Johnny Bower, the great Hall of Fame goalie, was about 34 when he played his first full NHL season. He held an NHL job for another 11 years. When Gordie Howe eventually dropped the curtain on his great hockey career, he was 52 years old. It's probably safe to assume nobody will ever be greater at such an advanced age again. Some others have made an honourable run at it, though. Chris Chelios last played in the NHL at 47. Mark Recchi's still at it at 42 and Nik Lidstrom just signed a $6-million deal to play another season at 40. Those guys are the rare exceptions. Most other players aren't as physically blessed, and if I were an NHL player even thirty years of age or older, I'd be really worried about my future.
The NHL has gotten younger every year since the lockout. In 2005, the average NHL player was 27.41 years old. Last year that was down to 27.04. That might not seem to be a terribly great decrease, but when you remember that it's an average, it means that for every 20-year-old who makes an NHL team, there are two guys over 32 who don't.
Guys over 30 are getting treated like goalies these days. There are a lot of them, and most teams hold only a couple of spots for veterans, with the idea of providing "experience" or "leadership." Managers, in their zeal to promote prospects and encourage the progress of draft picks, forget that older guys can actually play hockey too. The problem is, the mature guys expect to be compensated for their contributions to the game and for their intangibles as well as their numbers. Unfortunately for them, the CBA and the hard-core GMs disagree with that sentiment.
The CBA doesn't support older guys. It forces teams to lock up their young talent before the guys hit unrestricted free agency, which often happens before those guys are in their primes. In that situation, a team may be looking at a youngster who's not really put up huge numbers, versus a veteran who reliably can do the job, on speculation that the rookie may outpace the vet in the long run. Given the NHL's lust for potential, the veteran player doesn't have a great chance in that scenario. We've seen guys retire in the last couple of years just because nobody would pay up for what they were worth. In the past, most of those guys would have gotten a "veteran influence, minimal minutes" spot, at least. Now, teams can't afford to spare even a dollar, so those types of players are out of luck.
There's no reason, outside the NHL salary cap, why Mathieu Dandenault should be retiring at age 34. He's not too old or too slow to be an NHL bottom-six defenceman for some team. Same thing for Glen Metropolit. He had to go to Switzerland because no NHL team would cough up the minimal dough it would have cost to have him in the lineup rather than a rookie.
Sure, in some cases, the player just can't understand that he can't cut it anymore. In other cases, though, the player is just dumped because he or his agent expect to be compensated properly and no team will pay him. Jose Theodore, for example. He's a former Vezina winner and had a good season with the Caps last year. You'd think some team would take a chance on him rather than throw their lots in with fringe or unproven goaltenders. Yet, everyone has passed him over because he's over 30 and maybe wants to be paid what his resume says he should get. The trend is toward giving the fringe spots in a lineup to cheap kids or less-talented scrubs because the big dollars go to the talent and there's little to spare.
It's funny, though, looking at the numbers, the age divide on the far ends of the spectrum haven't changed much in the last five years, compared to the five seasons preceeding the lockout. There are similar numbers of 18-20 year olds in the league post-lockout compared to the earlier five years. There are also similar numbers of guys in the 35-40 age group. That tells us the few phenomenal teenagers will always have a place, as will the veteran superstars like Lidstrom and Selanne. There'll be a place for guys who are specialists too. Hal Gill, for example, is an NHL senior citizen, but his play on the PK buys him a job.
Where the league is getting younger is within the middle class. Guys who were good at their jobs once, but may have lost a step as they enter their early thirties, have run out of time. So, Dandenault, who ten years ago would have found a place in the NHL, is now done at 34. Alex Kovalev is wondering if this is his last NHL season, as he looks at the market for guys his age who no longer bring it like they used to. Micheal Ryder will be lucky not to get dumped on waivers to free the cap-strapped Bruins from his salary.
The tolerance for older guys who cost more against the cap has finally run out in the NHL. There's always a desire for a "veteran element" in the foundation of a team's construction, but now a "veteran" is 28-year-old Mike Cammalleri or 31-year-old Andrei Markov. Thirty-six-year-old Roman Hamrlik is in his last contract year and will have trouble finding a job next year.
This past summer marked the first time NHL GMs finally realized the folly of signing players in their thirties, which had once been the prime age for harnessing prime free agents, to long, expensive deals in a salary cap world. Now the guys they signed in the past: Wade Redden, Cristobal Huet and Sheldon Souray find themselves waived to the minors or to Europe. Only Huet is yet 35 years old.
Ten years ago, Mike Modano would have retired a Dallas Star. A first-overall pick when the franchise was in Minnesota, Modano was the team's franchise player for 20 years. In the past, he would have been given a courtesy contract to allow him one last year with the only team he's known. But the capped-out NHL has no place for sentiment and Modano will retire a Detroit Red Wing.
And it's going to get worse. In today's NHL, young is good; cheap and young is better. Guys in their thirties who aren't among the league's talented elite are feeling the squeeze. What's always been an uncertain business with a short shelf-life is getting more uncertain for the guys who find themselves on the scrap heap, waiting for a call. For many of them, that call will never come and they'll end up quietly slipping out of the hockey world for good. They're casualties of the cap in a way guys like Bower and Howe never had to worry about. For fans who see their favourites dismissed because they're no longer 25, it's sad.