• Mark Fistric and the Magic Age: Do Third Pairing Defencemen Develop After Age 25?

    by  • January 15, 2013 • Uncategorized • 21 Comments

    As is far too often the case, David Staples says what a lot of people are thinking:

    At the same time, Fistric is at that magic age for a d-man, 25, 26, 27, when many of them start to get a real sense for how to handle the speed of the NHL game.

    Fistric’s best seasons may well be ahead of him, and the Oilers may well be picking him up at the right moment. The same, of course, can be said of any d-man in this age bracket, but it’s always a plus when the home team signs up a d-man in the sweet spot of his career. Sure beats developing such a player, taking all the lumps, then casting him off, only to see him finally kick his game into a higher gear.

    Fistric played 16:31 a night last year, his age 25 season according to hockey-reference. There are 44 defencemen who, between the time that the NHL started tracking ice time in 1998-99 and the 2007-08 season, meet the following criteria: a) played at least 40 games in age 25 season and b) played between 15:00 and 18:00 per game in their age 25 season. I wanted to look at how those guys did in terms of GP and TOI in the five years that followed; the NHL being what it is, I had to instead limit myself to guys who’ve had the opportunity to play at least four seasons after their age 25 season because the 2004-05 lockout would otherwise blow a lot of my sample.

    My theory is this: if defencemen, at that known magic age of 25, really start to get a real sense for how to handle the speed of an NHL game around that time, we’ll see lots of guys who weren’t much in terms of contributors in their age 25 season go on a really solid run during which they make significant contributions.

    There are 27 names on that list. The % GP is simply the number of years in which they could have played between 26 and 30 multiplied by 82, in order to account for the fact that some guys lost a year in the lockout or by virtue of the fact that five years haven’t passed since 2007-08. Only 8 of the 27 managed to average even 60 games a year during that period. Of those, you’ve got Lubomir Visnovsky, who arguably isn’t an example of the phenomenon that we’re talking about, as he came over from Europe late, at age 24 and then took three years to establish himself. Similarly, Dennis Seidenberg is another European guy who came to North America late, although he came at a younger age than Lubo and bounced around a bit more before establishing himself.

    Jason Smith and Bryce Salvador probably belong together here. They both suffered, to an extent, from a lack of opportunity. The 1998-99 Maple Leafs didn’t have a lot of top end star power on the blue line but there were a lot of solid professional defencemen playing in front of Smith. He still managed to play 17:31 a game in Toronto. Salvador had a similar, but slightly different problem: the Blues had Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis and they were playing a combined 56:24 a night, which doesn’t exactly leave a lot of time for the guys further down the depth chart.

    That leaves one other guy who meets the criteria and went on to average 60 games per season and at least 18 minutes a night: Cale Hulse. After playing 16:38 a night in Calgary in his age 25 season, Hulse’s ice time plummeted to 12:38 a night the following season. He then moved to Nashville, who had much less crowded blue line (the Flames had a pile of defencemen prospect sorts at that time) where he averaged 19.94 minutes a night over the next four years (with the fourth year in Phoenix) on teams that missed the playoffs by an average of 19 points per season.

    That’s 5/27 who you can argue became something other than what they appeared to be at the magic age of 25, although two of them were Europeans who might be expected to have different development curves with the NA game, two of them were in situations where they happened to be buried behind either a lot of NHL class defencemen or two of the best defencemen in the history of the NHL and another guy who “developed” by going to play for teams that were out of it by February.

    There are probably two other guys on that list who you’d be happy to have found: Philippe Boucher and Mark Eaton. Eaton would have made the success list if not for suffering some bad injuries, while Boucher seems to have suffered a mix of injury and, probably, some slower development – he presumably had to clear waivers at the start of the 2000-01 season to go down to Manitoba in his age 27 season but when he came back, he became a big player for the Kings.

    You can calculate it however you want but it seems to me that it’s probably more like 3/27 guys who became something other than what they appeared to be at 25 – Boucher, Eaton and Seidenberg. The other four guys were either blocked on their current team – Smith and Salvador – or on a different path because they stayed in Slovakia to a relatively late age – Lubo – or “developed” by going and playing for absolutely horrible hockey teams – Hulse.

