Goaltenders And Aging In the National Hockey League
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.
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.
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.
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.