As the thrilling series carried on between the Calgary Flames and the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the 2009 playoffs, you could almost see the veteran legs of the Flames' skaters slowing down while the tireless legs of the young Blackhawks seemed to get faster and faster. Injuries had forced the veteran Flames to exhaust themselves playing a few men short at the end of the regular season, costing them the top division seed and putting them on the road against a young, fast team.
As they prepare for their first rematch with the Blackhawks on Monday night, the veteran roster of the Flames should be rejuvenated, but it's worth wondering how significant of a factor age will be over the length of the 2009-10 regular season.
Simply put, is it a bigger advantage to have young legs or veteran savvy?
The Blackhawks are the youngest team in the league, with an average age of 25.9. Last season, at an average age of 24.3, they were the youngest team to compete in the NHL since the 1992-93 Quebec Nordiques. Those Nordiques, like today's Blackhawks, were a very competitive team, with Quebec doubling its point total from 52 in 1991-92 to 104, and going from a club of mediocrity to a team that won the Stanley Cup three seasons later in Colorado.
Looking at a list of all 120 teams in the post-lockout era, however, it is clear that most young teams aren't as fortunate. Generally, the stronger teams sign skilled veterans, who increase the team's average age. Meanwhile, the weaker teams trade away their older players in exchange for younger talent that could aid them in the rebuilding process. As a result, it is far more likely for an older team to score 100 or more points. A full 50 percent of the 20 oldest teams over that span cracked the century mark, compared to just 20 percent of the youngest. Similarly, it's far more likely for a younger team to finish with fewer than 82 points (40 percent of the youngest teams did so, compared to 15 percent of the oldest).
In contrast to the young Blackhawks, six of the seven oldest teams in the NHL's entire history have been their division rivals, the Detroit Red Wings, from 2001 to the present. Each of these modern Detroit teams was aged 30.5 and up, and was among the best in the league each year, winning the Stanley Cup twice over that span and making the finals last season.
The differences are subtle, but older players do tend to record higher point totals.
Points Avg. Age
82 or fewer 27.4
Adding to the age advantage -- though the difference is quite subtle -- the best regular-season individual performers have tended to be a little older than the basement dwellers, as you can see from the chart.
So how does this trend impact the Flames and Hawks? As a team, Calgary's average age of 27.6 is almost on par with the league average, except that their top three scorers are veterans Jarome Iginla (31), Olli Jokinen (30) and Daymond Langkow (32). Compare that with their younger counterparts in Patrick Kane (20), Jonathan Toews (21) and Kris Versteeg (23), all from the Windy City, and you get an amazing 10-year age difference. In fact, if we consider only the age of the core players on each team, which we'll define as the six leading scorers, then the Flames' average core age last season was 30.3 years, which was the 18th oldest out of the 120 post-lockout teams. The core of last year's Hawks, at 23.5, are older than only the 2007-08 Edmonton Oilers.
Top to Bottom:
Since 2005-06, the oldest teams have been far more likely to produce the kind of 100-point seasons typical of a Stanley Cup champ, while the youngest teams have struggled to reach 90 points, a total that usually leaves squads in precarious playoff position.
Points 80 or Fewer 81-90 91-100 101-110 111+
20 Oldest Teams 2 1 7 4 6
20 Youngest Teams 6 5 5 3 1
Despite the success of the veteran Wings and the general trend that older teams get the points, there is such a thing as "too old," as proven by the 2005-06 St. Louis Blues. More enviable is the current situation of teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and the Washington Capitals, who have very young cores, but are already as competitive as the veteran teams from around the league.
History suggests that Stanley Cup contenders are built around a veteran core, like the Flames, but the Blackhawks have the rare talent to be one of those younger teams that come along once a generation and defy the odds.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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