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November 3, 2010
Howe and Why
Comparables- Iginla, Kovalchuk and Hossa

by Robert Vollman

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It can be very difficult to predict how many points a player will score from season to season. Just look at the scoring leaders from the last two seasons – Henrik Sedin was a career 80-point man who suddenly decided to score 112 at age 29, and Evgeni Malkin was 23 years old and coming off seasons of 106 and 113 points only to get stopped at 77. Did these guys switch jerseys or something?

It may seem like a fool's errand to even attempt to predict this year's scoring totals for players like Jarome Iginla, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Marian Hossa, and maybe it is, but we've got a secret weapon. We're going to use an approach that searches the NHL's long history for players with career arcs similar to these guys – their “comparables” - and use their future results to help predict those of our target players.

Let me emphasize that a player's comparables are not similar players, but rather players with similar statistics. There's a bit of a difference since two very different players can have similar statistics under certain circumstances, like ice-time or their linemates, but if those circumstances continue, then it can be enlightening to study the futures of even those comparables.

Let's briefly review the methodology – skip this if you like – and then jump right into it.

The Methodology

There are many different ways to draw and compare career arcs, each one with its advantages and disadvantages. For purposes of this article we're normalizing all NHL data to modern-day scoring levels, then looking only at two things: goals-per-game and assists-per-game, weighted equally. For each player we're looking at their current season, their previous season, and their historical totals prior to the previous season, weighted 4-2-1. We're throwing out any player that is more than 2 years younger or older than our target player, and anyone that either retired or had particularly severe injuries.

Bottom line, we're going to wind up with ten players whose career arcs are similar to our target players. Some players will be more similar in terms of overall career, other players will be more similar with regards to the two most recent seasons, so overall we should have a mix.

We've arbitrarily chosen to look at the ten closest comparables, even though we'd probably be better off with a larger sample size, even if that meant including less similar players. So why 10? Even with ten players you'll already observe a pretty wide spread in expectations, and in my experience the picture doesn't necessarily get that much clearer when looking at 25, 50 or 100. Ten players is also more fun - it allows us to get more up close and personal with the comparables, and make a better determination of where our target player actually fits on the scale.

So without further ado, let's jump right in with the very heart and soul of the Calgary Flames.

Jarome Iginla, 33, Calgary Flames

Two years ago Jarome Iginla scored 50 goals at 30 years of age, something only 12 other players have achieved. With the exception of his award-winning 2001-02 season at the magical age of 24 (52 goals, 96 points), Iginla was an established 30 goal, 70 point man until age 29, when he scored 124 goals and 281 points in 234 games over the next three seasons. Perhaps age inexplicably caught up to Iginla last year as he returned to previously established production levels - will he stay there, or bounce back?

Age Closest Comparable       GP  G  A PTS
31  Darryl Sittler  1981-82  73 22 27  49
32  Daniel Briere   2009-10  75 26 27  53
31  Johnny Bucyk    1966-67  59 17 29  46
32  Daymond Langkow 2008-09  73 20 27  47
33  Sergei Fedorov  2002-03  80 38 49  87
34  Alex Delvecchio 1966-67  70 16 37  53
35  Jim Pappin      1974-75  71 29 23  52
31  Jim Ward        1937-38  48 12 20  32
33  Yvan Cournoyer  1976-77  60 21 25  46
31  Valeri Kamensky 1997-98  75 27 43  70
 
Worst (Langkow)              82 23 30  53
Best (Fedorov)               82 38 51  89
Average                      82 27 37  64
VUKOTA (over 82 GP)          82 32 42  74

It's not easy to find good comparables with players as uncommon as Iginla, but given that our list has 4 Hall of Famers, we must have gotten close. Iginla's even-strength scoring rate has fallen from 3.3 points per 60 minutes in 2006-07, to 2.8, 2.5 and finally 2.0 last season – barely above the 1.8 threshold for top-six players, so will his scoring continue to descend?

VUKOTA has him on pace for 74, and the survey on Behind The Net's “Reasonable Expectations” series has him pegged for around 75 points, which strikes me as reasonable if he stays healthy – a safe bet since he has missed games only once since the lockout. Hopefully Iginla will channel his inner Bucyk, who played for 11 more seasons, including a monster year at age 35 where he became the oldest player to ever score 50.

Ilya Kovalchuk, 27, New Jersey Devils

It was big news when Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the league's best goal-scorers, left the Atlanta Trashers, where he had played his entire career since his 18-year-old rookie season, for the (literally) “greener” pastures of New Jersey.

Kovalchuk has managed 6 straight 40-goal seasons, in four of which he also earned 40 assists. Is Kovalchuk sitting at the top of his prime, or can he climb higher? If he has peaked, how soon will he begin his decline?

