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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Milan Lucic: Rebounding into an Aging Ceiling?

One key to success for the Oilers next year is a decent year from Milan Lucic.

What does ‘decent year’ even mean though? What can we reasonably expect out of Looch next year?

Rebound or continued plummet?

Some are convinced that Looch’s points total next year will be in the 30s at best. Because he’s done – too slow, too old, too beat up for the new NHL.

Some are adamant that it will be in the 40s (meh) or 50s (good) or 60s (whaaat!) next year. They are very much in the “rebound” camp, arguing that Lucic’s scoring shortfalls are something that can be cured by the passage of time or an attitude adjustment.

Fence

I’m not very optimistic in terms of the number projection. It’s easy to see Looch doing better next year, but hard to see Lucic doing a lot better next year, and time is clearly ticking.

But for a variety of reasons I do happen to be in the rebound camp, and wrote about it previously.

That seems contradictory, no? Not so optimistic on the numbers, but still believing in a rebound?

This is because I believe there are two opposing forces at work regarding Lucic.

The (Simplest) Case for the Rebound

Mar 31, 2018; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers left wing Milan Lucic (27) and Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Smith (41) fight during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Calgary Flames won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

On the one hand, the single biggest reason for believing in a rebound is that his scoring fell off a cliff starting in January. Not at the start of the season! January.

While he finished 2018 with an absolutely miserable 8 points in 43 games, it’s worth remembering that he started the season with 26 points in 39 games. That’s on pace for a 55 point season. That’s a ‘prime Lucic’ pace, on par with his LAK season and better than his average in BOS.

That tells me there’s something more than just an aging curve or an off-season training issue or “it’s a faster league” situation at work. Those things didn’t suddenly happen over Christmas.

There are other mean-reverting factors (his sh% of 6.8 was the lowest of his career) at play, but the seasonal split is the simplest data point that can’t be easily countered with an argument based on aging or speed of NHL.

The Case for the Decline

The offset to that is that I also legitimately accept that there are a lot of hard miles on Looch, and so it’s reasonable – based on the arc of his career – to believe he is well onto the downslope of an aging curve already. Arguably, that’s an effect that was starting to show before he got to Edmonton, and the Oilers’ tendency to play a skating style rather than a dominating possession style (like BOS and LAK) perhaps has exposed that.

So my working hypothesis is that Lucic will indeed rebound, but he’ll rebound towards a ceiling that is declining.

Today’s article is to try and estimate where that ceiling might be.

The Simplest Aging Curve

The simplest aging curve assumes that a player follows a literal curve – a steady improvement when young, a broad peak, and a steady decline when older. The most basic statistic to use for this curve is something like points scored (normalized for games played of course).

So let’s model this with a curve (technically: a quadratic regression) on points per game. It looks like this:

So the first observation is that this represents a pretty decent fit. The curve runs nicely through Looch’s points history, and the usual metric for assessing fit (R², shown on the chart) indicates that about 50% of Looch’s points history history can be explained by aging. That’s quite a high number for any sort of curve fit that involves one person!

Notice that the chart shows the curve extended from past data to one year in the future. We can use that to create an estimate for Looch’s points per game pace next year.

And those results … are not so encouraging … to say the least.

Yikes

Plugging next season (Looch’s twelfth) into the equation shown on the chart, we get an estimate for next year of 0.33 pts/game, or just 27 points in a full 82 game season. YIKES.

If we adjust that to an estimated range by looking at a 20% range of variation around that number, you get 0.27 to 0.4 points per game, which equates to between 22 and 33 points. Given Looch’s history of bouncing above and below that curve, maybe I’d say he’s more likely to outperform than underperform that number – this is where we see the bounceback in other words.

But 33 points. That’s basically a repeat of his miserable 2017 season.

And that’s *after* accounting for a bounceback.

Oh man.

Zoloft

Before we get too down in the dumps, let’s dig a little around that number to see if we can find something more encouraging.

Lucic had a singular points peak quite early in his career. Could that be a reflection of the strength of that Cup winning team … which then makes any sort of curve fit artificially severe on the downside?

Plausible?

To address that, let’s see what happens if we only model the post peak years. What does the decline look like then?

Results: well … better, though still not great.

The fit is still decent. But now the prediction sits at 32 points (0.39 points/game) with a range of 27 to 37. Still highly problematic if you’re counting on Milan to be a Top 6 forward.

Using the early season run rate

One more thought exercise – let’s dig into that early season/late season split. The one where he was at a solid 55 point pace up to December, then scored at approximately the same rate as his own cardboard cutout after that.

