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Goaltenders And Aging In the National Hockey League

Goaltenders And Aging In the National Hockey League
Jonathan Bernier celebrated his 27th birthday not long after signing a two-year contract, so what affect will aging have on his performance? (InGoal Magazine photo by Scott Slingsby)

Jonathan Bernier celebrated his 27th birthday not long after signing a two-year contract, so what affect will aging have on his performance? (Photo by Scott Slingsby/InGoal Magazine)

Jonathan Bernier turned 27 on Friday. That means that the age question is going to be increasingly relevant to his career. But what exactly do we know about the effects of aging on goaltenders?

It is important to find objective measures of the process, especially if you are, say, the general manager of an NHL franchise considering what kind of contract to give a goaltender. Can we expect goalies to get better at certain ages? At what point can we expect them to start declining? How much of a decline is reasonable?

Aging curves — representations of the relationship between age and performance — are still a matter of minor contention in hockey statistics circles. Everyone accepts that goalies will tend to show decreased performance starting somewhere around the age of 30. As for the age of peak performance and the exact shape of age-related decline, however, the jury is not quite in.

Does decline begin at 27? At 30? Is it precipitous or gradual? What factors can mitigate the effects of aging? Who is likely to beat the curve and why? How do we take the information we have about goalies as a group and project the future for an individual goaltender? These are all unsettled questions.

There are a few things we can be sure of, however:

1. All goaltenders will have to deal with the effect of age on their performance.

2. No aging curve (or any other group average) is intended to be a prediction of any individual’s future.

3. Goaltenders who have very long careers lasting into their late 30s and beyond are by definition unusual.

4. Age is only one of many factors affecting goaltender performance.

Skepticism towards aging curves is appropriate for a number of reasons. We must be leery of any study that imputes change to a single universal cause such as aging. A great deal can change for a goaltender from year to year, things that have nothing to do with aging. We simply don’t have the tools available to measure many of these changes.

For instance, Bernier is a year older, but at the same time, the situation that he will find himself in this October is not the same as it was last year. A new roster, new coach, new systems.

A new emphasis on conditioning from Mike Babcock. A new goaltending coach who has already begun offseason work with Bernier and James Reimer.

The influence of evolving goaltending techniques. The effect of newly adopted methods for understanding team play.

It is virtually impossible to untangle all of this and determine whether and to what extent age is affecting any goaltender’s season. And that’s even before considering the variability and uncertainty inherent to save percentage, which remains our only real measure of goaltender performance.

Roberto Luongo was the only NHL starting goalie over age 34 in 2014-15.

Roberto Luongo was the only NHL starting goalie over age 34 in 2014-15.

The age question matters for both players and teams. The NHL is growing younger over time. The question remains whether this is a net positive trend. While the change is starker for skaters, goaltenders are seeing slow changes in their age profile.

Even in a time where better medical treatment and conditioning might be expected to allow older players to continue to play later than they used to, the numbers of goalies playing past age 35 in the NHL has remained generally flat since 2000, varying between 6 and 13 every season and averaging about 9 a year. [All data from hockey-reference.com.]

But in recent years, these older goalies are carrying drastically reduced workloads. Fifteen years ago, goaltenders aged 35 or older played on average around 35 to 40 games. Now they average less than 24 games.

While the number of goalies over 35 in the league remains flat, they are playing less.

While the number of goalies over 35 in the league remains flat, they are playing less.

A few older goaltenders obviously carry the bulk of that workload and there are fewer and fewer goaltenders playing more than 30 games a year past age 34. In 2014-15 only Roberto Luongo did so. Only Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson have the chance to join him in 2015-16.

It is tempting to attribute this development to changing attitudes about aging among general managers, perhaps informed by work among the hockey statistics community online. It is also important to note, however, that market and position-specific forces are affecting front office decisions.

Emerging over the past 15 years has been the best- and most intensely-trained generation of goaltenders ever seen in the NHL. Across the globe, young goaltenders now in their early 20s have been exposed to extensive professional coaching their entire lives. And the position has changed drastically in that time.

At the same time, and as the result of the same processes, there are more young goaltenders available to NHL clubs than there have ever been before. And it is virtually always cheaper to pay a rookie than to pay a veteran. In the salary cap age, the value of players outperforming their entry-level contracts is necessary to building a winning franchise.

These things all combine to influence who gets the chance to play NHL games.

And in some ways, things are not changing. The age of entry into the NHL remains around 23 years old and the age of starters is only slowly decreasing from an average of 30.1 in 2000-01 to an average of 28.6 in both 2013-14 and 2014-15. There are no more very young goaltenders entering the league than there were a decade ago.