    Just for the sake of completeness, I looked at the guys who played at least 40 games but fewer than 15 minutes a night as well. Similar results there. Out of 32 players, 4 went on to average at least 60 games a season over the next five years. Three of the four managed to get the ice time up above 18 minutes a night. When you look at them a little more closely, you can see how they accomplished it: Mattias Timander went the Hulse route, going to the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets. Brad Lukowich mixed the Hulse and Smith/Salvador routes – in his age 25 season, he played on the 2001-02 Dallas Stars with Derian Hatcher, Sergei Zubov, Daryl Sydor and Richard Matvichuk all playing at least 21 minutes a night. He went to Tampa Bay and saw his ice time jump dramatically.

    Stephane Robidas had a Smith/Salvador issue as well – he spent his age 25 season with the 2002-03 Dallas Stars, who iced Hatcher, Zubov, Sydor and Matvichuk and had also added Philippe Boucher to the their defence corps. Robidas was traded to Chicago in 2003-04, his age 26 season, for Jon Klemm and a fourth round pick – the Hulse gambit – and played more than 20 minutes a night for the Blackhawks. According to Wikipedia, he almost went back to Germany after the 2004-05 lockout but the Stars signed him and he genuinely seemed to blossom with them, although Dallas has made the playoffs just once in the five years that Robidas beeen a 20+ minute a night man.

    Taken as a whole, it’s hard to see much evidence of a magic age 25, after which players start to get a sense of how to deal with the speed of the NHL. There are players who taken on bigger roles after being bit pieces prior to 25 but they tend to be guys who were blocked, guys with unusual paths or guys who go and play for worse teams. If you’re a 25 year old third pairing NHL defenceman, you almost certainly are all that you’ll ever be in the NHL.

    Email Tyler Dellow at tyler@mc79hockey.com

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    21 Responses to Mark Fistric and the Magic Age: Do Third Pairing Defencemen Develop After Age 25?

    1. dawgbone
      January 15, 2013 at

      So that leads to the question of whether or not Fistric was stuck behind anyone in Dallas,

    2. Tyler Dellow
      January 15, 2013 at

      Given that he can reportedly play both sides, it’s kind of tough to see that being the case. Dallas was bringing in cast-offs last year to play rather than giving Fistric a top four role. The Stars D also isn’t quite the Stars D of a decade ago, in terms of the guys who were in front of him.

    3. Troy
      January 15, 2013 at

      Good read & if nothing else Fistric is an upgrade in depth at the bottom 6 spot allowing Teubert & Potter ice-time in the minors to develop into future #6 dmen

      • Derek
        January 15, 2013 at

        Corey Potter is 29 years old.

        • January 15, 2013 at

          You mean Potter, Corey? He’s an every day guy that we can count on because he have does have that ability!

          • Mr DeBakey
            January 16, 2013 at

            For me, nothing will ever replace Corey Power Potter Play

    4. Brad
      January 15, 2013 at

      Even though it still doesn’t give much hope, I think you could still consider Jason Smith a close situation. Fistric was, to an extent, blocked in Dallas. Even if we include Smith, the magic 25 age is still kinda mythical.

      • Doogie2K
        January 16, 2013 at

        Blocked by whom? Philip Larsen played a minute and a half more per game at even strength. I don’t even know who the fuck Philip Larsen is.

        • Triumph
          January 16, 2013 at

          Philip Larsen is probably going to be a pretty good defenseman. I don’t think fans around the league recognize when guys emerge for teams like Dallas, but I think they think he can handle top 4 minutes.

          • Doogie2K
            January 16, 2013 at

            Sure, Larsen could have potential. Wasn’t really my point. I’m saying if Fistric is behind a guy I’ve never heard of, he’s not exactly being blocked by the 1999 Stars blueline, so maybe that’s not the right narrative to reach for.

    5. Derek
      January 15, 2013 at

      Yet another article about Fistric being slow. Why are people just making things up?

