NHL players hit their peak by 29. How wise is the eight-year contract?

Jason Kay
P.K. Subban will only be 33 when his eight-year deal expires (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images).
P.K. Subban will only be 33 when his eight-year deal expires (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images).

The NHL took a hard stand during the 2012-13 lockout when it came to maximum contract length, fighting fervently for five years, then compromising at eight (for re-signings).

Since then, up to the pact agreed to by P.K. Subban in early August, 11 players had won max term. In the big picture, it’s a small number, representing a tiny fraction of all deals. But due to the dollars and profile involved, the question remains: is eight great?

The answer depends on your perspective. If you’re demanding equal value across all seasons, prepare to be disappointed. The evidence shows that, apart from notable exceptions, returns diminish on players beginning in their early 30s.

A study released by the University of British Columbia business school this summer found an NHL forward hits his scoring peak at 28, a defenseman at 29. The data was slightly skewed for stars; they start hitting their high point at an earlier age and remain there longer. Their declines, also, aren’t as sharp.

A snapshot of the Canadian men’s gold-medal winning Olympic team tells a similar story about in-their-prime elite NHLers. The average age of the eight blueliners for the 2014 champs was 27, with Dan Hamhuis the elder statesman at 31. The 14 forwards’ average age was 28.6, a number that recedes to 27.6 if you substitute the then-injured Steven Stamkos for 38-year-old fill-in Martin St-Louis.

Anecdotally, if you retrace steps over an eight-season span (from the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2014), the tales mostly reflect the numbers. Joe Thornton, Brad Richards and Dany Heatley – all in their mid-20s back then – were three of the league’s biggest stars. Today they range from declining cornerstone to question mark to last chance saloon.

Conversely, there were exceptions such as Jaromir Jagr and Nicklas Lidstrom, two superstars who remained freakishly good in their early 30s right on through to their 40s.

On the bright side for Habs fans, P.K. will be just 33 when his contract expires, his prime years still visible in his rearview mirror. And if he, or any of his max-term brethren, help win a Stanley Cup, are perennial all-stars or drive large revenues with their stardom, and that all happens in the first five years, they’ll be deemed good investments. Just don’t expect your team has secured the next Jagr, Lidstrom or St-Louis.