The upshot is that goaltending in the NHL is still largely the domain of men aged 25 to 35. Players like Bernier are generally expected to be hitting their primes. It’s, again, a function of the intensely technical nature of the position and the fact that experience is accumulated at a different pace than physical aging occurs.

As long as young goalies are outplayed by 27-year-olds, that pattern will continue. The long development process for goaltenders pushes their NHL entry dates back, and the structure of the league mitigates against the need to push a 22-year-old into a position he isn’t ready for.

In essence, what we know about aging and goaltender development tells us that Jonathan Bernier, at 27 years old, may just be hitting that moment where his experience has caught up with his body. For a little while, at least, it is reasonable to think that his brain may be able to overcome any physical slowdown he might be experiencing.

Ryan Miller will turn 35 in   (Photo by Clint Trahan/InGoal Magazine)

Ryan Miller turned 35 in July 2015 (Photo by Clint Trahan/InGoal Magazine)

Everyone ages differently, of course, and we have far too little understanding of the position from a statistical standpoint to be able to measure where any given player is improving or declining at any given time. Certainly we can have more confidence that age will affect the 34-year-old Ryan Miller than we can that it will affect Jonathan Bernier in the upcoming season.

Still, eventually, age will catch up to all goaltenders. Some sooner and more starkly than others. If current trends continue—not a given by any means—goaltender careers may be shortened by the ability of general managers to turn to younger, cheaper options instead of veteran free agents in their mid-thirties. This, more than any recognition of age-related decline, is shaping the age profile of NHL goaltenders.

About The Author

Clare Austin

Clare Austin is a reluctant "stats nerd" living in Nashville, where she has never worn a cowboy hat or boots.

18 Comments

  1. estogoalie

    There’s so many goalies who dominated in their mid-to-late 30’s: Brodeur got back-to-back Vezina’s in his mid 30’s, Hasek and Thomas were winning Cups. Then there’s a bunch of goalies who grew up playing in Europe and didn’t start their NHL careers until around 30, like Backstrom, Gerber, etc. The 25-35 years are the prime years when the experience is there and the body is still strong. Goaltending is 90% mental and experience plays a large role. Bernier is just entering his prime, it’s ridiculous to talk about a 27 year old goalie and say “age is becoming a question”. Age becomes a question in the mid-to-late 30’s.

    Reply
    • Clare Austin

      Since 1987, 55 goalies have played even a single game at age 35 or older. That’s 13% of the 429 total goaltenders of all ages. Only 17 played more than 100 games at age 35 or older. That’s 4%. Not so many.

      We can’t take players like Hasek and declare that they are the rule. Those guys are by definition exceptional.

      There is enough evidence that goalies could begin to see decline in their late twenties that it’s worth taking that seriously as a concern. It’s not at all ridiculous to consider it, even if it might be wrong in this case. The links provided discuss the evidence in greater detail if you’re interested.

      As I mentioned, we don’t want to overstate the strength of the conclusions we can draw from those studies, particularly when it comes to moving from group change to individual projections. But they do show that raising the question isn’t out of line.

      Reply
      • Clay

        Blah, blah, blah. All this article is, is a bunch of misinformation.

        Gump Worsley.
        Jacques Plante.
        Dominik Hasek.
        Johnny Bower.
        Grant Fuhr.
        Lester Patrick.
        Dwayne Roloson.
        Tim Thomas.
        Eddie Johnston.
        Ed Belfour.
        Curtis Joseph.
        George Hainsworth.
        Tony Esposito.
        Nikolai Khabibulin.

        Even Moe Roberts played his first game at 46.

        Just because you picked a certain era (“Since 1987”) of goalies, that doesn’t make you sound credible.

        It’s all in the head with goalies. Do you think Martin Brodeur of all goalies would’ve been considered one of the best goalies of all time if he didn’t have his head on straight? Of course not. He isn’t as slender as some of the modern day goalies, but he still won games.

        The size, weight, and age are completely irrelevant factors. With goalies it’s all about the technique, and your ability to stay calm after a rough game.

        Reply
        • Paul Ipolito

          Sorry, but you sample list covers too many generations. I completely agree with this article. Things are changing for modern goalies. In fact, they have already changed.

          Reply
  2. jerry carroon

    Edmonton just signed Cam Talbot at age 27. Are you implying that in three years he will be on a downslide? At least the Rangers have Mckenzie Slapski at 21 in the hopper. Where do you think Henrik Lundquist fits in your analysis?

    Reply
    • Clare Austin

      I’m not predicting anything for any individual goalie. Aging studies, problematic as they may be, indicate that performance for NHL goalies as a group peaks around age 26, which implies that a 27 year old will begin to see some kind of decline. The “as a group” part is important to me.

