The Age Card

For some reason, Sam Gagner’s been a hot-button topic for the past few days, both here and elsewhere, and one item that keeps coming up is “the age card.”

Is Gagner’s age irrelevant? He’s in his fourth NHL season – shouldn’t he be pretty much at the peak of his game right now?

The short answer is ‘no.’

As a rule, the really strong, first-ballot Hall of Fame type forwards hit the ground running. The Crosbys, Ovechkins, Sakics, Lemieuxs – those guys generally light up the league before they hit 20. But there are another group of very, very good forwards who don’t start hitting their stride until their early 20’s. What follows is a brief look at some of those players who have played in the Northwest Division over the last few years.

Jarome Iginla – I don’t need to introduce Iginla to Oilers fans, who have had the displeasure of seeing him light up the league with the rival Flames for years now. A three-time First Team All-Star, two-time Rocket Richard winner, owner of both an Art Ross and Lester B. Pearson Trophy along with five gold medals, Iginla has had an impressive career. Iginla turned 22 in the summer of 1999, fresh off his third season in the NHL, and at that juncture he had averaged 44 points a season and the best season of his career was a 51-point effort. He would put up 63 points the following season, but would spend the decade after that between 65 and 100 points every year.

The Sedin Twins – This is another pair of players that Oilers fans are familiar with. Henrik Sedin is fresh off a season where he took home the Hart and Art Ross trophies, along with a First Team All-Star berth, and both he and his brother have been high-end two-way players for the last five seasons, always near the point-per-game mark while preventing offence the other way with their frustrating style. In the fall of 2004, as the players celebrated their 24th birthdays, they’d had a breakout season of sorts: Daniel had topped the 50 point mark for the first time ever (in three previous seasons, he’d never bested 35 points) while Henrik had just completed his first 40-point campaign. Fans in B.C. were by and large fed up with the twins; while they bridle now at the “Sedin Sisters” moniker it was one that was repeated over and over again on call-in shows, in conversation, and on the internet by fans of the team. I lost track of the number of times I heard a frustrated fan call for the team to trade the bums. Of course, post-lockout the two players have been among the league’s most consistent scorers (Henrik ranks 6th in post-lockout scoring, Daniel 11th) and the majority of those people have had a change of heart.

Ryan Kesler – The 23rd overall pick in the deep 2003 draft, the question mark with Kesler was whether he had the offensive chops to play anything more than a bottom-six role at the NHL level. He has since shown himself to be a capable two-way player; he’s coming off a 75-point season while taking on the toughest assignments (leaving the Sedin line free to score) and is generally regarded as the straw that stirs the drink on his line. But as Kesler turned 24 in the summer of 2008, none of this was readily apparent: he had just played in his breakthrough fourth NHL season, scoring 20 goals for the first time and challenging the 40 point mark (he recorded 37). It was his first season with more than 25 points. We now know that he built on that, tallying 59 and then 75 points, but it was far from apparent at the time.

Ales Hemsky – The most dynamic player in Edmonton, Hemsky has consistently flirted with the point-per-game mark in the half-decade since the NHL lockout, and has been the team’s only constant offensive threat during that span. But as he turned 22, coming off his third professional season, there were still a lot of questions. In his first two NHL years, he hadn’t hit 35 points, and a trip to the Czech Republic during the lockout wasn’t especially encouraging either – he’d finished with 31 points in 47 games, which roughly translates to a 40 point NHL season. He scored 77 points the following season, and while health has been an issue his offensive production has been excellent since.

Markus Naslund – The former Vancouver captain was a good player for a long time, but he had some peak years that were truly exceptional, scoring 40+ goals on three occasions and tallying 103 points during the height of the dead puck era. He was a three-time First Team All-Star, and in 2003 won the Lester B. Pearson award. When he turned 25 in the summer of 1998, however, it was fair to ask if he’d ever be even a consistent second line player. Sure, he’d topped the 50 point mark once, as a bit player on a stacked Penguins team featuring Lemieux, Jagr, Francis, Nedved (45 goals, 99 points) and Sandstrom (70 points in 58 games) but they’d shipped him away for nothing and his offence had steadily dropped from that high, to just over 40 points and finally down to 34. There was no way of knowing that Naslund was about to score 36 goals and 66 points, or that he would top both the 20-goal and 60-point marks for the next eight seasons. In fact, for the decade after that disappointing 34 point season, Naslund would be the league’s third-best goal-scorer and sixth-best point scorer.

Those are just a handful of examples of first round picks who emerged only after lengthy stints in the NHL, and not one of them saw their breakthrough season until they were older than Sam Gagner is today. I’ve ignored the myriad of players from past years, from outside the division, and I’ve even omitted the long list of players who didn’t make their NHL debuts until they were older than Gagner is now; guys like Milan Hejduk, Mikko Koivu, Chris Drury, and Martin St. Louis.

Ganger’s age is relevant. He might be in his fourth NHL season, but he’s barely 21; other (still highly regarded) players from his draft year are only now starting to show what they can do – players like Jakub Voracek, Logan Couture, and James Van Riemsdyk. Writing him off at this juncture would be premature.