Age Closest Comparable         GP  G  A PTS
28 Gordie Drillon      1941-42 48 20 18  38
28 Theo Fleury         1996-97 81 38 37  75
29 Mike Bossy          1985-86 80 43 45  88
27 Boom Boom Geoffrion 1957-58 42 27 24  51
27 Luc Robitaille      1993-94 83 38 37  75
26 Ziggy Palffy        1998-99 50 23 30  53
28 Dany Heatley        2008-09 82 38 32  70
27 Jari Kurri          1987-88 80 32 41  73
26 Steve Yzerman       1991-92 79 36 47  83
28 Kevin Stevens       1993-94 83 35 41  76
 
Worst (Drillon)                78 33 29  62
Best (Geoffrion)               78 50 44  94
Average                        78 36 39  75
VUKOTA (over 78 GP)            78 37 49  86

VUKOTA has been under attack ever since it projected Kovalchuk to fall short of the 40-goal mark, but there's apparently a great deal of historical precedent to this unexpected drop. Stunningly, only one comparable bagged 40 goals, and that's the incomparable Mike Bossy. If you didn't know better, you might guess that this was simply a list of hockey's great goal-scorers, but if it were, let it serve as a reminder that goal-scorers peak at 24.

If VUKOTA is to be criticized, then let it be over the generous career-high playmaking projection, putting Kovalchuk on pace for 50 assists if his health is more fortunate than usual this season. I'd put my money on fewer assists, and a 75-point season, much like Fleury and Robitaille.

Marian Hossa, 32, Chicago Blackhawks

Marian Hossa competed for the Stanley Cup three seasons in a row with three different teams before he finally got to drink from the 118-year-old iconic trophy. Hossa earned six straight 30-goal seasons, book-ended by 29-goal seasons on either side, before scoring 40 as a 30-year-old Red Wing in 2008-09. In his prime years with the Atlanta Thrashers he added well over 50 assists, tallying 192 points in 162 games.

Today Hossa is clearly on the decline, but if he can stay healthy then there can be a tremendous upside sharing the ice with talents like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. Can the Hawks get one more 30-goal, 70-point season out of him?

Age Closest Comparable       GP  G  A PTS
31 Tim Kerr          1990-91 27  8 11  19
30 Rick Middleton    1983-84 80 33 43  76
33 Joe Nieuwendyk    1999-00 48 15 20  35
31 Davie Keon        1971-72 72 16 29  45
32 Camille Henry     1964-65 70 25 18  43
30 Cecil Dillon      1938-39 48 13 18  31
30 John Sorrell      1935-36 48 17 24  41
33 Sergei Fedorov    2002-03 80 38 49  87
31 Joey Mullen       1988-89 79 38 45  83
34 Frank Mahovolich  1971-72 76 39 51  90
 
Worst (Henry)                73 26 19  45
Best (Mahovolich)            73 37 49  86
Average                      73 27 35  62
VUKOTA (over 73 GP)          73 26 33  59

Even though we don't look at games played in this variation of comparables, somehow it knew that we were dealing with a less durable player, as two of the three closest matches, Kerr and Nieuwendyk, suffered through injury-shortened seasons.

In some variations we ignore players from the pre-expansion era, but then we'd miss interesting names like Cecil Dillon, one of the early great American hockey players, and John Sorrell. Dillon, one of the rare players to win a Cup as a New York Ranger, played every single game until his final season, and was in the top 6 for goals throughout his prime. Unfortunately the 1938-39 season marked the beginning of his decline, after which he was sold to Detroit.

Sorrell was a late bloomer, not getting big minutes with Detroit until he was about 28 years old, when he lead the Detroit Red Wings in goals two straight seasons before winning a Stanley Cup of his own in 1935-36. Unfortunately it was also the beginning of the end for Sorrell, who was already bumped off the top line and was ultimately shipped to the New York Americans for secondary scoring until retiring at 36.

Despite the difference in era, VUKOTA seems to agree that Hossa's arc is trending down the same way as Dillon's and Sorrell's. This could be Hossa's final season on a top line, and though four of the comparables managed another 30-goal season, it may be more likely that Hossa is destined to follow the path of the six who did not. In this case, VUKOTA is probably bang on, and 60 points is a reasonable expectation for a healthy Hossa.

Wrapping Up

You probably realized several pages ago that the waters really didn't clear up very much. I don't need comparables of my own to peer in to the future and hear you thinking “Hossa's good for 45 to 86 points? Gee, thanks for the newsflash Vollman!” What can I say? Anyone with a more accurate prediction than that is really just guessing, and yours is as good as anyone else's, provided it has a reasonable precedent like those above.

Drawing career arcs and searching history for comparables as a way to predict future results is a relatively new and untried practice for hockey, so please be generous when writing in with your questions and suggestions, as many as possible of which we'll include with our next set. See you then.

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

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Team Prospectus (11/03)
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Premium Article Howe and Why (10/29)
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Premium Article Howe and Why (11/08)
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Premium Article On The Beat (11/06)

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