February 13, 2011
(Ed. Note: Welcome to Stat Nerd Sunday, where we occasionally obsess over hockey numbers like a Dungeon Master obsessing over the level of his warrior elf. Here's Matt Barr, formerly of LCS: Guide To Hockey and Trolleytracks and now blogging hockey at Kertwang.me.)
Steven Stamkos(notes) turned 21 on Feb. 7. He celebrated the night before by scoring his 40th goal of the season in a Tampa Bay Lightning win over the St. Louis blues. It won't surprise you to learn that Stamkos' prolific scoring before turning 21, including a Maurice Richard Trophy last year as the leading goal scorer in the league, is rare.
Let's look at where Stamkos' career to date fits in to hockey history. There are a couple caveats/definitions about all this data, which I've put at the end of the article.
Let's start with underage goal scoring. Stamkos is right now the third-leading goal scorer of all time before an age 21 season. Barring catastrophe, he will finish the year as the second most prolific underage goal scorer in hockey history. His 40th goal of the season Feb. 6 (as of today, he's still "stuck" on 40) was his 114th career goal. Five other players scored 100 or more before their age 21 season: Jimmy Carson, 141; Dale Hawerchuk, 122; Ilya Kovalchuk(notes), 108; Wayne Gretzky, 106; and Brian Bellows, 102.
His Feb. 6 goal gave him his second 40-goal season before age 21. There have only been 27 40-goal seasons put up by underage players, including Stamkos' own last year at age 19. There have been only seven such 50-goal seasons, including Stamkos' last year, and Stamkos is likely to make it eight.
If so, Stamkos and Gretzky will be the only players in history to have done it twice.
We can't overlook Stamkos' overall points. Here are the leading under-21 scorers since the lockout. Players in italics are still working on their age 20 seasons. Stamkos is second to Sidney Crosby(notes), and that's likely to be where he ends the year:
Impressive, but that's six seasons. Let's look at the leading underage scorers of all time, post-1967 expansion:
You might notice, under the Seasons column, that this is just one more way Gretzky makes things unfair for everybody else: He spent his age 18 season in the WHA, so only had two NHL seasons before his age 21 campaign, limiting his under-21 NHL output to a pedestrian 301 points.
Anyway, the Lightning GM, Steve Yzerman, will watch his star player pass him on the all time list probably sometime this week. What's the appropriate gift for that occasion? (As long as Yzerman doesn't come out onto the ice and take his number 19 sweater off and give it to the kid, a la Ray Bourque and Phil Esposito, I'm sure whatever it is will be fine.)
To provide some more historical context, I wanted to look at the production of the NHL's most prolific all-time scorers before their age 21 seasons. I took the top 50 all-time scorers, separated out those who debuted pre-expansion, and also set aside five players -- Adam Oates, Brett Hull, Teemu Selanne(notes), Peter Stastny and Sergei Fedorov(notes) -- who didn't play in the NHL until their age 21 seasons. That left me with 36 of the top 50 all-time scorers.
This entire pool of 36 players, playing among them 68 seasons before age 21, played 4,730 games, scored 1,774 goals, 2,845 assists and 4,619 points. But I wanted to see it in a way that made more intuitive sense. Below, you'll see the 36 players' under-21 production expressed per 80 game season. I also separated their age 18 seasons, age 19 seasons and age 20 seasons, and expressed those component parts in terms of an 80 game season.
The bar is really kind of low. A point-per-game season as an 18, 19 or 20 year old is typical of a top-50 all time career scorer. In fact, it turns out there have only been 44 seasons since expansion where a player put up a point-per-game or better before his age 21 season. Stamkos did it last year, and if he manages eight more points in his last 26 games, he'll do it again this year.
Another tidbit I noticed: Other than games played, none of the top 50/36 players ever led the league in any category before their age 21 season; except for Gretzky, who led in assists and points as both a 19- and 20-year-old.
So it would be quite remarkable if Stamkos were to hold on to his league lead in goals and points, after leading the league in goals last year in his age 19 season. Among active players, Crosby led the league in points at age 19, Ovechkin led in shots at age 20, and Ilya Kovalchuk led in goals in 2003-04, his age 20 season.
Stamkos-level prolific scoring before age 21 is rare, and while no guarantee of future success, he's already got a remarkable resume that has his foot in the door of NHL history.
Note on data: Like the fantastic site hockey-reference.com, we consider a player's "age" in hockey terms to be how old he is on February 1 of the given season. So, a player's age 18 season is the one in which he's 18 on February 1, age 19 season and age 20 season, same thing. So this is Stamkos' age 20 season -- that's how old he was on February 1 of this NHL season. Also: Even when I don't specifically say so, everything we're looking at in this article is post-1967 expansion. When it comes to historically prolific scoring, that's where most all of the action has been anyway. For example, there have only been 27 40-goal years by under 21 players in hockey history, and they all came after expansion.