Ottawa Remains An Old Team

Having purchased the latest Hockey Prospectus 2012/13 Annual — which comes highly recommended to anyone who regularly frequents this blog; especially at the ridiculously low price of $9.90 to download the PDF version – I can tell you that one of the key features that I look forward to reading the most is its Core Age analysis.

We see references to a team’s average age thrown around lazily all the time without pause or regard for its limitations.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s value to be had in going young at the NHL level. It’s a young man’s game these days, so at least on the surface, it seems natural to associate or equate an abundance of youth with future success. But just like a 69-year-old Canadian Senator’s marriage to a 23-year-old showed us in the real world, going young isn’t necessarily all it is cracked up to be.

In the NHL, not all players are created equal (which is why "man games lost to injury" can be misleading) and as such, if your roster is riddled with young, crappy talent, it stands to reason your roster is still going to be crappy. 

I have been to many a sport bar, and I have yet to hear fans engaged in a conversation like the following:

Joe Fan: Our team sucks.

Steve Fan: But they’re YOUNG!!!

Joe Fan: By god, you are right!?!? THEY are YOUNG! This changes EVERYTHING!!!!

The problem with average team age is that it does not indicate how old the team’s best and most productive players are.

Core Age tries to rectify this problem by creating a more precise alternative:

"Core Age is simply the sum of each skater’s age times his value in Goals Versus Threshold divided by the sum of the GVTs on the team.

It is a weighted average age for each team—the age of its core players—that tosses out all of the strate­gically meaningless replacement-level players and counts each skater more, the better he is. It also puts those troublesome goaltending contributions to the side, because goalies develop and decline differently than skaters, and because their performance is so vol­atile year to year."

For the unawares, Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) measures a player’s worth relative to a replacement level player – Shawn Thornton is a good example contributing 0.1 GVT playing in 81GP last year. (Note: I touched upon GVT in a post discussing the merits of Erik Karlsson’s Norris candidacy)

Even if you’re not familiar or just don't grasp the concept, all you need to know is that GVT is the cumulative value of a player’s offensive and defensive contributions. The larger a player’s GVT rating, the more valuable that player is. (player GVT ratings can be found here)

Using an X-Y graph that has the Skater GVT on the Y-axis and the Core Age on the X-axis, HP plots all 30 teams and assesses the team’s based on which of the four labelled quadrants – Star (young/productive core), Cash Cow (older/productive core), Question Mark (young/unproductive core) and Dog (older, unproductive core).

Over the past four seasons the Senators have consistently had one of the oldest core ages in the NHL:

Year Average Age Rank Label
2008/09 28.2 10th oldest Dog
2009/10 29.1 5th oldest Cash Cow
2010/11 27.9 11th oldest Dog
2011/12 28.0 8th oldest Cash Cow

Although HP notes that intelligent readers should additionally consider a team’s goaltending and the strength of their farm system to evaluate what their future holds, it warns that people that call Ottawa a young team aren’t looking at Core Age. The Senators were an older team with an infu­sion of young talent. Without Erik Karlsson, they would have been a Dog, and one of the older ones.”

Thanks to some good fortune, the team’s best players stayed relatively healthy and productive last season. Michalek and Karlsson enjoyed career years. Spezza and Alfie both played in more than 70 games. And favourable shooting percentages allowed the team to overcome Craig Anderson’s ugly first-half peripherals.

Despite these developments, the Senators still finished the season eighth in the Eastern Conference; three points ahead of ninth place Buffalo. With the bulk of the roster returning in 2012/13, assuming…a season actually transpires (am really getting tired of adding that last bit), it may be unrealistic to expect things to break the Senators way again.

Cue Jared Cowen injury. Moreover expecting Silfverberg or Zibanejad to quickly be impact players seems a stretch. Outside of Kyle Turris taking his game to another level, the choice of players who can realistically be expected to absorb some of the offensive workload in the event that one of the team’s established veterans succumbs to an injury is small; apologies to German Div II and III scoring prodigy, Erik Condra.

With a 38-year-old Gonchar, and soon to be 40-year-old Alfredsson quickly approaching retirement it will be interesting to watch the tact the organization takes to maintain last season's success. Perhaps a more aggressive posture in free agency? Should we expect to see a Jays-Marlins type trade? (a Nash to Ottawa type deal, selling multiple prospects for established production)

The team is slated to become younger in the short term, how much better they'll be (if at all) is an open question.

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