The NHL is a hard league for guys who play fourth-line minutes and are on the wrong side of the 30. Fourth-liners of any age are on a bit of a knife edge—the difference between them and an AHLer is small. Any slight loss in effectiveness and the fourth-liner is probably no longer an NHL-calibre player.
This being the case, signing fourth-line players to long-term contracts is a dangerous thing. Signing fourth-line players who are in their 30s is even more dangerous because you know, to pretty much a mortal certainty, that the player is declining. At some point, that takes you out of the NHL. You don’t want to be the team stuck with that player and a year or two on his contract when the music stops.
Despite this, we’ve seen two teams willing to make a long-term commitment to Matt Hendricks in the past seven months: the Nashville Predators signed him, entering his age-32 season, to a four-year deal with a cap hit of $1.85 million per season. Seven months on, the Preds seem to have decided that this might not have been advisable. They found a willing taker for Hendricks’ contract in Craig MacTavish and the Edmonton Oilers.
How big of a risk are the Oilers taking? Well that depends on the attrition rate for players like Hendricks. He’s certainly still a regular player on an NHL team, albeit not a particularly good one. He dressed 44 times for Nashville this year, averaging 11:33 a contest. That’s pretty consistent with his past few years—he’s been a guy who is a lock in the lineup if he’s healthy, and he’s been pretty healthy and he plays 11 or 12 minutes a night.
One way to break down at the attrition rate is to look at forwards who were similar in age, games played and time on ice. If we create a group of forwards who played at least 60 games in their age-32 season and who averaged between 9:33 and 13:33 a night from 2000-01 through 2009-10, you come up with the following list of players:
There’s a few heavyweights on the list—Tie Domi and Donald Brashear jump out—but it’s by-and-large a list of players similar to Hendricks: Bottom-of-the-lineup guys who are maybe a cut above the type of player who gets half a season of six minutes a night and then drifts out of the NHL. Tenth forward types.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these players returned for an age-33 season. If you’re playing 60-plus games and between 9:33 and 11:33 per game, it’s likely that your team believes you have something more to offer. So it makes sense that we would see these guys return for another season. Here’s what the age 33 seasons look like:
Two guys disappeared from the league— Ward and Marshall. It’s not really fair to hold Brashear and Chris Simon’s year outside the NHL, due to the lockout. Of the 19 guys who met the criteria at 32, 17 were in the NHL. Their roles diminished though. All 19 of them played at least 60 games at 32; only eight did at 33, and only 12 of the 19 played at least 41 games. Even coming off seasons in which they were good fourth-liners, the attrition rate spike significantly. What happens at age 34?
Leave Travis Green and Trent Klatt aside—they lost their years due to the lockout. That leaves us with 19 guys who played about as much at 32 as Hendricks is playing this year. Eight of them are out of the NHL. Three more—Dixon Ward and Scott Pellerin—might as well be. Hendricks will be in the third year of his four-year deal when he’s 34. If half of similar players have washed out of the league by that point, it suggests that he’s part of a high-risk group of players. It doesn’t get any better at 35.
Zamuner, Domi and Drake all played in 2003-04 before losing 2004-05 to the lockout. Pellerin was already effectively out of the league. Of the 18 players similar to Hendricks who weren’t effected by the 2004-05 lockout, 11 were gone from the NHL by their age 35 season—more than 60 percent.
Looking at that data, it’s hard to have much confidence that Hendricks will be a useful NHLer by 2015-16. The specific rate at which he will decline isn’t really quantifiable—all anyone can do is arm themselves with knowledge as to how players usually decline. It doesn’t look particularly promising. Fortunately for Nashville GM David Poile, it’s no longer his problem.