Last year, a number of Flyers had the best years of their career, and we've looked at the odds that Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, and Wayne Simmonds will repeat those efforts. (Respectively: decent, not great but perhaps better than you'd think, and good.)
But what about the guy who had his worst year in over a decade, should we expect a repeat there?
Danny Briere had a very strong year in 2010-11, notching 34 goals and 68 points. But in 2011-12 he played fewer games, played fewer minutes per game, generated fewer shots per minute, and had a lower shooting percentage -- all of which worked to reduce his goal total.
The result is that he dropped from 34 goals to 16, and for the first time since '98-99 he played more than 30 games and finished with fewer than 50 points. Is this the beginning of the end for Briere, or should we expect him to bounce back?
Last year, Briere struggled with injuries. He missed two games with an upper body injury sustained at the end of October, missed a game in December with a hand injury, missed six games from a concussion in January, didn't miss time from this hit or this one, but did miss the last three games of the year with a back injury.
That sounds bad, and you might expect him to be healthier this year. But honestly, his 12 games missed last year isn't really out of the ordinary. Since the lockout, Briere has averaged over 16 games missed per season, and he's missed at least five in each of the last four seasons.
As he advances through his 30's, injury becomes an increasing risk, and it seems reasonable to guess that a player who's been injured as often as he has will miss significant time again next year.
Last year, Briere got less ice time per game (17:22) than the previous season. However, like with his games played, his usage was in line with his recent career -- since coming to Philadelphia, his average ice time has been 17:37 per game.
It seems unlikely that Briere will be asked to fill Jaromir Jagr's vacated role as a top-line winger, so it's hard to see his ice time increasing substantially. If anything, one might guess that Briere might cede a bit of ice time to improving young centers like Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn.
Shot rate is where 2010-11 really stands out as an anomaly. That year, he averaged 10.5 shots per 60 minutes played, the highest of his career by far (his second highest was 9.6, and he was over 9.0 only one other time).
In 2011-12, he got 8.6 shots per 60 minutes, which is right in line with the 8.8 that he's averaged since coming to Philadelphia -- and a reasonable expectation for next year. It seems awfully optimistic to hope that at 35 he'll return to his career best; merely continuing his recent performance would be a victory at this age.
This is the one place where last year really was a down year -- and strikingly so.
His ice time and shot rate weren't really declining so much as coming back in line with his established talent level, but the reason he had his worst goals per game output in over a decade was that his shooting percentage plummeted.
Briere is a career 14.7% shooter and until last year's 9.2%, he was over 13% every year since he left the AHL. Was this drop a sign of age or just routine fluctuation? We know shooting percentage varies quite a bit, so I'm going to assume it's just normal variation unless I see a lot of evidence to the contrary; let's take a quick glance and see what we can find.
There were 22 forwards who played at least 60 games at the age of 34-36 last year. Of those, only three (Craig Adams, Petr Sykora, and Patrik Elias) had shooting percentages above their career rates. Another eight were roughly flat, showing less than a percent drop from their career rate and/or from their rate over the last three years (since some guys have inflated numbers from earlier eras).
But fully half of them showed a significant decline in shooting percentage:
|Player||Career sh%||2011-12 sh%|
There are a lot of reasons this might not be as damning as it seems. Perhaps in their old age, a lot of these players got less power play time or moved down from playing with elite passers. Perhaps last year was just a bad year for the old guys. Without doing a more detailed investigation, I'm not going to call an end to Briere's career as a good shooter, but seeing this many sharp declines versus only three people advancing leaves me less optimistic about his shooting percentage bouncing back up than I was before.
So where does that leave us?
With these projections, it should always be understood that looking at all of the factors might give us a reasonable guess, but performance is variable and some players will outperform or underperform the projection.
In this case, I'd have to say the range of possibilities is particularly large. Maybe Briere stays healthy for 80 games, gets his shooting percentage back up to 14%, and scores 28 goals and 60 points. Even if he has exactly 70 games again, given the skimpy evidence on shooting percentages at his age, I think optimists and pessimists could reasonably argue anywhere from 15-25 goals based on 8-14% shooting percentage.
I'll take the centrist route and guess that he's legitimately declining but that random chance made the shooting percentage drop-off look worse than it really was; I'll put his projection at 20 goals and 52 points over 70 games.