Joffrey Lupul just signed a new contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs that will pay $26.25 million over 5 years, charging the Leafs $5.25 million each season against the salary cap. Opinion seems to be pretty divided over whether or not this is a good deal for the Leafs. Because the deal will take Lupul from his age 30 season through his age 34 season there have been questions about how his performance will be affected by the aging process. According to numbers crunched by Gabriel Desjardins of Behind the Net/Arctic Ice Hockey, scoring peaks at age 25 and then begins to decline. Does this bode ill for Joffrey Lupul? I decided to pull some historical comparables to find out.
The ages of 24 to 28 are roughly the scoring peak for an average NHLer, and they happen to form a nice 5-year window that matches the 5 year contract that Lupul just signed. Between the ages of 24 and 28 Joffrey Lupul has averaged 0.34 goals per game and 0.75 points per game. In order to determine what kind of production we might be able to expect from Lupul over the duration of his new contract I pulled a list of comparables that fit the following criteria:
- player played played all of their 24 to 28 year old seasons in the ten years between 1994-95 and 2003-04 (ten seasons up until the last lockout to ensure that they would have had time to play through their 34 year old season since the lockout)
- goals per game within 0.03 of Lupul's production (0.31 to 0.37 goals per game or 25-30 goals per season)
- points per game within 0.05 of Lupul's production (0.70 to 0.80 points per game or 57 to 66 points per season)
I expected that this would produce a reasonably sizeable list of players, maybe 20-30, but surprisingly it returned just 9. Of those 9, Valeri Bure retired before his age 30 season and so was not useful for my purposes, reducing the list to just 8. I could have increased the sample size by widening the goal, point, or timeframe windows, but I wanted to keep the list relatively current to avoid era effects as much as possible, and a 5 goal/9 point window seemed like a pretty good gap from that perspective. One thing to note is that this list is small because it's actually pretty hard to score that well that consistently.
A few caveats before I get to the data: a number of seasons here were wiped out due to the 2004-05 lockout, so the sample size for most players here is not 5 seasons; any season that a player was locked out for was not included in the results. A number of players missed entire seasons either due to injury or retirement, which affects the absolute averages (but not the per game averages). The 2005-06 season had elevated scoring due to a large uptick in penalties as a result of the obstruction crackdown coming out of the lockout; some of the players listed here did seem to get a scoring boost that year, but I don't think it was large enough to invalidate the entire exercise and they were all within the range of scoring that those players historically reached.
Let's start by looking at the individual player data so you have some idea what kind of players we're actually looking at here. I've highlighted in green players whose totals were above their 24-28 seasons and red to highlight players whose totals were below their 24-28 seasons:
|Martin St. Louis||0.39||0.64||1.03|
A few things jump out at me here. The most unusual is that half of these players were actually better, and pretty significantly so, during their early 30s than they were during what is typically peak age for NHL scoring. The other thing here that seems important to me is that while goal scoring roughly stayed the same or declined, assist totals went up to compensate. What does this mean for Joffrey Lupul? I think it generally bodes well for him. Assuming he continues to play with Phil Kessel through Kessel's peak years and hoping that the Leafs can add a top line centre better than Tyler Bozak, it seems pretty likely to me that Lupul will be able to pick up quite a few assists in the years to come; Lupul was only 3 assists behind Phil Kessel for the team lead last season and he played 16 games fewer.
Next let's take a look at the per-game numbers for this group as a whole:
You can see that the per-game totals for this group as a whole are pretty good. The goal scoring for this group as a whole stays at or near the 24-28 range and the points per game are above the 24-28 cut-off of 0.70 at every single age here. As a group it's hard to see an awful lot of skill degradation. That's a bit misleading though because there's a bit of selection bias here. By the age 33 and 34 seasons not all of these players are still playing or not playing many games, so the results are skewed by a few unusually talented and healthy players. You can see this a bit more clearly in the next chart.
This chart is an average of the full season totals for this group at each of the ages looked at (ex. how many goals the group averaged at age 30):
The age 33 season has GP totals that are really low because 3 of the 8 players played no games that year either due to injury or retirement. Accounting for that, you can clearly see the decline in games played between age 30 and 34. The goals kind of bounce around a bit but generally show a slow decline, as do the assists and the points. Injuries seem to be a more serious concern than skill degradation.
So what does this say for Joffrey Lupul moving forward? Half of these players showed an improvement in their output while half showed some decline and none, strangely, stayed level. As a group they showed little skill degradation on the hole. The worst player here scored 0.56 points per game over their age 30-34 seasons, the equivalent of 46 points over an 82 game season. Some individual players did show a decline toward the later seasons, but as a group it seems like injuries was the only serious concern for any player other than Anson Carter, who left the league because his output did decline significantly. If Joffrey Lupul has a 7/8 chance to remain a top 6 NHLer throughout this contract I'd say that's very good odds for the Leafs.
The one major concern here is injuries, and Lupul is a guy with a history of those. Injuries seriously slowed down the careers of a number of these players, including Steve Sullivan and Keith Primeau. Based on Lupul's injury history I would say that's a pretty serious concern moving forward. The group looked at here does suggest that Lupul will probably provide pretty good value for whatever number of games he's able to play in.
This is a relatively small group of players so I want to be careful not to draw conclusions that are too strong. But the reason that this group is so small is because it's a group of players with pretty rare talents. When you're in a small group that includes guys like Ray Whitney and Steve Sullivan you're doing pretty well. I haven't looked at the kind of value that these players provide outside of scoring and I think that concerns about Lupul's ability to play defence and drive possession are well justified. But if you're wondering whether Joffrey Lupul will be able to continue to contribute points in a top 6 scoring role throughout this contract, it seems pretty likely that he will.