Let’s take Milan at this word, that he fell off a cliff in January because he was down in the dumps. And now – hallelujah – he has seen the light, and that’s the Looch we’re going to get all of next season. Subject to the aging curve of course!

What if instead of his actual seasonal numbers, we pretend* he scored those 55 points last season? Yes, I’m getting a bit desperate over here!

If we refit the aging curve using this new … um … “assumption” … it now looks like this:

*This whole section is something of an exercise in wild ass assumptions, I highly recommend against trying any of this at home

Ah, well, now we’re cooking with the most optimistic of gas!

If he can deliver a full season at the pace he was playing at before the New Year, subject to an aging curve, Lucic could deliver around 0.54 pts/game, or about 44 points (with a reasonable range of 35 to 53).

Hey, Looch isn’t pushing up the daisies after all, it turns out he’s just been pining for the fjords!

Embed from Getty Images

The massive blinking red-light cautions on this optimistic little side project though:

a. we’re manipulating the data because the initial results are unpleasant. While we are rolling in some additional information regarding Lucic’s career, it’s not exactly rigorous ya know

b. the fit is no longer as good as before, which is a bit of a warning sign on top of that

c. the new curve also means this last season was above the curve – so next year, far from expecting a bounceback, maybe we rationally expect a decline below the projected number. More rain on the parade even when we’re pretending it’s a sunny day.

Uncertainty

Nov 24, 2017; Buffalo, NY, USA; Edmonton Oilers left wing Milan Lucic (27) against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center. Buffalo beats Edmonton 3 to 1. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

What does all of this tell us about Looch?

It tells us that … with all of the ups and downs of his career scoring … and his two lousy (5v5) years in Edmonton … and the hot-cold pace of last year … when it comes time to try and project what’s going to happen next year, uncertainty seems to be the order of the day.

A straightforward (albeit well fitting) aging curve suggests that last years crappy 34 points would represent a bounce back year for Looch next season, with downside risk to a miserable 22ish points.

Manipulate the data a little bit, generate a few optimistically minor variations of the aging curve using some additional information about Lucic’s career, and we get a full seasonal projection range all the way to a higher-than-career-average 53 points.

Twenty two to fifty three points!

Now, if you put a gun to my head, I’m of course going to ignore the manipulations and just go with the original estimate. Let the data speak, as it were, even if the data are miserable rat finks who would snitch on their own mother for smoking a little pot. Data that I hope are really really wrong.

What it all really says to me, though, is that anyone who predicts with any measure of certainty what Lucic might do next year is probably full of caca!

  • 18% body fat

    He can’t be as bad as last year. But if you give him a total for last year that’s relative to where he should have been say playing with 97 he could have been around 53 points or so. So let’s say he rebounds. 1 he is not playing with 97 going forward. This is a 10 point loss. Next the type of player he is do tend to start to decline earlier than the rest. So even with a rebound, there will be some decline to where he should have been last year and not playing with 97. We are looking at somewhere around the 39 to 42 point mark. With a 33 point season the following year.

    Need to get out of this contract as soon as he has any bit of value. Not because he cant play hockey but because there are better options for half the price. 2 3m dollar players bring more value to this team.

    • n(Ice)

      It’s the “not playing with McDavid” part that most sports guys seem to leave out of it. He did fall off a cliff in the second half of last season in large part because he was no longer playing with McDavid and because the coach FINALLY reduced his power play time. When he was playing with McDavid he wasn’t doing that much to begin with, hence lost his job (except for power play time) to Maroon the preceding year. The coach and gm spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to hand Looch points on a platter, I think to the detriment of the team as a whole, especially the young players.

  • Oilerz4life

    Looch again?? There is no “rebound”. PC was fleeced. This season serves one purpose. Prep that boat anchor contract for the big trade. Put old Looch out to pasture in Carolina…

  • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

    This again? For gods sake. Lucic will be FINE! He had a bad tear like most everyone else did. I’m sorry, but I’m getting sick of all the Lucic articles and the negativity that is associated with them. Lucic will have a strong, solid year and I can’t wait to gleefully day “I told you so” when he does

      • MrBung

        There were lots that did but were prepared to tone down the criticism if the Oil were winning….Craig Simpson said the Oil will start regretting it in the 3rd season. He was off by one season.

    • sweatyballs2

      If Lucic can be more engaged in front of the net and corners and cause guys to go after him and destroy anyone looking at McDavid funny and get better puck luck in front of the net, 35 to 44 points with that type of player is worth the 6mil provided he gets coached better on how to handle breakouts on the side boards

  • PimpTaco

    Good grief yet another lucic story.

    How about saying tht if Talbot didnt let in 11 first shots on goal we would have been better. It is constant articles like this why you guys will never have any cred. No locker room access. Just picking away on the internet.

