Six NHL players headed downhill - and fast.
In last week's column, I covered six guys who are “Defying Father Time” and whose numbers shouldn’t decline much (if at all) in the very near future despite them being among the NHL leaders in career games played. This week we turn our attention to the other side of the coin – six guys on their last legs whose stats are likely headed downhill, and fast.
As a reminder, all of the players in both columns are already signed for at least this coming season and would still on your fantasy radar. That means you won’t see the likes of Chris Phillips, Dainius Zubrus, Ed Jovanovski, or Todd Bertuzzi on these lists, despite them having played 1000+ games.
For my “Final Verdict”, I’ll talk about overall criteria to use in assessing and valuing these kinds of veteran players.
Last Legs Guys
Shane Doan - Age: 36; Career Games Played (regular season + playoffs): 1301
Many thought Doan’s stats would start to take a nose dive a few years ago, after he dropped from consecutive 70+ point seasons to 55 points. Yet on the surface he seems to have remained a decent player, still accumulating a fair share of points while also contributing in secondary categories like Hits.
But looking more closely at the last two years in particular, you can’t ignore that his point scoring pace actually was only about 50 points. That’s bad enough on its own, but the continued emergence of players like Martin Hanzal and Mikkel Boedker will only make matters worse. In fact, their presence has already been felt, with Doan’s ice time among Coyote forwards having slipped to fifth overall (compared to first in 2011-12) and fourth overall on the PP (compared to basically tied for second in 2011-12). And keep in mind that Doan is signed for three more seasons -- where will his ice time be by then!?
I’d think Doan will be hard pressed to top 50 points in a single season again during the remainder of his career, and actually might end up at or below the half a point per game mark, particularly in two or three more years.
Jarome Iginla - Age: 36; Career Games Played (regular season + playoffs): 1301
On the surface, Iginla hasn’t shown signs of an imminent decrease in production, and in fact hasn’t finished a full season with less than 67 points since last century! And although his 33 points in 44 games in 2012-13 would’ve translated to only just above 60 points over a full season, you could excuse that at least somewhat given the trade rumors which swirled around him before he finally was dealt.
But even if Iginla had lit up the score sheet in 2012-13 I’d still think this coming season would be a disaster, and that’s despite him having a one year contract heavily laden with incentives which give him every reason to produce. What it boils down to is Iginla being a poor fit for Boston, as he’s always been the offensive focal point on his team, except with Pittsburgh last season, and there his consolation prize was playing with two of the best in the world (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin).
I expect Iginla to struggle mightily in the Boston system, which emphasizes many forwards receiving very similar ice time. I’ll even go so far as to say that Iginla might fall short of 50 points this coming season! After that, look for him either to retire or not to return to anything close to his previous form.
Sergei Gonchar - Age: 39; Career Games Played (regular season + playoffs): 1312
There have been a lot of raves about Gonchar signing with Dallas, and some bold predictions even have him possibly returning to a 50+ point output. This is despite him not having hit that mark since 2009-10, and even though his 2012-13 stats were likely inflated due to the absence of Erik Karlsson.
The key with Gonchar is although no one doubts that he’s still skilled, he’s also 39 years old, and you just don’t find defensemen who produce big points at that age. In fact, if you look at the NHL defensemen who are above Gonchar in career points (he ranks 18th), many, including Phil Housley, Denis Potvin, Brian Leetch, and Brad Park, had already retired by age 39. And, among the ones who were still playing at that age, several (including hall of famers such as Larry Murphy, Larry Robinson, and Chris Chelios) didn’t even hit 40 points again (let alone 50) after turning 39. Plus, although Dallas has taken strides to improve its top nine forwards, the team hasn’t had a 40+ point defenseman or finished in the top 10 in NHL goals since 2009-10, which means there are even more odds stacked against Gonchar.
In the end, while Gonchar is in no danger of being a dud in Dallas, I’d expect no more than 40 points from him this season and somewhere between 30 and 35 in 2014-15.
Patrick Marleau - Age: 33; Career Games Played (regular season + playoffs): 1305
Thanks to his durability, and because he entered the NHL after just having turned 18, Marleau is already above 1300 career games (1165 regular season). And he’s a perfect example of why, for many players, games played is a better indicator than age when it comes to gauging future performance.
Marleau tallied 31 points in 48 games last season, but that total hides the fact that 14 points came in his first six games, which means he finished with a dreadful, defensemanesque 17 points in his final 42 games! What’s more, his point scoring has fallen steadily in each of the past four seasons, from 83 in the 2009-10 season, to 73 in 2010-11, to 64 in 2011-12, to a pace of 53 last season. What’s especially troubling is this is not a case of a diminished role with the team (like Doan), as Marleau had the highest overall ice time among Sharks forwards and trailed only Joe Thornton on the PP.