      • RiversQ
        January 15, 2013 at

        To be fair, your expert did use the word “anchor” when answering the skating question and it was not immediately preceded by the word “not”.

    6. Bank Shot
      January 15, 2013 at

      What about guys on bad teams that get a lot of ice time younger then 25, and then get more competent in their mid 20′s ala Smid? I would say Greene fits in that category as well.
      Or they get some icetime on decent teams in an attempt to develop then get traded? Like Josh Gorges playing third pairing in San Jose, then developing into something more in Montreal.

      These guys that become more competent in the latter half of their 20′s don’t seem all that rare. Fistric’s odds of being at least marginally better for the Oilers then he was at age 20-24, seems like a coin flip.

      Your raw numbers, before you began rationalizing some players away was in the 30% range of players developing into more.

      I agree with your assessment that Fistric is pretty unlikely to blossom into a top 4 defenseman in his time with the OIlers. I think that arguement is just as strong verbally without the stats table however. The guy has played 4-5 seasons in the NHL and hasn’t really shown any signs of progress.

      The stats themselves didn’t really provide a compelling case to overturn the general concenus that NHL defensemen are better in their mid to late 20′s then they are in their early 20′s.

      • Tyler Dellow
        January 15, 2013 at

        What about guys on bad teams that get a lot of ice time younger then 25, and then get more competent in their mid 20′s ala Smid? I would say Greene fits in that category as well.

        What do guys like Greene and Smid have to do with the kind of players that I’m defining here, guys who aren’t there at 25? Smid was north of 20 minutes a night at 24. Matt Greene, who I’m not particularly sold on, has cleared 18 minutes a night exactly once in his career and doesn’t seem like anything more than a bottom pair.

        Or they get some icetime on decent teams in an attempt to develop then get traded? Like Josh Gorges playing third pairing in San Jose, then developing into something more in Montreal

        Josh Gorges was playing 20 minutes a night at age 24. What does he have to do with the players I have here?

        These guys that become more competent in the latter half of their 20′s don’t seem all that rare. Fistric’s odds of being at least marginally better for the Oilers then he was at age 20-24, seems like a coin flip.

        I’m…I’m not entirely sure how you get this from the data presented here. To start with, even if you include all of the guys, it’s about 9/27 guys who were useful. More importantly, I think my “rationalizing” kind of makes some sense. Jason Smith came to Edmonton from Toronto and was a 20+ minute guy the moment he got here. Do you think he developed on the flight out here?

        If you want to explain how my “rationalizing” is wrong, fill your boots. If you want to just call it “rationalizing” and leave it at that, it’s a pretty lame response.

        • Bank Shot
          January 16, 2013 at

          Smid was north of 20 minutes a night in his rookie season wasn’t he? That doesn’t mean he was a capable top four defenseman. I think most fans agree he didn’t really start to hit his stride as a quite good top four defenseman until last season. If you do not include guys like Hulse as top four because they went to terrible teams, do you not need to include players that got top four minutes before they were ready on bad teams, but still turned out?

          Anyway, the stats aren’t solid, because you have to go through the list and make a judgement call on each player. Salvador for instance was blocked from playing 18 minutes plus in his 25 year old season by Khavanov and Finley. Khavnov only played 5 seasons in the NHL. Finley played 40 games in the AHL at 31. Was it really outstanding depth blocking Salvador there?

          Also, you threw out guys like Jason Smith, but left in guys like Jon Aitken. Aitken was the equivalent of Potulny as far as I can tell. Played 40 games for a putrid Blackhawks team as an injury call up and was never seen again. A guy like that is obviously not part of the demographic you are trying to measure, but he’s killing the odds.

          In the bottom section of players, you seem to have missed Sutton. He played top four for the Thrashers for a few seasons when they were a borderline playoff team.

          There is also a tonne of flotsam and jetsam in the bottom list. Guys like Belak and McAllister that were obviously in the lineup solely to fight. One shot wonders like Robertsson who played one season only. If you throw out those guys to include only regular roster players, that are actually used to play the game then maybe you are looking at 5 out of 20ish players becoming more?

