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October 6, 2009
Numbers On Ice
Slump? More Like 'Sophomore Surge'

by Tom Awad

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At my office fantasy draft, the name of Tampa Bay Lightning F Steven Stamkos came up. "Don't take him!" someone yelled. "It's his second year. He's going to stink!" Someone then cited Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price as ironclad evidence that players dip in their second year. Except, of course, that this "fact" of sports lore is completely false; there is no such thing as a sophomore slump.

This is not to say, of course, that some players do not drop off in their second year, but there is no widespread tendency to do so. The sophomore slump is a result of selection bias: The most-talked-about rookies tend to be the most successful ones, and the most successful rookies are the ones with the biggest potential for a drop-off in their second season. Steve Mason, for example, is likely to exhibit a "sophomore slump", since there is almost nowhere for him to go but down after a spectacular rookie season.

Goaltenders, in particular, are likely to exhibit this, since many emerge from nowhere to rank among the top five in the league in their rookie season, only to come down to earth in subsequent years. Andrew Raycroft (.926 save percentage and 2.06 goals against average in 57 games in 2003-04) and Dan Ellis (.924, 2.34 in 44 games in 2007-08) both had great rookie years only to disappoint a year later. Raycroft's stats ballooned to .879 and 3.71 after returning from the lockout. Ellis's numbers jumped to .900 and 2.93 in Year 2.

However, a large number of recent top rookie goaltenders (Henrik Lundqvist, Evgeni Nabokov, Roberto Luongo and Ryan Miller are notable examples) went on to strong second years and good careers. In fact, in their rookie seasons, that quartet turned aside a combined 5,237 of 5,682 shots (.921 save percentage). With an increased workload as sophomores, the four netminders stopped 6,964 of 7,548 shots (.923 save percentage).

Among forwards and defensemen, whose statistics are less streaky, there is less of an effect. Despite common talk of a sophomore slump, there are precious few recent examples of players who crash in their second year: Teemu Selanne, a famous example, after dropping from 76 goals to 25 in year two, played his sophomore year 16 years ago. Almost all the recent Calder Trophy winners, often candidates for a second-year letdown, have done well: Dany Heatley (2002 Calder winner), Evgeni Malkin (2007) and Patrick Kane (2008) all improved in their second years.

Since Selanne's second season, only Barret Jackman, Alex Ovechkin, Scott Gomez and Bryan Berard experienced any drop-off among skaters. Jackman's drop was attributed to injury (he played just 15 games in Year 2), and Berard's production dipped all of two points. Ovechkin? He still put up 46 goals and 92 points.

In fact, a sophomore emergence is more common. Most players improve in their second year, and it is in fact the year in which players exhibit the largest year-over-year improvement. Since 1968, first-year players have scored at a rate of 0.39 points-per-game, while second-year players have averaged 0.45 points-per-game, an improvement of about 15 percent.

Some additional digging revealed that the younger the player, the more likely he is to improve in his second year. Joe Thornton (who debuted at age 18) went from seven points in 55 games to 41 points in 81. Vincent Lecavalier, also an 18-year-old rookie, went from 28 to 67.

It's not limited to stars, either. Playoff hero Maxime Talbot managed only eight points in 48 rookie games, but tripled that to 24 points the next year. Among the most notable second-year players in the NHL last year were David Perron (plus-23 points), Nicklas Backstrom (plus-19), Devin Setoguchi (plus-48), Matt Niskanen (plus-9), Douglas Murray (minus-3), Tobias Enstrom (minus-6), Jonathan Toews (plus-15) and Kane (minus-2), as well as goaltenders Dan Ellis, Carey Price and Mike Smith. Only Price and Ellis, who had great rookie seasons, fell significantly from their first-year level.

What does this mean for this year's crop of second-year players?

Expect a slight letdown from Mason, since it will be almost impossible to best his .916 save percentage and 10 shutouts or the emotional impact of his leading the team to the playoffs for the first time. Expect more good things from last year's youngbloods like 18-year-old rookie Zach Bogosian and especially Drew Doughty (19 last year). Expect some mild improvement from Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie and Kris Versteeg, whose rookie years were as good as could be expected.

Above all, don't be surprised if Stamkos breaks 30 goals for the first of many times in his career. There should certainly be no sophomore slump for him.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Tom by clicking here or click here to see Tom's other articles.

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<< Previous Article
Inside The VUKOTA Proj... (10/06)
<< Previous Column
Numbers On Ice (09/13)
Next Column >>
Numbers On Ice (10/29)
Next Article >>
Inside The VUKOTA Proj... (10/07)

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