While he did show some signs of life again in the playoffs (eight points in 11 games), I’m beginning to wonder whether Marleau has either started to phone it in during the regular season, or if his 15 years in the league have caught up to him (or both). He’s on the last year of a contract, so he might actually up his effort, but I wouldn’t count on it. In the end, I probably would bank on no more than 50 points this season, with a very real risk of a big drop off should he choose to keep playing after this campaign.
Zdeno Chara - Age: 36; Career Games Played (regular season + playoffs): 1184
If you look at Chara’s playoff numbers from 2012-13, they seem to be great, with 15 points in 22 games and an overall +7 plus/minus rating. But make no mistake - one of the biggest stories to emerge from the aftermath of playoffs was that Chara might be human after all, as by the end of the Cup finals most everyone would agree that he looked tired and vulnerable like he never has in the past. That in and of itself wouldn’t be such an issue, except Chara’s regular season numbers also were uncharacteristically bad (his +14 rating was his worst since 2007-08, and his 19 points in 48 games translates to under 33 over a full season, which would be 10 points less than any of his previous seasons with the Bruins).
Here’s what I think - although Chara’s conditioning and fitness are the stuff of legend, he’s reached a tipping point where the physical style of game he plays, the size and weight he carries, the fact that he’s been in the top 15 in overall ice time for the NHL every season since 2002-03 (!), and the reality that nearly all his minutes are against the best other teams have to offer, have finally started to take a collective toll on him and his stats.
Simply put, in the coming seasons (he’s signed through 2017-18) you should forget about seeing more of the Chara you’re used to, the one who could be realistically projected to finish at +30 or higher and/or with 50 points or more. Don’t get me wrong –you shouldn’t look for the bottom to drop off completely. But his days of being arguably among the best (if not the best) multi-cat defensemen in the NHL are likely over, and his points in particular will likely suffer more and more each year.
Vincent Lecavalier - Age: 33; Career Games Played (regular season + playoffs): 1100
On paper it looks like Lecavalier has a good chance to reinvigorate his career with the Flyers. After all, he’s a former Rocket Richard Trophy winner who’s the youngest of all 12 players on these lists (he turns 34 in April, seven months after Marleau) and who’s played nearly the fewest games (Timonen = 1095).
But make no mistake, Lecavalier will likely see even fewer top quality minutes with Philadelphia than he did with Tampa Bay, and we saw that the “second line” version of Lecavalier in Tampa really didn’t amount to very much. And keep in mind that according to Frozen Pool Lecavalier lined up for more than 50% of his PP time with both Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis in each of the last three seasons, and I don’t envision anything close to that favorable of a PP situation for him in Philly.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, Lecavalier also has to contend with ever-present injury risks, playing under a microscope in Philly, and the pressure of a pretty big contract after having been bought out of his previous deal. Put these together and I think it’s a recipe for colossal failure. I’ll even go so far as to predict Lecavalier won’t score 55 points during any of the five years of his deal, and might not even be a good bet for 45-50 in another year or two.
In a nutshell, neither age nor games played is by itself a good predictor of when a player’s stats will start to decline. But I do think that the 1000 regular season games mark is an important benchmark. Once a player passes that, it’s time to focus on factors which will help indicate not only when his performance will start to suffer but also how quickly and precipitously the decline will be once it happens.
Probably the biggest factor in judging future performance for a veteran like these is whether or not he’s already started to show signs of decreased production. This is because it’s rare for an older, 1000+ game player to rebound and increase his point total after it’s already started to go downhill, unless somehow his overall situation vastly improves or his poor stats were due to injury issues or unusually low ice time.
Beyond age, games played, and whether a player’s production has already started to decline, other factors to examine include character (does the player have a strong mental make-up), motivation (is there inspiration for the player to continue to work hard and do well, especially since it will take more effort than when he was younger), playing style (“pass first” players likely can do better than those who rely on a more physical, sniper, or speed-based game), ice time (obviously more is better) and supporting cast (quality linemates or defensive pairings are helpful).
Make no mistake – the 12 guys I covered in these columns (even these six “Last Legs Guys”) are still fantasy worthy in all but the shallowest of leagues for this season.
But be especially careful when it comes to keeper leagues, as the clock is ticking for even the “Defying Father Time Guys”. And for all 12 of these guys, be extra careful not to overpay, since they still have name recognition value that might cause their price to be much too high.
Something else to keep in mind is whether guys on your teams are approaching the 1000 regular season game mark, in which case it would be wise for you to watch out for signs that they might be in danger of becoming a “Last Legs Guy” sooner rather than later.
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