Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

Are Leafs in contract years likely to have career years?


A widely held belief among sports observers is that players tend to have career years (meaning they enjoy the best season of their careers at that point) during contract years (years in which their contract is up for negotiation at the end of the year). It makes a lot of sense. One of the greatest incentives for anybody to perform well in their job is money. Sports are a fiercely competitive playing field, and those who perform well are paid millions of dollars. A bad season during a contract year can literally cost you millions as a professional athlete, while a good season will have the opposite effect. But, in practice, does the “contract year = career year” belief actually ring true?

I looked at CapGeek’s “Latest Contracts” list to try and figure out if recent NHL players actually had career years during their contract years. I only looked at players who were between the ages of 23 and 27 during their contract year, because that’s generally considered the range of a player’s physical prime. I figured younger players hadn’t been in the league long enough to give a proper evaluation, and players older than 27 are highly unlikely to have career years. My definition of “career year” is “highest point-per-game season” (compiled from hockey-reference.com) of that player’s career. There are many other statistics you can look at, but I figured I would keep this as simple as possible and just focus on the one. The other qualifier I established was players had to have played at least 20 games in the NHL last season as well as whichever year was their “career year”.

When I finished looking through the last 150 player contracts signed in the NHL, as well as four other Maple Leafs who had contract years last year, and then scoured TSN.ca’s Free Agent Tracker, I ended up with 36 players (you can see the players and results of the study here). Out of those 36, 20 players had career years. So 55.5 per cent of the NHLers I looked at had career years in their contract years last season.

The results may have been skewed slightly because last year was a shortened season, and some players may have rode unsustainable shooting percentages to higher-than-normal points-per-game numbers. Also, many of the players I looked at were under 25 years old, so a player naturally coming into his prime may have had a career year whether his contract was up at the end or not. It’s also a pretty small sample of players, and there are many other variables including injuries, usage and linemates that can impact a player’s season, so it’s best to look at these results from a case-by-case basis. At any rate, 55.5 per cent is less than I expected, given how much it is perceived that contract years correlate to career years.

So whether or not you believe a player’s contract status is a major factor in predicting his future production, there is reason to believe that it is a factor, but it remains to be seen how much of a role other factors play in the outcome. With that in mind, let’s look at the 11 Leafs who are going into contract years, their current age and what mark they need to break for this year to be considered a “career year”:

Age

PPG (or SV%) career high

Phil Kessel

25

1.08

Dion Phaneuf

28

0.73

Jake Gardiner

23

0.4

James Reimer

25

.924

Dave Bolland

27

0.61

Nikolai Kulemin

27

0.7

Joe Colborne

23

N/A

Jay McClement

30

0.44

Paul Ranger

28

0.43

Mark Fraser

26

0.18

Trevor Smith

28

N/A

Colborne and Smith get N/As because they have yet to play at least 20 games in an NHL season. If Colborne is able to nab a spot on the team out of training camp (and it seems very likely he will), he should post a career high by default. It seems likely Smith will start the year with the Marlies, but will probably see some time with the Leafs at some point this season. It looks very unlikely that Phaneuf, McClement or Ranger will post career highs because of their ages, and we probably shouldn’t expect any more from Fraser than what he did last year. Both Bolland and Kulemin are expected to play defensive roles on this team, and probably won’t come close to their career highs.

So which Leafs should we expect to have career years? Gardiner is at the front of that line. Fully healthy, he’s expected to carry a big workload on the backend, and is still only 23 years old. There is a chance Reimer could improve on last year’s outstanding numbers, but with a likely platoon with newcomer Jonathan Bernier on the horizon, that seems doubtful. Phil Kessel is expected to continue to be Phil Kessel, and should still be around a point-per-game this season.

The Leafs will have some intriguing decisions to make with each of these players next offseason, but for now, having a large group of players hungry to prove their worth isn’t the worst position to be in.

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