      The problem comes when we start saying that the group’s experience predicts the individual’s experience. Talbot may or may not be one of the ones who declines before age 30. He might see decline for reasons having nothing to do with age. He will start seeing age-related decline at some point, though, and he’s closer to that than a 21-year-old would be. And significantly more 27 year olds see decline than see improvement.

      Lundqvist, I’ve found, is an exception to a huge number of “rules” about goaltenders. He actually got better after age 27, at least as measured by save percentage. So even if he does see aging effects from here on out, he’s so much better than the majority of goaltenders that he has room to decline and still be a viable option for the Rangers.

      Reply
      • DSM

        I feel like cutting and pasting my response below up here. When we measure a goalie’s statistics and stick them up against their age, it’s problematic. This isn’t Claire’s fault, but this data needs to be (as I’m sure it is in front offices everywhere) included among things like shot quality/quantity, team defensive systems etc. You can’t put Lundqvist, as good as he is, on Edmonton and expect the same results for example. Talbot is going to get a dose of reality, and it isn’t because he’s eight months older.

        Reply
  3. Joe Feeney

    While the article is talking about “a group” it is extremely difficult to use age to determine ability or decline over time! The different factors that affect a goaltender are far more important than age particularly a year or a few years. THe lowering age of the average goaltender int he NHL has as much to do with contract situations, and other considerations as it does about the skills of the older goalies. Also, the expectations and wishes for a certain “style” may be playing an increasing part.

    Reply
  4. Dan

    i think a lot of the time goalies are given up on around 30 rather then they are ‘in decline.’ gms realize they wasted time and cut their losses to give the next guy a chance which is why all the better goalies you can think of played into their 30’s effectively.

    Reply
    • Clare Austin

      This is probably the biggest problem with aging studies. It’s so hard to tease out the impact of stalled development/talent vs age with the tools we have. The studies linked to do make some adjustments to get closer to an answer, but we’re still guessing what will happen most of the time.

      Reply
  5. Gabor

    I agree all things above. We need to consider business issues – e.g. salary cap – as well as other human factors to understand how an “average” NHL goaltender profile is built up. But the goalie is just one piece of the cake. The goalie’s performance belongs to the defending performance of the team and also the scoring performance. So, thinking linear about the effects of ages on goalies – I meant, thinking that above certain ages all NHL goalie “must” drop his best shape – never give us prospective answer.

    Reply
  6. DSM

    Something that hasn’t been considered is the increasing level of skill among forwards, not to mention technological advances in sticks. Today, any weenie forward can whip a shot that they couldn’t 10-15 years ago. Some guys also have issues adjusting to equipment changes, while getting traded to lesser teams as they age.

    There are so many factors involving the passage of time that seem to me more impactful than the chronological age of a well-trained machine with world-class nutrition and bodily maintenance.

    Reply
  7. Spidergoalie

    I think the far bigger factor is goalie development and the salary cap.
    Young goalies today get top notch training right out of the gate, and have the technical part of their games together before they hit the ahl. All they require is maturity and mental development. They are plentiful and cheap, and that more than the physical effects of aging are the reasons the veteran goalie is becoming a thing of the past.

    Reply
  8. Jeff hall

    While I can see both sides of the debate, I’ll say this: Goalies get better with age as long as they stay healthy. Older goalies are smarter at reading plays and more mature when handling adversity. Mental toughness, if you will. If you look at hall of fame goalies, most of them had their best years well into their 30’s, not their 20’s. Most goalies don’t survive in the league all that long simply because teams want to pay a younger player with more “potential” and a smaller salary.

    Reply
  9. Liana Forrette

    Hey, I’m 40 years old and just tried out for the NWHL Connecticut Whale. I didn’t make the team but I did okay against all those young 20-somethings shooting on me. This year, my team and I won my women’s travel league championship , not allowing a single goal in the playoffs, and won a USA Hockey Adult National Championship. Who’s to say age can stop ANYONE? 🙂

    Reply
  10. paul szabo

    I think one factor that deserves to be added to this discussion is how many years or games a goalie played before reaching the status of a year round no. 1 in the NHL. I think that guys like Fleury, who were there so young (i.e. under 20) are likely to incur injury and simple wear and tear and psychological fatigue, and lose their elite edge. I think Tim Thomas was able to excel in the NHL at a later age because he was not playing a grinding 80 game season for 10 years (i.e. European seasons are shorter) prior to making the Bruins roster. I have seen or met a number of ex NHL’ers, and to my surprise quite a few stop playing and are not in terribly fit physical shape. I think the reason is that the demands of the NHL are so high that you just run out of gas after doing it for several years. Luongo or Brodeur are real exceptions in that regard.

    Reply
  11. Scott

    Technically, Brodeur played in 2014-2015 but only for 7 games…

    Reply

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