    Up your game.

  • Chris Prongers Rake

    It’s too bad this piece wasn’t longer…I had to stop for a sandwich half way through. I am glad it was on a topic that TSN, Sportsnet, or this site, hasnt reported on since Lucic signed in Edmonton.

  • VK63

    I like this. Coefficients of determination in the 49-52% range are quite strong for hockey stuff. Heck, guys get into binary screaming fests on social media where the underlying metrics are 28-30% R2 for the stats guy.
    Not that it holds them back in the “you are dumb as dog caca” accusations for their adversaries!!
    LOL.

  • Daryl Katz

    Things Looch never gets credit for….carrying Stetcher on his back then scoring for all of Vancouver to see like in photo #1. And also trying to pound the always overrated Lames goalie Mike Smith like in photo #2. These 2 highlights I never get sick of seeing the photos of !!

  • Dallas Eakins Hair

    Lucic will be better this year, there are a lot of NHL players that get mired in slumps, Lucic wouldnt be the first. Lucic will have a point to prove in that he still has what it takes to play the game, and I doubt there isn’t anyone on the Oilers team that doesnt want him to succeed. If Lucic truly does want a trade it aint going to happen unless he has a better year, because your not going to move Lucic term and salary unless he can prove to himself, the team and the rest of the NHL that he can still play the game.

    I hope Lucic can get back to the form he had when he first came to the oilers, he had an awesome year and looked like he was enjoying himself and he was a force out there. If the Oilers can really get going this year, they could do well, the only thing that scares me is much like last year, Chia has this team pinned by hope that this player will break out, and that player will go back to form…last year, hope didnt work out too well. Keep are fingers crossed I guess.

  • Moneyball

    Lucic will have a kick ass season next year. The big guy has to be more aggressive in th corners and more confident with the puck. He is not the player to worry about.

    • Bills Bills

      Edit or delete button please!

      The number crunching was great. But there are no numbers or equations that will account for the human factor. Not a single post has accurately been able to determine what changed after Christmas. All the stats analysis in the world will not tell you what was going through his mind. Why his shooting percentage dropped off the face of the earth.

      The analytics will only tell you what has happened. As for projecting the future, close your eyes and throw a dart. Because when you calculate the mean average of the accuracy of projections. You’re lucky to be right 50% of the time.

      Anyway, nerdboy thinks I am too dumb to understand all his fancy speak but it seems like he stayed away from typical cheap shots this time and stuck to the data. Maybe it’s not too late for him.

  • What-a-Mike

    IMO, I can see reasons already that support and justify Lucic fully rebounding from last horrible season’s results. I see Lucic getting between 55 to 65 points because of his pride, because he likely has taken new skating practices/workouts this off season, there being new type coaches and upgraded offence systems, less McClellan player lines’ jostling and blundering, etc. Yes this is positive thinking from myself, but the logic of having a healthy defence, better goaltending, a new improved coaching, player and team attitude combines for a much better season for the Oilers completely. Not saying the team will be cup contenders but there is no reason to believe the Oilers are actually talently worse than the Ducks, the Flames, Sharks, the Knights so as to not gain a playoff spot come Spring. The Team over-all (GM, Coaches & Players), except for superstar McDavid, are each to all under the gun to perform top notch and Lucic is basically the prime candidate to prove this.

  • OriginalPouzar

    The main issue with Lucic is that he’s been poor for almost the entirety of the two seasons. He was just as poor in his first season at 5 on 5 as he was in the second season – in fact, he scored at a slightly higher rate at 5 on 5 this past year than he did in 2016/17.

    His 2016/17 was very poor at even strength but was saved by a crazy heater on the PP that was a clear outlier in the history of his career. Looch has always been a solid 5 on 5 producer without producing much on the PP. In 2016/17, his production at 5 on 5 was among the worst of his career but his PP numbers were huge career highs, double his previous career highs.

    His 2016/17 PP success was not reasonably repeatable and when he went back to historical norms on the PP this past season and still struggled at 5 on 5, we get the career awful year.

    Aside from the 1/3 of a season in 2017/18, he has been poor at 5 on 5 for two full years. Not to mention he simply looks bad on the ice and has been a drag in the transition game, making mistakes taking and receiving simple passes at the blue line and in the neutral zone.

    ——————————————–

    After painting that horrid picture, I will say, I do think he’ll be better at 5 on 5 this year, not back to peak years but enough to not be a drag on the middle 6. His bounce back is important, not only for the team this year (to ensure that guys like Khaira aren’t pressed up the lineup) but also for a potential disposition of the player and contract in the off-season.

