On “Talent Dilution” – re-assessing one of history’s greatest foregone conclusions – PART 9 (4-N-ers taking jobs!)

PREVIOUS: Part 8 (Of course it looks like this, you see how bad the new team is!)

So far, we’ve taken a look at the basic methodology used in some of this project, and a few team metrics.  This is Part 9, and we haven’t really gotten into the player database to a meaningful extent yet.

That changes now.

Andrei Zyuzin, again

If for some reason you skipped over Part 2 (Methodology), you might want to go back and take a look at it.  If you insist on continuing anyway, we’ll revisit it.

For every player who has ever suited up in so much as a single regular season game in NHL history, they’re in the database.  Every single one of them had their birthday keyed in, and every single player-season had four questions answered:

  • Did he play two or more seasons prior?
  • Did he play last year?
  • Did he play the next year?
  • Did he play two or more seasons after the one in question?

Andrei Zyuzin is a decent example; he entered the league, played a bunch of consecutive years, and then retired.  He was active on both seasons immediately surrounding the non-existent 2004-05 season, so this is counted as a season for the purpose of “consecutive”.

His entry in the database looks like this:

zyuzin2

But there are other player types; Zyuzin’s experience is normal, but not the absolute standard.

Rob Zamuner, seen right after this, shows a minor difference compared to Zyuzin:

zamuner

It wasn’t until after everything was completely compiled and answered that I thought to myself, “Nathan, you may need Calder information.  Go back and add that.”  This meant going back through the roughly 8,000 players in NHL history, looking at everything, and determining what their Calder season would be according to the modern standard.

This is either a player’s first season in which he plays 25 or more games, or his second season of playing less than 25 but more than 6 games.  The NHL’s actual age restriction was removed by me for the sake of this exercise, since it could have simply clouded what I’m looking for.

So Zyuzin, a 19-year-old rookie, had his Calder season right off the bat – he played 56 games in the year that he made his debut.  Zamuner, on the other hand, had it as his second season – he played nine games in his debut season, and then 84 in his second.

Let’s look at Dmitry Afanasenkov:

afanasenkov

In his case, his third season in the NHL would be his Calder year – he’d played a season with nine games, and a season with five games, and would thus still be eligible.

The other big thing is that he did not play in the NHL during the 2002-03 season, so his 2001-02 and 2003-04 years look different in the question section (those N’s and Y’s).  Zamuner and Zyuzin, both of whom did not play a full season outside the NHL in the middle of their career, show this pattern:

  • NNYY in their debut year (did not play in the NHL two years prior, or the year before, did play the next year, did play two or more years later)
  • NYYY in their second year (same as above, but Question #2 becomes a Y)
  • YYYY for several seasons in the middle
  • YYYN in their second-to-last (did not play two or more years later)
  • YYNN in their last (did not play the next year, or two-plus years later)

In the case of Afanasenkov, who spent the 2002-03 season in the AHL, those middle seasons have N’s in the “next season” and “last season” spots on either side of his AHL season.

Let’s take a look at another example.

zent

Jason Zent played in three consecutive NHL seasons, and did have a Calder season at all.

The career pattern for such a player goes NNYY, NYYN, YYNN.

Another example.  Ilya Zubov only played games in two NHL seasons, which were consecutive.

zubov

Johnathan Aitken only played two seasons as well, but they were not consecutive.

aitken

Dave Amadio played in three seasons, the first of which was a decade before the second and third:

amadio

Travis Brigley played parts of three seasons, none of which were consecutive:

brigley

And finally, Sergei Zinovjev played only in one single NHL season:

zinovjev

4-N

Zinovjev is an example of what’s designated as a 4-N player within the database.  Of the four questions of whether he played games in any other NHL season, the answer to each is “no”.  Four “N”s is abbreviated down to 4-N.

I must emphasize before continuing on that there are some absolutely tragic cases among the 4-N players.  Of note:

