Will Year Five Be The Charm?
The game of hockey and the NHL is full of many logic beliefs and theory systems. Some of the most widely held ideas are actually contradictory to one-another. It isn’t a nice cookie-cutter world where you can input A and automatically assume that you will get an output of B, but in the midst of these sometimes unexpectantly generated results against the ‘rules’ we hold dearest, there still are some factors that do seem to play true time and again. One such passage that has historically played a very significant impact upon those who have played the game is the ‘magic’ of the fifth year and/or age 22/23 season.
Simply put, there is some pretty suggestive evidence to indicate that a very large segment of players don’t actually arrive at their highest levels until they have either played a full four seasons and are in their fifth campaign, or are in the season where they turn 23 years of age. I use these two qualifiers because not everyone gets to the NHL at age 18 and thus some have their 23rd birthday before their fifth season.
The timing for this article is inspired by the arrival of two youngsters from the Boston Bruins reaching this juncture.
If you look at the current point leader board at the beginning of December for the NHL, it might be surprising to see that both Sergei Samsonov and Joe Thornton are firmly entrenched among the top 20 producers in the league.
Sergei Samsonov is actually 8th in league scoring after games as of Sunday, December 2nd. He does have games in hand to play on four of the players ahead of him in the scoring race though. Samsonov is clearly off to the best start of a season that he has ever enjoyed having scored 10 goals and picked up an additional 19 assists in just 26 games played. He is actually tied for second in the league in assists just 1 behind the leader. What may be an even better indicator of just how Samsonov has arrived is that he is a +5 and has thrown 13 hits in his 26 games. While he will always be limited a little by his diminutive size in relationship to the league norm for other players, Samsonov doesn’t play a timid game or let his minor handicap prevent him from driving for the scoring lanes and generating numerous scoring chances practically every game he plays if not every shift.
Samsonov was born in October of 1978. Because of his late birthday he has actually already turned 23 years of age. This is his fifth season after being drafted eight overall in 1997 and entering the NHL immediately. He won the Calder Trophy in his rookie campaign as the best first year player in the league scoring 47 points. His production was fairly level for the next two seasons, scoring totals of 51 and 45 points while averaging just a little over 16 minutes a game in these years. He had a bit of a breakout season last year in year 4 producing 75 points including a very impressive and team leading 56 at even-strength.
As excited as Sergei Samsonov has Bruin fans, Joe Thornton would be the player that most would name as the guy who should be considered the next to possibly be able to step up into the company of the top players of all time. Born in August of 1979, Joe is nearly a full year younger than Samsonov. He had just barely turned 18 when entering the NHL for the 1997-98 season after being the first overall selection in the entry draft of 1997. Played just a touch over 8 minutes a game in his first season and used almost exclusively on a fourth line with very limited linemates, Joe was eased into the league and thus only produced 7 points in his first season. In year two, coach Pat burns decided to teach Joe some defensive responsibilities and made him the checking line center boosting his icetime to 15:20 a game. Joe responded by increasing his production to 41 points and posting up a +3. In year three Joe was finally given some power play time and was often given Boston’s second set of wingers be they Steve Heinze and Ted Donato, or occasionally even Sergei Samsonov and Dimitri Khristitch. Joe responded with a 23 goal and 60 point season. Last year was the first season that Joe was moved up to first powerplay unit. He responded by finishing tied for second in the league in powerplay goals scored with 19. In total he ended the season with new highs in goals with 37 and points with 71 despite only getting into 72 games because of a couple minor injuries and a couple suspensions earned from his increasing display of physical hockey and shortening temper for putting up with the opposition’s need to resort to more illegal tactics to even attempt to slow him down.
In Boston’s drive for the playoffs over the final three months last season, Joe actually scored 21 goals and added 12 assists in just 29 games. It seems scary that he could actually still be getting better but if he is and if he has a similar finish to this year that he had last season, than perhaps he will be the guy to legitimize this study.
It is a rather subjective process to rank the greats of the game but for the purpose of this article I needed to make the attempt to single out a sample of elite players to demonstrate this theory here that the fifth year or the age 22/23 season often serves as the coming-out party for the best of the best.
Here than is a listing of what reaching the fifth year and age 22/23 has meant for some of the game’s greatest players of the last 30 seasons:
Mike Bossy born in January of 1957. Was 19 turning 20 when he started his first season and 22 turning 23 in his fourth year. He had already had one season of leading the league in goals and one season on winning a Stanley Cup, but it wasn’t until his fourth season that he really found his constancy enough to rally off three consecutive 60 goal seasons while leading his team to successive Cup victories in each year.
