornton and Pittsburgh's Patrick Marleau are next in the age longevity line. Thornton turns 41 in July while his long-time Sharks teammate Marleau (back in San Jose after two seasons in Toronto, then traded to Pittsburgh mid-season) celebrates 41 in September. 

Net Years
In 2010, Team Canada won a thrilling 3-2 overtime game vs. Team USA in the Winter Olympic men's gold-medal game. Roberto Luongo manned the nets for Canada while Ryan Miller played goal for the Americans in all six games of the Americans, winning honors as MVP despite the loss. When Luongo retired at 40 years old last June after 19 seasons, Miller became the NHL's oldest active goaltender, suiting up at 39 for the Anaheim Ducks this season and turning 40 in July.

The Over-40 Club: Goalies
When Luongo retired last summer, he joined a rare club of goalies who stood between NHL goalpipes as a 40-plus-year-old. He is actually the youngest of 21 goalies to make an appearance after turning 40. But he's not the most recent. That honor goes to David Ayres, a Zamboni driver and emergency goalie in Toronto who famously substituted into a game with Carolina earlier this season, earning a win against his hometown Maple Leafs. There are all sorts of Hall of Fame names on the Over-40 goalies list, including Johnny Bower (age 45), Gump Worsley (44), Jacques Plante (44), Dominik Hasek (43), Martin Brodeur (42), Ed Belfour (41), Tony Esposito (40) and Terry Sawchuk (40).  

The Over-40 Club: Skaters
Among forwards and defensemen, all-time great Gordie Howe played his last NHL game at 52 years old. He played 80 games for the Hartford Whalers during the 1979-80 season, finishing with 15 goals and 26 assists. He played 26 seasons in the NHL before jumping to the World Hockey Association for another six pro seasons. He did "retire" in 1971 for two seasons before returning to the NHL ice. The WHA merged into the NHL for Howe's final season. Known as "Mr. Hockey"-clearly for good reason-Howe finished his pro career with 2,358 points (1,850 NHL and 508 WHA), including more than 1,000 NHL goals and 300-plus in the WHA. He even played long enough to skate as teammates with two sons. Among defensemen, Chris Chelios played NHL hockey until age 48, with a 26-season career spanning from 1983-84 to 2009-10, starring for Montreal, Chicago and Detroit. In all, 70 "skaters" (forwards and defensemen) played past 40 years old, including the father-son duo of Bobby and Brett (unlike the Howes, in different era) and NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis, who finished his illustrious Hall of Fame career at 41 years old. Chara, at 43 and counting, is 11th on the all-time oldest list. 

 

THREE-PEAT

WAR Time for Hockey
"Wins Above Replacement" or WAR is an advanced statistic first introduced for major league baseball players. The excellent hockey analytics site, FanGraphs.com, calls it "an attempt to summarize a player's total contributions to his team in one statistic."). The objective is simplicity, but it is not easy. Early WAR data modeling for hockey focused on analyzing points, goals, shot attempts, special teams and other accessible statistical data and typically show a rising WAR value early in a player's career, peaking at a certain age, then moving to a gradual decline.

Decade of Analytics and Age
Hockey analytics gained respect with a growing number of NHL teams during the first half of the just completed decade. By mid-decade, hockey data analysts developed a general consensus about what age most NHL players peak before falling off in performance. In his well-received book, "Stat Shot: The Ultimate Guide to Hockey Analytics," author Rob Vollman, now a senior data analyst with the Los Angeles Kings, summarized the prevailing view: "Most players hit their peak age by age 24 or 25 then decline gradually until age 30, at which point their performance can begin to tumble more noticeably with the risk of absolute collapse by age 34 or 35."

Age is Relative (to Winning)
The position that NHL players peak at 24 to 25 will no doubt be studied in depth among the NHL teams adding data analysts to their hockey operations staffs. Here are some numbers any fan can chew on: The average age in the NHL is 27.3. Boston is one of the oldest teams in the league (28.5) yet made the Stanley Cup Final last June and is among the best squads this season. Colorado is a strong playoffs contender and the league's youngest team at 25.7. Vegas leads the Pacific division as one of the oldest teams in the league (28.4) while Edmonton, close behind the Golden Knights, is a younger team at 27.1 years. Age is relative is the adage, but the question for hockey analysts? is that true for winning a division or Stanley Cup?

 

BUZZERBEATER

San Jose's Joe Thornton is known for a few things: his longevity as a top-notch player, being a great teammate and his beard. Recently, Jumbo Joe made the choice to shave his prized face fuzz for a more summertime appropriate look. 

Be warned, the results are drastic. 

Tweet from @SanJoseSharks: *poof* pic.twitter.com/kQVdFwjnI2

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