Today we're going to take a look at three players who have been featured in Puck Prospectus recently: Olli Jokinen of the Calgary Flames, Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings. All three are centers at the tail end of their prime's (roughly age 30), all three are having particularly distinct seasons, and all three are key components for their respective teams in the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs. For each of these star players, we'll search the NHL's 90-year history to find other players who had similar back-to-back seasons and use that insight to gain some perspective on each of them.
In his recent article Sabermetric Zamboni, Timo Seppa felt that Olli Jokinen's “offensive deterioration is a troubling sign.” And why not? Jokinen enjoyed 89 and 91 point seasons with Florida in 2005-07 before dropping down to 71 at age 29 last year and then currently has 55 points in 72 games with Phoenix and Calgary this season. How significant is this disappointment, and what might we expect from Jokinen in the future?
Searching NHL's history for players with similar career totals and similar back-to-back seasons, we find that Jokinen's decline this season wasn't entirely unexpected. Over half of the top ten closest matching snapshots fared even worse, and thanks to his improved scoring pace playing with Iginla after being traded to the Calgary Flames, he's actually sitting slightly ahead of their average.
Player Season GP G A PTS PIM
Doug Mohns 1968-69 65 22 19 41 47
Alexei Kovalev 2003-04 78 14 31 45 66
Erik Cole 2007-08 73 22 29 51 76
Pete Stemkowski 1975-76 75 13 28 41 49
Mario Tremblay 1983-84 67 14 25 39 112
Vic Hadfield 1974-75 78 31 42 73 72
Jim Pappin 1974-75 71 36 27 63 84
Glen Murray 2005-06 64 24 29 53 52
Darcy Rota 1984-85 DID NOT PLAY
Ryan Smyth 2005-06 75 36 30 66 58
AVERAGE 72 24 29 53 70
JOKINEN 74 29 27 56 65
How will Jokinen perform in the playoffs? That's anyone's guess because, despite playing 11 NHL seasons, Olli Jokinen will be making his very first trip to the postseason. Even in his four seasons in the Finland SM-Liiga, he had only 14 games of postseason experience. Fortunately in about a week Jokinen will finally end his record streak of the most NHL games without a playoff appearance. We'll have the chance to see how well he plays in the postseason, starting in less than a week.
Patrick Marleau was the subject of a recent Q&A with David Laurila. In contrast to Jokinen and his decline, Marleau's improvement has played no small role in the exceptional season the San Jose Sharks have enjoyed. The former #2 overall draft pick averaged 81 points a season from 2005-07, but fell to only 48 points last season. Unlike Jokinen, Marleau has bounced back and is within striking distance of a career-best 40 goal season.
If you based your expectations this season on players throughout history who found themselves with similar back-to-back seasons and careers as Marleau, you'd be a lot more surprised with his comeback season than with Jokinen's decline. Here are the top ten closest snapshots.
Player Season GP G A PTS PIM
Scott Young 2002-03 79 23 19 42 30
Pit Martin 1975-76 80 32 39 71 44
Brent Ashton 1990-91 61 12 24 36 58
Red Berenson 1975-76 72 20 27 47 47
Dmitri Khristich 2000-01 70 13 25 38 16
John Anderson 1998-99 62 16 24 40 28
Yanic Perreault 2007-08 53 9 5 14 24
Greg Adams 1994-95 43 8 13 21 16
Brian Rolston 2005-06 82 34 45 79 50
Dennis Hull 1975-76 80 27 39 66 28
MARLEAU 74 37 33 70 18
If the list appears slightly bizarre to you, remember that we're matching statistics, not players. Often by matching statistics we find very similar players, but not always, such as in less common circumstances like Marleau's. There is still valuable insight to be gained. For many players, a decline similar to Marleau's last season would spell the beginning of the end, but Marleau is clearly having a much better season that most players who have found themselves on similar paths. Of these top ten most similar matches, perhaps only Pit Martin, Brian Rolston and Dennis Hull bounced back and scored at the higher level.
Pavel Datsyuk is certainly a legitimate candidate for the Hart trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. Both Tom Awad and Gabriel Desjardins recently wrote in some detail about Pavel Datsyuk's impressive performance on the ice regardless of what metrics they used or how they were adjusted. Let's take a look at his closest peers throughout history, relative to his scoring talents.
Player Season GP G A PTS PIM
Syl Apps Jr. 1976-77 72 18 43 61 20
Bernie Federko 1980-81 78 31 73 104 47
Gilbert Perreault 1973-74 55 18 33 51 10
Mats Naslund 1988-89 77 33 51 84 14
Anton Stastny 1983-84 69 25 37 62 14
Rod Gilbert 1969-70 72 16 37 53 22
Brad Richards 2006-07 82 25 45 70 23
Bengt-Ake Gustafsson 1984-85 51 14 29 43 8
Pavol Demitra 2000-01 44 20 25 45 16
Jacques Lemaire 1975-76 61 20 32 52 20
BEST CASE 78 31 73 104 47
DATSYUK 78 32 65 97 20
By consistently scoring at such a high level, it always makes sense to set your expectations of Datsyuk at the highest level among comparable matches. In this case, he is just barely falling short of Bernie Federko and the best case scenario. Personally, I favor the Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champions and for Datsyuk to be their Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP.
Searching NHL's long history for players with similar careers and similar back-to-back seasons will usually produce a list of similar players, but not always, especially in less common circumstances. Even in these cases, declines are generally more predictable than comebacks. There is much insight to gain from looking at various scenarios, including the worst-case, the average, and the best-case among the comparisons. Only time will tell which of these centers will shine this April, but I'm certain that they'll all be worth watching.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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