Marcel Dionne born August 1951 was 20 years of age when he started his first season which made him 23 for the start of his fourth season too. Went from a previous career best of 40 goals and 90 points up to an elite level production of 47 goals and 121 points.
Wayne Gretzky born January 1961 was just 18 when he entered NHL for his first season. He did win three scoring championships and four Hart Trophies in his first four seasons so he had a lot of success but it wasn’t until his fifth season at age 22 that he was able to achieve the ultimate success of leading his team to the Stanley Cup.
Brett Hull born August 1964 was 21 years of age for his entry into the NHL late in the season for the playoffs. Actually spent his 22nd year in the minors for all but 5 games. Then at age 23 erupted onto the NHL scene with 32 goals. Because of his unique situation of being held back at the beginning of his career if you allowed for the age deviance from the norm of this study, you would be able to show that he had a true fifth year arrival too. Even if he was actually 25, it was in his fifth season that he went from his previous career best totals of 41 goals and 84 points up to 72 goals and 113 points produced. He went on in his fifth season to score another 13 goals and 21 points in just 12 playoff games. He won his first major award in his fifth season as well capturing the Lady Byng for his efforts.
Jaromir Jagr born February 1972 was the now classical 18 years of age for his rookie season. Joined powerhouse Pittsburgh team at the height of its glory so immediately won a couple of Stanley Cups. But it wasn’t until year five in the strike shortened 1994-95 season that he led the league in scoring for the first time. His previous best production totals were 34 goals and 99 points. Adjusted and compared to average league production [in a process that the encyclopedia ‘Total Hockey’ uses] Jagr’s fifth year numbers work out to 57 goals and 113 points. His previous best under the same adjustment system were 30 goals and 82 points. It was his fifth season that was the first year that he was named to one of the year end All Star teams.
Guy Lafleur born September 1951 was 20 years of age for his rookie season in 1971. At age 23 in his fourth season went from a previous career best of 29 goals and 64 points produced up to elite level production of 53 goals scored and 119 points collected.
Mario Lemieux born October 1965. Because of his late birthday, was practically 19 years of age when he played his first season in 1984-85. Had great success in his first three seasons but still had the ‘magic’ fourth year and age 22/23 boosts. It was his fourth season in 1987-88, that he led the league in scoring for the first time with 168 points and won his first Hart Trophy. In his fifth season at age 23 set his career best production numbers with 85 goals and 199 points. It was also in his fifth season that he was able to lead his team to the playoffs for the first time in his career where he scored 12 goals and 19 points in just 11 games.
Eric Lindros born February 1973. Because of his contract situation with the Quebec Nordiques, didn’t play his rookie season in the NHL until the 1992-93 season at age 19. He turned from age 22 to age 23 in his fourth season of 1994-95, and had his only 100+ point campaign of his career.
Mark Messier born January 1961 was 18 years of age when he entered NHL with the Edmonton Oilers in 1979-80. Doesn’t fit this study profile maybe as well as some of the others here since he wasn’t really the best player on his team yet during his fifth season or his age 22/23 campaigns. Also, actually probably arrived as an elite level star a year or even two earlier in either the 1981-82 season when he produced his first 50 goal season or in 1982-83 when he had his first 100 point campaign. It wasn’t until his fifth season though that he was able to help Wayne Gretzky lead the Oilers to their first Stanley Cup triumph. It was in the playoffs that he really arrived winning the Conn Smyth award with 15 goals scored in the team’s 15 game march to victory.
Steve Yzerman born May 1965 entered NHL at age 18 for his rookie season. His seasonal best production over first four years were highs of 39 goals scored and 90 points produced. In year five during the 1987-88 season at age 22 produced first 50 goal and 100 point season. At age 23 had his career year with 65 goals scored and 155 points recorded.
So, what does this all prove? Will Joe Thornton win the Hart Trophy this season? Will Sergei Samsonov lead the league in scoring? Will the two young stars emerge from the shadow of Jason Allison to shock the NHL leading the Boston Bruins to a shocking Stanley Cup playoff performance?
There is a reason that they actually play the games… well things sometimes do seem indicative on paper, the only true measure is the proof of history. However, if there is one thing that might be deduced from this little study is that perhaps it is time for everyone to pay a little more attention to what the young Bruin stars are doing. This very much could be the year that the next elite greats of the game truly introduce themselves to us in deed.