The end to the 2014-15 season was difficult for everybody involved with the New York Rangers because of how close they were to a second straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Not even a magnificent performance from the King Henrik Lundqvist was enough.
When a transcendent player delivers this type of performance in his 30s, it is natural to wonder how many he has left. Rick Nash is also on the other side of 30 now and it makes it tough to read a 2015-16 Rangers season preview without a reference to their Stanley Cup window. Is it still open, and if so, how much longer will it remain open? These concerns are legitimate when we address aging curves and identifying the primes of NHL superstars.
For a long time, playing primes were assumed to occur later in careers than recent research would indicate. It appears that a players scoring prime peaks at 24 and then enters a decline stage through their 20s that accelerates as they hit their 30s.
I included every year from 2007-08 to 2013-14, the period for which we have easy access to 5-on-5 scoring rates. I looked at every forward who played two years in a row during that period, and noted their year-over-year change (accounting for variance).
For each age, I could then calculate the average change, and can chain those yearly changes together to produce a typical aging curve:
Goalies are similar in that they also begin to regress more severely after 30.
It’s tough to avoid this conversation when your franchise cornerstones will be 31 and 34, respectively, when the 2016 NHL Playoffs begin. Looking at recent Stanley Cup champions, we see a core of star players in the 24-to-28 year-old sweet spot. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were 21 and 26 during the Blackhawks’ recent Cup run. Drew Doughty, Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter were between 22 and 28 during the Kings’ run. The same story holds true for most Cup champions outside of a couple of outliers.
Lundqvist isn’t really too much of a concern, as his regression still makes him an outstanding goaltender because his peak is so high.
The 2014-15 Rangers were one period away from back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals appearances and return the majority of the team for this season. This isn’t an aging team, the core of it is in their prime productive years and it is supported by a strong defensive core like Keith Yandle and Marc Staal, who are both 29.
The backbone of this team continues to be defense and goaltending, and the leader of that defense is captain Ryan McDonagh, who is only 26. During the playoffs, McDonagh did a brilliant job of soaking up tough minutes and with the same defensive units returning, they can still deploy McDonagh and Dan Girardi in the shutdown role. This allows them to have Yandle quarterback the powerplay and use him in an exploitation role to take advantage of their depth on the backend.
Offensively, the Rangers will need to transition from a Nash-reliant offense to one where he can soak up tough minutes and compliment the younger core of Derek Stepan (25), Chris Kreider (24), Mats Zuccarello (28) and the emerging Kevin Hayes (23). Nash is getting older and with Martin St. Louis gone, it may be expecting too much for him to equal the third greatest offensive output of his career from 2014-15.
The window will remain open if they get the expected internal improvement based on just a typical average aging curve and transition from Nash as primary scorer to their younger core, but they also need to not be so over-reliant on Lundqvist if they want to hoist the Stanley Cup.