    Come on Milan!!!!

  • Gull

    Wasn’t Lucic brought into the Oilers to bring toughness and grit? We have McDavid and Draisaitl and Nuge etc to anchor the first and second lines and stack up points. The fan base and media need to settle down a bit and temper expectations, forget about what the guy is getting paid. Lucic should start on the third or fourth line, next to Strome or Brodziak and beat the crap out of the opposition and keep the puck out of our net. Intimidate, no one wants to mess with Lucic when he is angry. Have him rolling like that and the entire team becomes tougher. If he does that I don’t care if he gets 20 points next year.

  • Abagofpucks

    Neal isnt on another level he’s a different kind of player than Lucic, Neal is a shooter/powerplay type Lucic is a grinder in your face type. They both manage to get around the same point totals. Neal was on a cup final team last year and got 44 points Lucic except for last year gets close to the same.

  • PJP

    As demonstrated by the article, the predictions depend so much on the model and the assumptions upon which it is based.

    All of the curves used were basically symmetrical – assuming the development time early in the athletes career mirrors the age induced decline at the end of the career. Is this correct? Isnt there evidence for professional athletes having a longer tail, a less precipitous drop? Or is that just an artifact of the very best of them stretching out their careers? (Howe vs Lindros)

    Also, hockey, unlike many individual sports (track and field for example), allows for players to change team roles – defensive specialist to offensive superstar, PK to PP, moving down from the first to the fourth line etc. (Here I am thinking about RNH’s usage thru his career). Does hockey have the same aging curve as other sports?

    Does Lucic’s numbers look different with that more sophisticated model (for better or for worse)?

    • Bills Bills

      This is part of my point when it come to statistical analysis. There are ways to manipulate the numbers, calculate with different variables and end up with different variations. So when you add it all up, how often are these accurate predictors of future outcomes? No better than 50/50.

      But don’t tell that to nerdboy who thinks he’s a after than everyone else. They nerdboys can be very sensitive.

  • KMA

    You know Milan is an easy target for those of us who claim to be fans or at least spectators. That being said, if I was the opposition I would challenge him at every opportunity. I think Lucic is on the downside of a relatively short career.

    • Bills Bills

      The book on Lucic for the opponent’s is exactly the opposite. Don’t mess with him and don’t wake him up. You mess with the bull and you get the horns. Lucic is still arguably the biggest bull in the rink on any given night. And when he sets his horns on someone, look out. Everyone in the league knows it and that is a big reason he commanded a $6 million dollar contract on the open market. Like it or not, it really isn’t disputable.

  • Heschultzhescores

    A 30 year old man is generally agrred upon by science to be in his physical peak. Looch has lots left, the coych potatoes are out of shape at 30, not an elite athlete.

  • Violentgent13

    It’s scary though because if he fails to produce this year I can see him bringing his linemates down with him and I see Looch having a lot of ice time with Poolio.
    I say if he doesn’t rebound by December move him to the 4th line and lets the younger boys battle for that top 6 spot.
    ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • Big Nuggets

      I am going to assume Luc will be good enough to play 3rd line minutes. As long as his shooting percentage bounces back and he plays tough he will be good enough.

  • Arfguy

    Personally, I do not have a lot of faith in Lucic bouncing back next year. At the same time, I think the Oilers can maximize his contribution by keeping him away from McDavid. I think he’s a better fit for Draisaitl or Strome, personally. I think if he were to put with Draisaitl for an extended period of time, I think he can bounce back. I think Draisaitl’s pace is more on par with Lucic than McDavid.

    Basically, I think we are stuck with Lucic. Best thing to do is to make the best of it.

  • jaksqwat

    He developed an allergy to rubber and ice. He’ll need to take care of his health and move on with life. It’s hard, but I believe in him. He can rebuild his life and find a new passion!

  • Gravis82

    Select players who scored at the same average ppg as Lucic did in during his first three years at the same starting age, within 95% confidence (lets call them ‘Lucic-like initial scorers’). Second, fit test the ppg vs. year curves for these ‘Lucic-like initial scorers’ for years 4-10 of their career and first confirm that quadratic is actually the best model (side note, consider a count model? Hmmm…points are an event that is counted…). Third, keep only the players among the ‘Lucic-like initial scorers’ who’s curves are similar to Lucic’s year 4-10 scoring curve, again with 95% confidence (let’s call them ‘Lucic-like careers’). Now comes the fun part…use this data from the 4-10 curves generated by the ‘Lucic-like career’ players to predict Lucic’s actual performance last year. Assess how close this was to the reality we all saw, both contextually and statistically. Then, armed with that information, do next year.