clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Joe Thornton, Henrik Lundqvist, and aging greatness

The Sharks and Rangers expected too much from their aging stars.

Players like Joe Thornton and Henrik Lundqvist have aged gracefully, but that can’t be a baseline. (DON SMITH/NHLI VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Despite playing different positions on opposite coasts, Joe Thornton and Henrik Lundqvist have experienced similar career arcs. Two of the most accomplished players at their respective positions in NHL history, the two have faced criticism for not winning a Stanley Cup.

The two enter the SAP Center tonight a year removed from one of the best seasons of their own careers. Impressively, they managed to do so in the second decade of their NHL journeys.

Lundqvist, in his age-33 season, posted the second highest 5v5 save percentage since 2007-08 (.9367, 6th in the league among goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes per Thornton, as a 36-year-old, managed the seventh highest point total of his career (82), and finished fifth in Hart Trophy voting, his highest since 2007.

Their seasons at their respective ages were, simply put, anomalous. Since 1967-68, only two other goalies (Tomas Vokoun and Miika Kiprusoff) started 60 or more games and posted at least a .920 SV% at Lundqvist’s age. Thornton is one of only 19 players to have scored 82 or more points in an age-36 season over that same span.

In 2016-17, though, Thornton and Lundqvist aren’t enjoying nearly as much success. Both played deep into this fall’s World Cup of Hockey, and Thornton did so following a shorter offseason following the Sharks’ run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, their peaks this season are much closer to their previous valleys, as the following charts from Corsica demonstrate.

As you can see, Lundqvist and Thornton, over some stretches last year, managed to reach or even surpass heights they had established in previous seasons. But this year, at least, age seems to be starting to take its toll on both players.

This shouldn’t come too much as a surprise. As I mentioned, their success last season was especially rare, and especially so given what we know about how players age.

In today’s NHL, forwards’ scoring rates peak, on average, around the age of 24. Goaltenders’ save percentages tend to decline pretty sharply in their mid-to-late-30s.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, such as the ageless Jaromir Jagr and fellow Czech legend, goaltender Dominik Hasek. Thornton was one last season, and the Rangers expected Lundqvist to be one when they signed him to a seven-year, $59.5 million extension months before his 32nd birthday.

This season, Thornton and Lundqvist are proving the rules of aging at their respective positions, and their teams seem to have have expected too much and taken their respective stars’ aging greatness for granted.

The Sharks landed a meeting with then-pending free agent Steven Stamkos before he re-signed with the Lightning, but entered the season using Thornton in the same role as last season. While Logan Couture has proved capable in his role, the Sharks don’t currently have an option in the organization ready to fill Thornton’s next season should he leave in free agency, nor has their depth emerged to make up for the lost offense of Thornton’s decline.

The Rangers, meanwhile, have again relied upon Lundqvist to bail out a subpar defensive group. New York has allowed the 10th-highest scoring chances per game at even strength, and Lundqvist has faced the ninth-most high danger shots against at even strength among goaltenders who have played at least 500 minutes.

Thornton and Lundqvist have had exceptional careers, but expecting that exceptionalism to continue as they age was foolish. With the emergence of Antti Raanta, the Rangers have been able to somewhat mitigate Lundqvist’s decline, while the Sharks have had no such fail-safe. Both teams, though, have paid the price and have seen division seeds fall by the wayside.

There is, of course, still time for each team to right their respective ships. The Sharks have seven games to overcome mounting injuries and a two-point deficit in the Pacific. The Rangers’ possession of the first Wild Card spot in the East means they will avoid playing the Capitals and the Penguins until the conference final, should they advance that far.

But the playoffs are quickly approaching, and we will soon know whether or not Thornton and Lundqvist’s respective declines impede their teams’ pursuit of a Stanley Cup. If either manages to fight off their age strongly enough to win their first ring, they’ll add to what is already a pair of Hall of Fame resumes.

But if they can’t, Thornton and Lundqvist’s late-career legacies will be remembered not as exceptions to the rule, but as a pair of cautionary tales.