NHL Early Career Progression
The Max Pacioretty trade (1:00), Nate Schmidt's suspension (6:03), Blake Wheeler's extension (8:12), Noah Hanifin's contract (10:00), the biggest question facing each team in the Western Conference (11:26), early career progression (27:42).
(You can listen to us discuss this topic in the episode above.)
Here in early September, hockey optimism is at its zenith. Rookie tournaments are happening, training camps are about to open, and soon we'll get to hear about how every player is "in the best shape of my life, for sure." And a large part of this optimism centers around young players, early in their careers. The refrains are familiar: “he had a tough rookie season, but he’ll be better next year” or “the sophomore slump was rough, but he’ll bounce back.”
But how often is this actually the case? How often do players successfully make the jump and improve throughout the first three years of their career?
The population of players I studied here included the 320 forwards who played their first three full seasons (with a season defined as at least 400 minutes of 5v5 play) between 2007-08 and 2017-18. Their points/60 at 5v5 were ranked via percentile, as compared to the other players in that season (e.g., a player’s first year points/60 was compared to all other players in the cohort in their first season, regardless of when that first season was). Lastly, the players were grouped by quartiles in each year.
(Eternal thanks to Corsica for the raw data.)
The three graphs above show the relationships among points/60 during the seasons.
Overall, there was definitely movement among the quartiles during the first three seasons. Only 17% of players stayed in the same quartile for all three seasons, with the bulk of those coming from players who stayed in the bottom quartile. Just 36% of players stayed in the same quartile from their first season to their second, and 39% stayed in the same quartile from their second season to their third. There was slightly more consistency within the top quartile: 39% of players in the top quartile in their first season stayed there for their second, and 47% of players in the top quartile in their second season stayed there for their third. Only 15 players remained in the top quartile for all three seasons, and the list contains the usual suspects: Connor McDavid, Jamie Benn, Brad Marchand, Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Toews, etc.
Specific player data is available in the linked data visualization (if it’s not showing up at the bottom of this page, refresh or click here), with the ability to search by path and by player. Shown below are a few highlights:
Some players are able to make continuous progress, from the second quartile in their first season to the third and then the top. This group of players includes Jack Eichel, Aleksander Barkov, and Sean Monahan. (There’s also a pretty decent group of players who jumped from the second quartile in their first season up to the top and then stayed there: John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, among others.)
Shown above is the path of players who experienced the sophomore slump: they spent their first season in the top quartile, dropped to the bottom, and then jumped back up to the top. This group of players includes Anders Lee, Dylan Larkin, and Jason Zucker.