You should see the looks on people’s faces when you tell them that a hockey player entering his age-26 season is nearing the end of his scoring prime. But historically that is the case.
The chart below is from the analytics website Hockey-Graphs. It charts the estimated Wins Above Replacement of players’ change from year to year between 2008 and 2016.
It’s pretty clear that players who just reached the age where they can rent a car aren’t about to fall off the side of the cliff, but they are unlikely to raise their play any more after age 25.
You don’t have to look far for examples. During Sidney Crosby’s age 22-25 seasons, he averaged 1.47 points per game. Between ages 26 and 29, he’s averaged 1.20 points per game. Of course, 1.20 is still far and away the best in the game during that time, but it isn’t his career-best stretch.
This brings us to Minnesota Wild winger Mikael Granlund, who will be entering his age-26 season in 2017-18. He is currently a Restricted Free Agent and is presumably looking for a long-term deal after setting career highs in goals and assists. As the Wild negotiate with the Finnish forward, the question the front office should be asking is: Will Granlund continue to produce in the range of 70 points? Will he score even more than in ’16-’17 or is he likely to regress?
Keep in mind: Teams pay for what they expect in the future, not what they got in the past.
Over the first three full seasons of Granlund’s tenure, his scoring rates were a consistent 0.65, 0.57 and 0.54 points per game. But last year, his production spiked to 0.85 points per game.
In ’16-’17, everything was coming up Granlund. He set a career shooting percentage mark by a mile. Before last season, his career best was 8.1%, but in ’16-’17 he scored at nearly twice the rate with a 14.7% shooting percentage.
Everyone on the ice with the former second-round pick also had better shooting touch. Granlund’s on-ice shooting percentage (goals vs. shots by every player on the ice with Granlund) jumped from 6.4% in ’15-’16 to 11.2% last year.
Bells and whistles should be going off in the heads of baseball fans. If a player hits .250 through his peak years, then has a .330 season, you would project him to return to the .250 range rather than continue to hit around .330 or better.
But there’s a wrinkle in Granlund’s situation that makes this more than open-and-shut regression.
In baseball, the playing field is always the same. It’s batter vs. pitcher. While fielding can be a wildcard, things usually even out over a year. In hockey, usage makes a huge difference in how much a player scores. If a player receives power play time, he will always out-score other players, even if he isn’t particularly good on the power play.
Granlund’s usage dramatically changed under Bruce Boudreau.
Not only did he move from center to wing, but the coach’s philosophy behind maximizing the skills of the talented winger took a complete 180 degree turn.
Mike Yeo tried to protect Granlund from defensive zone faceoffs, fearing that D-zone struggles would lead to goals against. Boudreau took the exact opposite approach, starting Granlund in the D-zone frequently on Mikko Koivu’s wing, which gave the speedy winger a chance to escape the zone quickly and start transition through the neutral zone.
Shots that are taken in transition are often much more successful than shots coming in routine offensive zone situations off a face-off – especially when executed by scorers like Granlund and Jason Zucker.
During Granlund’s first three full seasons, he started in the offensive zone 52.3%, 59.6% and 60.1% of the time. Last year that number was 38.7%, which is a massive change.
The Wild’s power play also improved during Boudreau’s first year, which allowed Granlund to score 20 of his 69 points on the man-advantage.
Knowing that playing style significantly impacted production might lead to this conclusion: That Granlund is closer to the .330 hitter than .250. The question is by how much closer?
If the Wild’s power play slips or Mikko Koivu, 34, isn’t as strong in 2017-18 or if opponents figure out ways to slow down the Zucker-Koivu-Granlund combination breaking out of the D-zone or if the Wild have worse shooting luck, then Granlund could see a slide in scoring.
Some regression in scoring wouldn’t mean that Granlund was no longer effective. Only 66 players in the NHL had more than 55 points in ’16-’17 out of 403 who played more than 65 games.
But that isn’t franchise-player type production. That isn’t $8 million per year type production whereas 70 points would put Granlund in the top 20 scorers.
The side note to the conversation about how much No. 64 is worth is that an economist might say the Wild should trade Granlund while he’s at his peak. But that seems like a very unlikely scenario.
The Wild will have to look for middle ground with Granlund where both sides can acknowledge his progress and better fit with Boudreau and also factor in that the odds are against a rise in scoring.