I’ve got a post up at sportsnet.ca talking about fourth liners and how they age (spoiler: not well). That was in the context of the Oilers acquiring Matt Hendricks but it got me thinking about this player type generally. I decided to gather some data on forwards who play between 13:33 and 9:33 a night (Hendricks was at 11:33 when the Oilers traded for him) and who played at least 60 games in a season and then look at how their usage changed over the next three years of their career.
One thing I didn’t do in that post that I ought to have was illustrate the odds of this type of player being out of the NHL in X years, given a certain age. This is pretty telling stuff. I restricted myself to players playing their age X season between 2000-01 and 2009-10 so that I had at least three years of data on the player post qualifying season.
What you can see is that through about age 24, a player in a position like this has an excellent chance to be in the NHL three years later: it runs at about 80%. At age 25, a dropoff begins, although there’s a weird bubble at age 27 which is presumably just a data fluke. At about age 29, we hit a plateau – players aged 29 – 32 who play 60+ games and 9:33 to 13:33 per night have about a 40% shot at being in the NHL three years later. It’s a hard league.
This doesn’t really cover the attrition rate though. If a guy played one game in the league three years later, I count him as a hit. What happens if I bump the line to at least 41 GP in succeeding seasons?
The attrition becomes even more extreme. Again, through 24, things are pretty good. If you meet our 60+ game and 9:33 to 13:33 thresholds, chances are pretty good that you’re still a regular three years later. After that though…wow. By 29, it’s no longer a smart bet that a guy will play more than 41 games two years later, let alone three. Ben Eager, for those who pay attention to such things, would have met this test in the year leading into his contract with the Oilers. He’s presumably done as an NHLer.
When you look at things this way, the expected cost for someone like Matt Hendricks from an organization perspective is extraordinary. The odds are very high that the Oilers are going to pay him a lot of money for games that he doesn’t play for the team. There’s a better than even chance that he doesn’t play 42+ games in 2015-16. There’s a better chance that he doesn’t the following year. If you’re a business making an investment that has a 50%+ chance of busting, the expected ROI if it succeeds better be spectacular. What’s the upside for Hendricks? Does it cover a $1.85MM salary, which is extraordinarily high for a fourth liner? I can’t fathom how it does.
Given the cheap cost of fourth liners, their negligible impact on the game and the extraordinarily high rate at which guys in their thirties are nothing a few years later, you’d expect Hendricks’ price to be a lot lower. Let me put this another way. Imagine that in the summers of 2014, 2015 and 2016, Craig MacTavish made it known that he had a one year deal at $1.85MM available for the best player who would take it. Do you think that the players he gets are likely to be better than Hendricks over those three years? I suspect that the answer is yes. This is particularly true when you realize it’s probably 50/50 at best that he can even get in the lineup 42 times a year in the last two years of the deal.
I should say as well that the 50/50 odds probably overstates the ability of those players too. The NHL, like all businesses, has a certain stickiness. For contractual reasons and due to failures in evaluation, the best players aren’t always in the league. This should be intuitive to Oiler fans – we’ve seen a ton of guys just wash out of the NHL over the past few years as soon as the Oilers stop paying them. If you posed the question a different way – how often is a guy playing 9:33 to 13:33 a night, 60+ times a year in Year X actually in the NHL on merit in Year X+2, the number is probably lower.
All in all, it’s a brutal league for guys like Hendricks. If you spend some time with the data, no matter how you slice it, you come to that conclusion. It’s a little frustrating that the Oilers seem to keep lighting money on fire with this type of mistake – Ethan Moreau, Eric Belanger and Ben Eager are all the same. It’s not a difficult mistake to avoid. And yet.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org