By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist

With the Buffalo Sabres on a long break because of the All-Star Game, I needed a project. Happily, I thought of one – with a little help.

The idea came from a comment by my friend Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News, who was wondering if the Sabres were wasting the prime of Jack Eichel’s career. Yes, he has been playing very well this season in taking a big step forward. I had taken a statistical look almost 30 years ago of when an NHL player hit his prime, at least in terms of offensive output.  Since I was working in public relations for the Sabres then, I submitted the information to general manager Gerry Meehan.  I have no idea if he used it as a tool in player transactions, but I know he took a good-sized interest in it.

The conclusion I reached at the time was that a player had the best chance of peaking in terms of offensive production (in other words, points) around the age of 25. Therefore, the 23-year-old Eichel shouldn’t be quite in his prime right now and can get better … if the conclusions still hold up.

But do they? The game in the NHL has certainly changed since the early 1990s. International players have helped fill out rosters with better talent, analytics have become a huge tool as of late, and conditioning and nutrition principles are better than ever. Does that change a player’s prime number as well as other areas concerning scoring over time?

Spoiler alert: Yes. And warning: there’s some arithmetic involved.

Collecting the data

I went through the statistical base of 13 teams – Boston, St. Louis, Buffalo, Toronto, Los Angeles, Carolina, Chicago, San Jose, Montreal, Washington, N.Y. Rangers, Vancouver and Tampa Bay – from the end of last season. There was no obvious reason for the teams chosen; it was just an attempt to get a wide sample size of players.

I went through the players who had been regulars for at least six seasons in the NHL, and wrote down his point production by age on a database. The numbers start with the first season as a regular. There were more than 100 such players counted. If a player missed a good chunk of a season in the middle of that stretch, the point total counted anyway. Injuries happen.  I did not include numbers from the 2012-13 season, which only had 48 games, as I didn’t want to bother with pro-rating the totals to an 82-game season.

I also kept track of when a player had his best offensive season. Ties counted for all ages. For example, Jeff Skinner has had 63 points in a season three different times – ages 18, 24 and 26. All three of the ages got a “checkmark” there. (I had not done that in 1990, so this was all new information.)

Obviously, determining a prime offensive season for players who have only participated in six full seasons may skew the numbers a little bit to the young side. An 18-year-old who is a six-year veteran is only 24, and still has room for growth. That has to be noticed, but hopefully the number of players covered – all the way through 41-year-old Zdeno Chara – will be enough to be representative. By the way, the average age in the NHL at this moment – including goalies, who tend to be older than skaters – is 28.4.

Here are my numbers. Sea refers to seasons counted, Avg is average points per player at that age, and CB is Career Bests at that age.

Age – Sea/Points – Avg. – CBs                         Age – Sea/Points – Avg. – CBs
18 – 10/323 – 32.3 – 1                                         30 – 56/2,437 – 43.5 – 10
19 – 28/966 – 34.5 – 0                                         31 – 42/1,541 – 36.7 – 4
20 – 45/1,652 – 34.5 – 0                                      32 – 33/1,256 – 38.1 – 2
21 – 68/2,673 – 39.3 – 7                                      33 – 22/737 – 33.5 – 1
22 – 78/3,236 – 41.5 – 10                                    34 – 18/652 – 36.2 – 2
23 – 92/3,967 – 43.1 – 9                                      35 – 10/352 – 35.2 – 0
24 – 104/4,224 – 40.6 – 17                                  36 – 9/334 – 37.1 – 0
25 – 107/4,413 – 41.2 – 13                                  37 – 7/231 – 33.0 -0
26 – 105/4,280 – 40.8 – 14                                  38 – 4/144 – 37.3 – 0
27 – 95/3,808 – 40.1 – 11                                    39 – 4/127 – 31.8 – 0
28 – 87/3,478 – 40.0 – 17                                    40 – 1/24 – 24.0 – 0
29 – 72/2,870 – 39.9 – 9                                      41 – 1/14 – 14.0 – 0

As you can see, the numbers rise just like we’d expect they would from age 18 to 23. But then the average point total floats around until the age of 30, when it unexpectedly peaks. That’s a little tough to explain; perhaps some of the lower-scoring players drop out of the league in favor of young replacements at that point, while the top players are still putting up good numbers. Or, maybe it’s just a little noise in the data that would go away in a year. Meanwhile, the Career Bests are bunched a bit between 24 and 28, and are still fairly consistent between 22 and 30. You’ll notice that the sample sizes get mighty small after age 35, and shouldn’t receive too much attention.

Back in time

Let’s take this one step further. We’ll change the point averages to a percentage basis when compared to the biggest number. The age-30 number of 43.5 points per game becomes 100, and the others drop proportionately from there. We’ll also add the percentage from the 1990 study for comparison’s sake:

Age – 2019 – 1990                                               Age – 2019 – 1990
18 – 74.3 – 53.9                                                    30 – 100.0 – 78.6
19 – 79.3 – 70.1                                                    31 – 84.4 – 75.7
20 – 84.4 – 78.1                                                    32 – 87.6 – 69.8
21 – 90.3 – 92.8                                                    33 – 77.0 – 72.9
22 – 95.4 – 93.6                                                    34 – 83.2 – 62.9
23 – 99.1 – 89.5                                                    35 – 80.0 – 64.0
24 – 93.3 – 96.5                                                    36 – 85.2 – 59.2
25 – 94.7 – 100.0                                                  37 – 75.8 – 66.9
26 – 93.8 – 98.3                                                    38 – 85.7 – 89.1
27 – 92.2 – 87.2                                                    39 – 73.1 – 43.9
28 – 92.0 – 85.8                                                    40 – 55.2 – none
29 – 91.7 – 81.2                                                    41 – 32.2 – none

It was easy to pick the 24-26 range as the peak in the 1990 study; the numbers really jump out at that point. Now, it’s not so clear. But a couple of conclusions are obvious. Young players are doing better when they first enter the league as teenagers, so NHL teams have learned to pick the ones that are more ready to succeed at a younger age.

Meanwhile, today’s players are holding off the aging process quite well. Their point total is staying much closer to their peak than their counterparts did almost 30 years ago.

What it means

This sort of information can be important in such areas as long-term contracts. The previously mentioned Skinner signed an eight-year deal over the summer with the Sabres. He is in his age-27 year now, which means he’ll play through age 34 on this deal. There are a number of other factors involved in offensive production, such as team play, linemates, and power-play opportunities. But all other things being equal, Skinner should maintain most of his current output through the first four years of the deal, and still have plenty left for the back half of it.

With all that in mind, I would say that the peak years of an NHL player’s career in terms of points probably are between 24 and 28 – perhaps closer to the older number because of the data collected. But the players around those ages aren’t far behind at all. What’s more, it looks as if the NHL has figured that point out – because players start the process of falling out of the league around the age of 28 because there might be someone better coming along.

The NHL is a better league than it used to be almost 30 years ago, and this trend probably is a big reason why.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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