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 email@example.com