The narrative entering this Wild season is a familiar one: After six seasons making the playoffs – with four one-and-dones and two trips to the second round to show for it – can Minnesota achieve more this season?
After a relatively quiet offseason during which new general manager Paul Fenton made no major trades, it looks as though many of the same cast of characters will be responsible for providing the answer.
That’s not necessarily a bad strategy, but there is also some interesting data about player ages that might challenge the wisdom of counting on an improvement (or even avoiding a regression).
A study published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports a few years ago showed that forwards perform at or near peak performance between the ages of 24-32. For defensemen, the window extends from 24-34. Goalies, interestingly enough, are relatively consistent across ages so we won’t concern ourselves here with 32-year-old Devan Dubnyk.
Looking at the Wild roster, then leads to this conclusion: If the Wild is going to make a leap this season beyond what it has accomplished in the last six years — securing home ice for multiple rounds of the playoffs and/or advancing beyond the second round — outlier events need to happen:
Let’s go group-by-group:
*Emerging players (defined here as players 23 or under who could have big roles): This isn’t a very big group, but the two biggest names here are forwards Jordan Greenway (21) and Joel Erikkson Ek (21).
Both figure to have the opportunity to have significant roles this year, and if either or both are productive beyond their years it will be a boon for the Wild.
*Young veteran skaters (older than 24, younger than 32): This is the largest, most interesting and potentially most troubling group.
It includes (among others) defensemen Matt Dumba (24), Jonas Brodin (25), Nick Seeler (25), Greg Pateryn (28) and Jared Spurgeon (29) as well as forwards Charlie Coyle (26), Mikael Granlund (26), Nino Niederreiter (26) and Jason Zucker (26).
That’s a good core, but there isn’t a single star in the bunch. Together, they have zero All-Star appearances.
Furthermore, the author of the study — Prof. James Brander of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia — said this when it was released in 2014: “The study proves it is wishful thinking for managers to expect a player in his mid-20s to continue improving significantly. The vast majority of players are at 90 per cent of their best by age 24, although there are a few late bloomers.”
If the Wild is counting on any of those players making a big leap this year, what it might find instead is that they are what they are.
*Older key veterans: This includes defenseman Ryan Suter (33) as well as forwards Zach Parise (34), Eric Staal (34 next month) and Mikko Koivu (35).
Parise, Staal and Koivu are a couple years past the prime age for forwards and in the dangerous territory where their skills could decline. Staal in particular showed no signs of it last year when he scored 42 goals, but conversely a major drop-off this year in his production would be damaging.
In short, the data tells us the Wild’s emerging players must achieve beyond expectations and before they reach their primes; its “young veterans” in their primes must improve more than data says they will; and/or the older key veterans must fend off the effects of aging and avoid steep declines.
Being the largest and most influential group, young veterans outperforming expectations and proving to be late bloomers is the key to the season.