I performed this analysis for a sports economics class. Nothing really surprising, I'm sure everyone already knows the answer to this question. It is not very in depth and does not include any fancy information, but thought I would post it to see what people thought. It is a very basic analysis and is my first one, so please be easy on me.
Using Hockey-Reference.com's list of the all-time leading scorers in the NHL, I selected the top 25 forwards and listed their Points per Game (PPG) for each season of their careers sorted by their age at the beginning of each season in a spreadsheet. I only selected forwards because I wanted to analyze the prime scoring years of hockey players and defensemen's scoring can fluctuate greatly from year to year and measuring defensive ability can be difficult. Defensemen also tend to have longer careers than forwards; therefore, their prime years tend to be longer. Simply looking at the data in the following table, one can see that forwards tend to have their best scoring years in their mid to late 20's.
|Note: 1 Jaromir Jagr, Joe Sakic, Mark Recchi, Teemu Selanne, Mike Modano, Brendan Shanahan, and Mats Sundin lost a season due to the 2004-2005 NHL Lockout.|
|2 Mario Lemeiux missed three seasons due to a diagnosis and treatment of cancer.|
|3 Bryan Trottier retired for one season but returned one year later due to financial difficulties.|
|4 Guy LaFleur retired but returned three years later after being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame||
The final row of this table is an average of each player's PPG for each age. A table with all 25 players' PPG graphed is too congested for one to obtain any useful information. Individual players also have their own unique peaks in their PPG. Wayne Gretzky had his highest PPG at the age of just 23, before the typical prime time period for hockey players. Meanwhile, Ron Francis had his highest PPG at the age of 32, outside of the typical prime time period. Using the average of all of the players allows for the effect of individual peaks to be lessened and one can see the range of years that represents the group as a whole. This average can be used as an estimate of the typical pattern of PPG in an NHL forward's career. The following graph of this average uncovers the clearer pattern in hockey forwards' PPG.
This graph illustrates that the scoring for NHL forwards peaks on average between the ages of 25 and 27. These ages have average PPG’s of 1.34, 1.33, and 1.35 respectively. These three years are extremely close suggesting that the prime lasts for three seasons. Before the age of 25, there is normally a steady increase in a player’s performance. After the age of 27, there is typically a steady decline in a player’s scoring until they retire.
One caveat in this data sample is average PPG at the age of 23. In this graph, players appear to reach their peak performance at that age. However, if one looks at the table, they can see that this is due to abnormal statistics in this sample. Five players out of the sample size of 25 actually had their best PPG of their career at this incredibly young age. Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman, Jaromir Jagr, Mike Modano, and Guy LaFleur each had their best statistical season when they were 23. Additionally, a number of other players in this table had their second or third best statistical season at this age. Without the five players who had their best season at 23, the average PPG at this age drops from 1.37 to 1.24. If this PPG was plotted on the graph, it would be more in line with the steady arching incline from 20 years old to 25 years old, rather than the sharp increase that is an outlier on this graph. This outlier can be attributed to the sample size of the data set. This analysis includes only 25 of approximately 6,968 total players who have ever played an NHL game according to hockeydb.com’s NHL Player Index. There are bound to be outliers in such a small sample size. However, a trend is still evident in this data set.
Hockey forwards have a steady, almost linear, increase in PPG from 20 to 23. Then, there is a slight increase between 23 and 25. Between the ages of 25-27, PPG remains about the same. From the age of 28 to the early 30’s, there is a steady decline. Then, there appears to be sharper decline as players near retirement. Thus, NHL players are truly only at their peak for three to four seasons. There are a couple years on each end of this prime that the player comes close to matching this production; however, the beginning and end of their careers are spent below this production level as they are either improving or declining in their performance.
One possible problem with selecting the top 25 scorers is that these were likely the most consistent scorers in their career. It might have been better to select players a little further down the list. Not sure if this would change anything.
EDIT: I added 150 more players. I just did the first 150 on an alphabetical list of players playing more than 5 seasons in the modern era. I couldn't find a way to automatically collect the data so I had to manually do it. I don't have the time to enter every single player who played. The resulting graph ended up being pretty similar. The one difference, which I figured would happen, is the "outlier" of 23 years old is more in line with the rest of the data. The prime appears to be 25-26 years old.