In NHL, no hockey for old role players

Getty Images
Getty Images

Chris Higgins has been on an NHL roster every season since 2004. At 33, his days as a 20-goal guy are long gone, but he’s a veteran player and a solid defensive forward who can pitch in with a bottom six role, having played the last six seasons with the Vancouver Canucks.

He didn’t sign anywhere as a free agent during the summer, and ended up in Calgary Flames camp on a professional tryout contract under former Canucks assistant Glen Gulutzan. “I have to perform, but I feel like I could play a role here and help this team be very successful,” Higgins said. “Training camp is tryouts. I’ve approached it, with or without a contract, the same way every year.”

He left camp without a contract. So did Tuomo Ruutu, 33, who had been on a PTO with the Vancouver Canucks. So did defenseman Mike Weber, 28, on a PTO with the St. Louis Blues. So did a few dozen other veterans who entered training camps after the phones didn’t ring during the summer, hoping to latch on and then seeing the jobs they competed for turned over to other players.

Frequently, younger ones.

There’s been a material change in the way NHL teams are building out their rosters. You have veteran stars and standouts. You have younger players that are in the midst of their servitude under restricted free agent rules (as brutally chronicled by Dave Lozo here). And then you have this forgotten middle class of NHL players: Role players, eligible for unrestricted free agency, around or over age 30, making between $1 million to around $3 million against the salary cap.

Like Higgins, who made $2.5 million with the Canucks. Or Ruutu, who made $4.75 million with the Devils. This isn’t the same situation as, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs sending Brooks Laich, 33, and his $4.5 million cap hit down to the Marlies with term on his contract. This is more like free-agnet Brandon Prust, 32, being released from a Leafs PTO after having made $2.5 million against the cap with Montreal and Vancouver in his last contract.

It’s a trend born of two catalysts: The salary cap and science.

The salary cap obviously demands fiscal responsibility and sanity. (Well, unless you’re Ken Holland.) In order to pay the top players, in order to pay the young stars, in order to have some breathing room for unforeseen events and at the trade deadline, general managers can’t commit $2.5 million to a role player any longer.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are capped out. They have nine forwards making more than $1 million, and that includes the $1 million they tossed to Matt Cullen last summer – the kind of player that would have been squeezed out were it not for the goodwill he earned in the Cup run. After that it’s Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust and Scott Wilson on rookie contracts and Tom Sestito working for the league minimum ($575,000).

This is reality in a capped league. Not only in how a team manages in the moment, but how it manages for future seasons.

“It only takes one or two off-seasons where you have to let go of guys you wanted because of money to realize that you need to think carefully about paying big money to guys in their 30’s,” said one member of an NHL front office. “And I think the 23-year-olds tend to be better than the 33-year-olds that they’re replacing.”

Which brings us to science.

GettyImages-539744600
GettyImages-539744600

It’s widely believed that the points-per-minute peak for NHL forwards is actually around age 24, and that the drop in effectiveness once a player enters his 30s is rather steep. Sure, there are outliers like Jaromir Jagr, but this will all be explained one day when a brave soul yanks on his mullet, opens his skull plating and we gawk at all the robot parts of this obvious android.

“I think it’s understood across the board that after 28 [years old], science shows a dramatic decrease in a player’s performance, specifically the guys who aren’t skilled,” one former NHL forward told us. “If a team thinks a young guy can do the same job as an older veteran player, they go young every time and that’s the opposite of how it was even 5-10 years ago. The mid range second or third-line, 40-point veteran player has been phased out in the NHL.”

Especially in the “new” NHL, where speed and speed and also speed but particularly speed is the name of the game.

Let’s all think back to the Penguins last postseason. They were blazing. Part of that was the style that Mike Sullivan demanded, but part of that was personnel: Bryan Rust was fast; Conor Sheary was fast.

And both were young and cheap, too.

So in a copycat league, where “up-tempo pressure” and “getting faster” were the buzzwords of the summer, the Penguins provided evidence that you could fill out your roster with fast kids and succeed in the right system. And that’s part of a larger trend in the NHL that, again, has frozen out the “mid-range veteran role player middle class.”

The question then becomes: Is this good for the NHL, this swapping out veterans for younger talent down the lineup?

The National Football League is asking the same question, actually.

According to Football Outsiders, the average age of NFL players hit its lowest mark in at least 10 years in 2015, when it was measured at 26.6 years old. On offense, the average age had dropped nearly a full year from 27.6 in 2006 to 26.8 last year.

According to the average ago of players this season on active rosters and injured reserve (minus the long-term, quasi-retired ones) is 27.3 years old.

Back to the NFL. As Kevin Clark wrote on The Ringer:

“Let’s be honest, the younger the league, the less experienced the league is and with that, the quality of play doesn’t start off at the same level,” said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. “I think what you see, particularly in the early part of the season, is a reflection of that.”

McCarthy is particularly concerned about the end of veteran lines, which were staples of the league when he entered as an assistant in 1993. His Packers didn’t play an offensive lineman older than 29 last year — and that 29-year-old was Josh Sitton, who the team released last weekend.

The drop in quality of play in the NFL is evident. A drop in quality of play in the NHL would actually be a benefit, from an offensive perspective. Young players are fast. Speed leads to goals. Young players make mistakes. Mistakes lead to goals.

According to Clark, one of the reasons for this trend in football is that “in the past five years, NFL teams have committed heavily to cost-effective rookies, reserving lucrative second contracts for the game’s biggest stars” and that “looming over all of that is teams’ reliance on the rookie salary scale, which since the 2011 CBA has guaranteed teams access to cheap players for four years and created a world in which older players have to break out in a big way to stick around after their first deal expires.”

So reserving your high salaries for your stars and getting the benefit from the CBA’s ridiculous shackles on young players’ salaries. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, hockey fans…

At least in hockey, there are options for the marginalized veterans. There’s the KHL and the European leagues. There’s the American Hockey League, that wondrous purgatory where veterans and young talent co-mingle. There’s the chance the phone rings after an injury, or a team decides to change up the mix by inviting a player to join them midseason. (Think Scott Gomez with the Sharks.) Hell, Chris Higgins might have a job by the team you read this.

But unless the salary cap system changes or the game somehow reverts to some slow, plodding version of hockey under previous rules, this is the new reality.

No hockey for old role players.


Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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