The Capitals are in the position to begin thinking about transitioning their high-performing players to aging under-performing players. And by under-performing we mean players whose stats are on the decline compared to their previous performance or to the performance of newer younger players. Yes we mean Alex Ovechkin in particular.
Just a year ago we were talking about the maturity of the Caps top line players. At that point we focused on how they had grown as they learned from their mistakes. They had time to hone their hockey skills. And yes, they had matured in their personal lives too, as most of the older players are now married (or in long-term relationships) with children. Today; however, they are the ‘aging’ players whose player maturity will have less impact as they come against younger, stronger, and faster players around the league.
So how long do some of the best in the league play? At what point do we begin to see a decline in their performance? When are these superstars typically traded? We looked across the league at some of the all-time greats and highlight three for context.
Wayne Gretzky: The Great One played in the NHL from 1978 to 1999, retiring at the age of 38. By 1991, when Gretzky was 30, his game began to show a decline. His overall points dropped a high of 215 to 121 points and then to 62 points by his final year with the Rangers. Even the greatest hockey player of all time would see his play weaken as his body gave into the long-term effects of playing hockey. Nor was he immune from trades as the Oilers can well attest. Trading a player of his caliber was worth it to them because it gave the Oilers access to a number of new players from which they could build a new team. He stayed with the LA Kings for eight seasons until they traded him to St Louis, who after a season sent him to the NY Rangers. Even the greatest of players couldn’t stop the eventual deterioration of his game.
Sergei Federov: The Russian-born forward had a rich career in the NHL. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015 for his contribution to the Red Wings and 13 years of playing with them. At the high period in his career, Federov recorded 120 points in his third year in the NHL. In 17 years of play, he was on teams that went to the playoffs 15 times. He won the Stanley Cup three times during his playing years. He was traded to the Mighty Ducks (now Anaheim Ducks) in 2003, then to Columbus in 2005, before landing with the Capitals in 2007. In 2009, he would leave the NHL for the KHL at the age of 40. His overall performance began to gradually decline after his trade from Detroit around the age of 36. He began to suffer injuries, including a concussion in 2008, missing games every year for the last five years of play. By his final year with the Caps he was performing at about 50 percent of his first few years in the NHL.
Olaf (Olie the Goalie) Kolzig: Kolzig was drafted by the Capitals in 1989 and spent time perfecting his skill in the AHL and ECHL before joining the Caps in the 1995 season. He would remain the number two goalie while putting up some highlight worthy stats. He would lead the Caps to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, although they would ultimately lose to the Red Wings. During his career with the Caps he set several franchise records including 301 wins (and 293 losses), a goals against average of 1860, in shutouts at 3.5 and in number of saves. The Caps traded him to Tampa Bay in 2008 where he played one season—his worst career year—at the age of 38. His lower stats are likely attributed to an arm injury he sustained. At the end of the season, Olie announced his retirement in September 2008.
Capitals Aging Players
So what does this mean when we look at the ages of some of the Capitals’ key players? Three of the oldest players on the current roster are free agents this year. It is probably something the Caps are considering when looking at Justin Williams in particular.
- Justin Williams and Brooks Orpik are 35 and 36, respectively.
- Jay Beagle, Alex Ovechkin, and Dan Winnik are 31.
- Matt Niskanen and TJ Oshie are 30 and Nick Backstrom turns 30 this year.
- Thirteen players are between 25 and 29.
Of the players over 30, this recent season we saw the following injuries/illnesses and missed games as a result. In this case, none of the injuries were serious.
T.J. Oshie, missed 13 games (11/20-12/5, 1/9, 1/26, 2/24-3/2)
(Note one of these was to tend to his daughter who was hospitalized)
Matt Niskanen, missed three games (12/9, 2/24-2/25)
Brooks Orpik, missed three games (2/24-2/28)
Jay Beagle, missed one game (1/24)
Justin Williams, missed one game (2/1)
And we were told that several players played through injuries in the playoffs, including Alex Ovechkin with a knee injury and a nasty hamstring injury. During the 2015-16 season, Ovi suffered a lower back injury that kept him from the All Stars game. Brooks Orpik missed 40 games with a cracked femer and also suffered a concussion in the post season. Jay Beagle broke his hand which required surgery. None of these are career-ending injuries on their own; however, they do give us pause as we realize that these older players have a fair share of injures that could present again in the years ahead.
Although this is just a small sampling of players who played well into their late 30s, it seems that the magic age for a team to trade an aging star player is on average between 29 and 34. Most players begin to see a decline in their game performance between 36 and 38. Sure there are outliers like Jamir Jagr, who is still an active player at 44. Although his goal scoring performance has declined since he turned 39, he is evidence that when one avoids injury they can play well through their late 30s.
So what does this tell us about Ovechkin? Alex will turn 32 in September. This was one of his lowest goal-scoring years on record. For a guy with six seasons of 50 or more goals, 33 looked pretty shallow. He is still shooting at about the same average for him, although many would like to see him create more opportunities to score by shooting more. It should be noted that he is second in the league for shots. He remains a force on the power play and is still a leader in the league. We have become accustomed to seeing Ovi’s name leading NHL stats every season and that was not the case this year.
Does this year signal the beginning of the end? It is possible. We think Alex has many more years of hockey ahead of him, but if history shows us anything, he probably has another four years of play ahead before he retires. He becomes a free agent at the end of the 2020-21 season, at the age of 35. The trick will be for him to stay healthy and strong during that period. It is likely that we will see a decline in his game now. It is on the coaching staff to maximize his skills, even if that means moving him from the top line. As of now, he and TJ Oshie are the top performers; however, with a young crew on deck, it may be time to let them shine as they will be the future.