Vladimir Tarasenko (Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
Today’s greatest players are, in most cases, bigger, faster and stronger than those of the past, but the definition of what makes an elite player has to change. Long gone are the gaudy point totals of the 1980s, which means it’s time to add context to find out who really stands out from the pack.
The 30-goal scorer is dead. At least, as we know it. For a long time it’s been the barometer for an elite goal-scorer and it seems our expectations haven’t really changed even though the game has. Generally speaking, most fans are aware that scoring is way down, but it seems like a smaller portion of those fans understand the effects that has on our expectations for an elite player. In the past, the 30-goal mark was pretty much the consensus level for a top-goal scorer. The same thing goes for the expectation that an elite player is usually around a point-per-game. For both marks, there’s not many of those guys left.
That’s not on the players, either. It’s the era. Goalies are at their best and teams have four full lines of guys who can actually play. That means top players can’t pick apart lesser weights and ice-time is spread around more evenly. Basically, it’s not just that scoring is down, it’s that the average player is better now and there’s less goals to go around. Again, most hockey fans understand this, but their expectations have stayed the same despite being products of a bygone era and that’s led to some disappointment over some player’s production. That’s why we need new expectations for what it means to be elite. Elite generally stands for a player that’s well above average. If 30 goals and 80 points is the expectation for that, it’s possible to check how far above average those marks were in the past by finding an average player’s scoring level and the distribution of talent in the league. Knowing those two things means knowing how impressive a 30-goal or 80-point season was in the past and how that compares to now.
Unsurprisingly, things have changed. A lot. When we say “30-goal scorer” now, the talent is a lot closer to what a 40-goal scorer was in the past, and what we actually mean is a guy who puts up 22 to 27 goals. For points the difference is even larger. The talent of what we’d expect from a point-per-game player is actually a lot closer to 60-70 points. That’s because the average player scores less points now and the spread of talent is much smaller. Just look at the top 30-point scorers this year based on points-per-game. Assuming all 30 had a clean bill of health, the 30th place guy, Joe Thornton, would’ve had 68 points, which is equivalent to 83 in 2005-06. Not many people are going to be impressed by 68 points, but 83 might do the trick.
Sidney Crosby, who ‘slumped’ to a 90-point pace this season would’ve had 111 which is more to his standards. Here’s how the rest of the top 30 would do if we had a time machine that could send them back to different times in NHL history.
A guy like
Vladimir Tarasenko looks like a budding superstar this year with a prorated 39-39-78 season, but the numbers are a lot closer to what we perceive as a 50-50-100 season which means he already is one.
Steven Stamkos’ didn’t score 50 goals, but it’s clear that his season is equal to past 50-goal campaigns. Then there’s
Pavel Datsyuk, the man that defies age, who would put up 100 points in any other year (if he was healthy of course). You could go on for days comparing eras, but what it all boils down to is our expectations of an elite player’s accomplishments have to be lowered from 30 goals and 80 points down to roughly 25 goals and 65 points. Those don’t sound too impressive, but it’s the new norm for the NHL. The totals don’t matter, it’s how much better a player is from the rest of the league that matters. That’s the context that’s missing when people quote dated benchmarks for success. It’s important to understand that because without that context, we’ll just be disappointed again next season.