          Still a long shot, but much better odds then your tables. Add it all up, and I don’t think the magic age myth has been successfully debunked.

          • January 16, 2013 at

            Is 1/4 that much of a difference than 1/5?

            If the idea is to determine whether there is a magic age when defencemen ‘figure it out’ then why would you remove guys that clearly didn’t?

      • David Staples
        January 16, 2013 at

        Interesting work, Tyler.

        All kinds of d-men see an improvement in performance at this age, from Smid and Greene to Staios and Smith. When I made this comment, I certainly had players like Greene and Smid in mind, with their improvements in performance as they got older.

        But maybe this is an Oilers only phenomenon. I admit that my focus is mainly on Oilers, so perhaps I’ve over-generalized.

        • David Staples
          January 16, 2013 at

          And to be clear, I also see Fistric as a third-pairing guy, and don’t believe he’ll improve, as I believe my original post made clear when I talked about how this player can only succeed in a limited role. I hope he gets better as a third-pairing guy, and believe that is possible, kind of like Matt Greene. But that is the extent of my hopes here. I don’t see this guy evolving into a shut-down d-man.

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    8. Tyler Dellow
      January 16, 2013 at

      Smid was north of 20 minutes a night in his rookie season wasn’t he? That doesn’t mean he was a capable top four defenseman. I think most fans agree he didn’t really start to hit his stride as a quite good top four defenseman until last season. If you do not include guys like Hulse as top four because they went to terrible teams, do you not need to include players that got top four minutes before they were ready on bad teams, but still turned out?

      I’m looking at guys aged 25. Smid was 20 or so in his first season with the Oilers. I’d put Smid “figuring it out” in 2010-11, when he was 24, although he was well above my 18 minute line the year before too, albeit on a terrible team.

      Anyway, the stats aren’t solid, because you have to go through the list and make a judgement call on each player. Salvador for instance was blocked from playing 18 minutes plus in his 25 year old season by Khavanov and Finley. Khavnov only played 5 seasons in the NHL. Finley played 40 games in the AHL at 31. Was it really outstanding depth blocking Salvador there?

      I don’t think I said it was outstanding depth. I think I said it was a ridiculous top end. Pronger/MacInnis played about eight minutes more than a typical one/two. They’re probably both in the discussion if you’re making a list of the ten best defencemen ever. Sprinkle those eight minutes over the rest of the roster and Salvador’s probably over the line.

      Also, you threw out guys like Jason Smith, but left in guys like Jon Aitken. Aitken was the equivalent of Potulny as far as I can tell. Played 40 games for a putrid Blackhawks team as an injury call up and was never seen again. A guy like that is obviously not part of the demographic you are trying to measure, but he’s killing the odds.

      This is a good point. If I was trying to come up with percentages to put on guys, I’d try to come up with something a bit more nuanced that took that into account. Fistric’s probably a better bet than Aitken because he’s managed an NHL career before age 25.

      In the bottom section of players, you seem to have missed Sutton. He played top four for the Thrashers for a few seasons when they were a borderline playoff team.

      Cutoff was 60 games a year – Sutton averaged 59.3. Close, but you have to set the line somewhere, etc.

      There is also a tonne of flotsam and jetsam in the bottom list. Guys like Belak and McAllister that were obviously in the lineup solely to fight. One shot wonders like Robertsson who played one season only. If you throw out those guys to include only regular roster players, that are actually used to play the game then maybe you are looking at 5 out of 20ish players becoming more?

      Still a long shot, but much better odds then your tables. Add it all up, and I don’t think the magic age myth has been successfully debunked.

      Excluding guys who are just there to fight seems sensible to me. I’m not sold on excluding one shot wonders, although as I said above, it probably tells us something good about Fistric that he was able to stay in the NHL for a few years before his age 25 season.

      That said, the fundamental conclusion still seems correct to me: unless a guy was blocked by a really deep defensive corps or had minutes being siphoned off the top by two of the best 10 D or so ever, or goes to much crappier teams or comes from Europe, it’s hard to find guys who figured it out at 25 or later.

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