Friday, January 4, 2013

Kessel, Lupul, And a Scientific Look At The Elusive 'Prime' Years

Everyone ages.

We all grow from infants to teenagers to adults and finish, if we're lucky enough to get there, as a member of the privileged elderly class enjoying a significant discount at all major restaurants. Throughout that process our bodies physical and athletic abilities develop and grow, eventually maximizing at a specific point in time commonly known as our “prime”.

In sports, all teams look to maximize the number of players on their roster that are currently enjoying their prime athletic years; conversely minimizing the number of players that are still developing and the ones that are physically declining leading towards inevitable retirement.

For the Maple Leafs, the contracts of Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel will be expiring at the end of 2013, forcing management to consider where they fall on the spectrum of an athlete’s climb and decline. The unrestricted free agent crop of 2013 (including Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry) will also tempt the team to hand out significant money and term to star players.

The problem is, we can’t predict exactly when a player is at his best; nor when he will begin the inevitable decline. Each player is different and their individual development curve could differ from that of their peers. The use of statistical data can further muddy the waters, since numbers like goals, assists, power play points...etc can often be a result of opportunity, linemates, team situations, and other statistical noise.

Predicting these peak years becomes even more critical in a league like the NHL where the salary cap system increases a team's need to squeeze maximum performance out of its players for minimal dollars. Unlike Major League Baseball where teams have the ability to hide poor long term contracts to aging stars (if your pockets are deep enough) the National Hockey League doesn’t have that luxury. In the NHL if your team is burdened with a player past his physical prime, whilst still being paid marquee dollars there is no easy fix. Yes, you can try to package that player in a trade to another team or buy them out, but either way, you'll be paying the price for giving a player a contract that rewards a player for his prime years during the years where he's past his peak.

This is a dilemma that many teams could face once (if) the NHL and NHLPA can agree to a new collective bargaining agreement. The salary cap is rumoured to be moving from close to $70 million down to $60ish million. Teams like the Flyers, Canucks, Rangers and Bruins could find it difficult to sign certain RFAs and be a major player in free agency as a result of the slimmed down cap.

There will be a renewed focus by team management to hand out player contracts where they have a reasonable chance to perform in line with their pay cheque. Additionally, it’s expected that contracts will be limited to between 6 and 7 years in length, with a fixed percentage of yearly salary variance throughout the term of the contract. This should effectively end front loaded deals that dwindle in the latter years, which had allowed teams to circumvent the cap for star players. In the future, accurately determining the ‘prime’ years of a player --and paying him accordingly for that window-- will be paramount to success.

Last week I came across a research study published in August 2012 by the journal AGE. AGE is an international, peer-reviewed journal that publishes articles describing research in the biology of aging and research on biomedical applications that impact aging. Which, of course, has a lot to with sport and our current discussion on when athletes achieve their peak level of performance.

The study is entitled ‘Exponential growth combined with exponential decline explains lifetime performance evolution in individual human species’ (full article here). To quote the venerable Marty McFly, that’s “heavy” stuff. The basic concept of the study was to look at the physiological capacity of humans and how this changes with age. At birth we have close to zero capabilities that then increases to a maximum output and then decreases back to zero when we pass away. This applies for both physical and intellectual skills. In order to capture both aspects of human function and how it correlates to each, the researchers looked at performance of humans over 3 disciplines: chess, swimming, and track and field.

The data was collected over the course of 30 years beginning in 1980; looking at 13 Olympic sports (1392 subjects), 12 swimming events (815 subjects), and the careers of 96 chess grandmasters. In order to get a more broad view they looked at the individual career progressions of athletes as well as the world records and the age at which they were set.

The researchers admit to certain limitations with the study that couldn’t be successfully controlled for. This includes; the evolution of nutrition and training over the past 30 years that has allowed athletes to compete at an earlier age and for a longer period; medical improvements to injury and recovery; technological improvements, most notably swimsuit advancements; they failed to include Wayne Gretzky as one of the Chess Grandmasters, which is about the only way to explain 2857 career points.

Of course the biggest caveat from the vantage point of a Leafs fan is the study didn’t look directly at ice hockey as one of its data points. We can surmise certain concepts and possible conclusions from the results, but the study is certainly not definitive. For those of you already writing in the comments section “Oh yea, well what about Martin St. Louis”.... yes, we know he's old; that's what we call an 'outlier'.

The study concludes the age of peak performance for each of the 3 areas to be:

Track and Field: 26.0

Swimming: 21.0

Chess: 31.4

Looking at the 3 results we can’t take any one and apply it to completely to hockey, since the physical and mental elements of hockey overlap in part with all 3. There is the speed and strength dynamic of hockey that has become increasing important since the 2004 lockout that would be akin to the requirements of track and field and swimming. However, the NHL is also a significantly cerebral league, requiring players to constantly evaluate game situations, puck circulation, when it’s optimal to pass, shoot, check...etc. Of the 3 data points, only chess is 100% mental (if you ignore the strain of physically moving the pieces, which, come on).

Growing up I always understood the best years of a hockey players career to fall between age 26 and 32. Theoretically, this is when he has developed enough physically while also possessing the right amount of mental acuity and experience. The results of the study seem to add some degree of credence to this theory, if perhaps slightly adjusted. If a player is at or near his prime at 25, it’s reasonable to think that the mental aspect of hockey (in some ways similar to that of a chess player) would extend the prime years to close to 30.

It takes a couple of calculated inferences, but we can guess that a hockey player will generally enjoy his best years in the NHL between the age of 25 and 30. This can vary significantly where opportunity, injury, and team situation either positively or negatively affect a player at different points in his career.

Below are the ages of the 4 players mentioned earlier:

Phil Kessel – 26

Joffrey Lupul – 29

Ryan Getzlaf – 27

Corey Perry – 27

What’s exciting about all 4 is that they fall within our theoretical ‘prime’ years. The question for Brian Burke and Leafs management will be how much to offer each (in the case of Perry and Getzlaf, if they become UFAs).

Phil Kessel, at 26, should produce at a relatively constant rate over a 4 to 5 year contract, helping to mitigate the risk in giving him a longer deal. Conversely, Joffrey Lupul will pose a risk on a long term agreement, depending on the contract and cap hit. There is value in a player, even when he is in his declining years; the trick is to make sure he isn’t still being paid to be the player he was when he was in his prime during the years while he's not. The big question with Lupul is whether he is willing to take a contract more in line with his expected performance going forward, or if his new-found success in Toronto has played him out of the city.

Determining a players ‘prime’ years, even when rooted in scientific results, is still ultimately an educated guess. GMs are forced to look at a number of individual player factors, while also considering overall team issues such as budgets and where they are in the success cycle. In the end, the best teams --the ones that have enjoyed success over the past 5 to 8 years-- have been able to find a good mix of entry level contracts and affordable veterans to surround their star players. Not every contract on your books needs to be efficient but you do need to be sure that if you're going to overpay for a free agent, that you can insulate him with some guys who will outperform their own deals.

The plight of many GMs is a veteran player who signed a long term deal as a star and has since faded can severely constrict a team and lead to a prolonged rebuilding stage. However, a 21 or 22 year old performing at close to their peak level on an ELC can result in substantial cap flexibility.

While the pre-salary cap NHL used to reward free agents for what they had accomplished in the past, the new NHL is relying increasingly on expected future production in determining contract values. Understanding when players decline (and by how much) is one of the principle keys to running an effective front office. The decisions that Burke makes on players like Lupul who are about to see their skills erode will be critical when it comes to creating an efficient team-wide salary structure moving forward.

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