  • Hamby Shore is a 4-N player if only NHL experience is considered in the early years of the NHL.  He played several years in the NHA, and then carried over when that league re-formed into the NHL for 1917-18.  After that season, Shore contracted Spanish flu from his wife; she recovered, and he did not.
  • Jack Leswick played in the 1933-34 season with the Chicago Black Hawks, and died in August 1934.  His death remains a mystery; whether he drowned accidentally, jumped into a river, or was murdered is unknown to this day.
  • Red Garrett played in the 1942-43 season with the New York Rangers, and was in the Canadian Navy by the time the next season began.  He was killed in action in November 1944.
  • Joe Turner played a single game with the Detroit Red Wings in the 1941-42 season, and enlisted in the US Army shortly afterward.  He was killed in action in December 1944.
  • Butch Paul played three games with Detroit in the 1964-65 season.  While playing with the minor league Memphis Wings the next season, he was killed in a car accident on his way home from a game.
  • Bill Masterton was playing with the first-year Minnesota North Stars during the 1967-68 season.  During a game against the Oakland Seals, he was checked by two opposing players and fell backwards, striking his (unhelmeted) head on the ice.  Masterton died the next day, the only NHL player to die as a direct result of an on-ice play.
  • Michel Briere was a promising rookie with Pittsburgh during the 1970-71 season.  After the Penguins’ season ended, he was involved in a car accident, suffering  injuries that ultimately proved fatal.
  • Mike Colman played a handful of games with San Jose during the 1991-92 season.  He was killed in a car accident while playing with the IHL’s Kansas City Blades during the 1993-94 season.
  • Dmitri Tertyshny was a promising rookie defenseman with Philadelphia during the 1998-99 season.  He was killed in a boating accident in July 1999.
  • Alexander Vasyunov played with the New Jersey Devils in the 2010-11.  In September 2011, he was killed in the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv plane crash.

This list is not all-inclusive.  To the best of my knowledge, these are the players who were active in the NHL to at least some extent and are classified as 4-N – there are others like Bjorn Skaare, who is also 4-N but whose death came while he was playing in Norway over a decade after his only NHL action.

There have also been other players of varying classifications who have died during their NHL careers.  And there are other players who have suffered career-ending and life-altering (but not fatal) injuries during their NHL careers as well.  Unfortunately, there is simply no way to compensate for any of it; we can only take things as they are instead of how we wished they were.

It does not necessarily follow that a 4-N player is not of NHL caliber.  There are some cases, particularly in the earlier days, of players who chose to pursue a career with a bit more stability and pay, to say nothing of less serious injury risk.  There are some who lost their love of the game and retired, some who ran afoul of coaches or management and were exiled to the minor leagues or played overseas in Europe.

However, in a great number of cases, 4-N players were those who were simply not destined to have a lasting NHL career, regardless of these other factors.

What’s the big problem?

Usually when bystanders bemoan what type of players expansion brings into the NHL (or any other league), this is what and who they’re referring to: a motley collection of players who might be minor league caliber and yet are pushed into playing at the highest level.

To me, this should be the most obvious sign of a diluted league.  If talent dilution exists to a meaningful extent, it should absolutely follow that we will see the evidence in the form of a bunch of players who play in an expansion season and then are gone just as quickly as they came.  And when those players are replaced after a single season, they would be replaced by others of a similar caliber – after all, expansion-wrought talent dilution is often presented as an ongoing issue.

And, if there’s something to this, we would also expect to see the big World War II years of 1943-44 and 1944-45 also jump off the page.

Is it true?

You know the drill: non-expansion and early years in blue, expansion in red:

4N

(Click to enlarge)

It is possible to take this far too literally.  So first, the disclaimers:

  • The 2018-19 percentage is not that high, and it’s not that accurate.  In fact, anything from the 2015-16 season to the present is not 100% accurate, and the accuracy diminishes with each progressing year toward the present.  The reason is simple: not every player who suited up in 2018-19 had yet suited up in 2019-20 by the time that the database was compiled.  Although the spaces are left blank instead of being filled with N’s, they still show up as N’s in the compiling.  So a player who saw his first NHL action in 2018-19 but had not yet suited up in 2019-20 when the database was compiled shows up for now as 4-N.  This will change once the 2019-20 regular season ends.
  • In addition, there are players from the previous four seasons who have seen their first NHL action in years during 2019-20, again after the database was initially compiled.  An example is Colorado’s TJ Tynan, who played in three games with Columbus in 2016-17.  Although he looked like a career minor-leaguer when the database was put together, he received a call-up to Colorado and has played games in 2019-20.  He, along with several others, will be re-done in a couple months in order to make it as accurate as possible.
  • The five highest years on record, in order: 1943-44 (24.82%), 1944-45 (14.53%), 1942-43 (13.74%), 1946-47 (12.50%), and 1950-51 (11.18%).

1950-51 could be an interesting case study on its own; the NHL was in a state of immense upheaval as it pertained to on-ice talent, and I have no idea why.  There will be a bit more in coming sections that show 1950-51 as standing out as a significant outlier among the seasons preceding and following it.

The other thing that can be taken far too literally is the big spike in 1967-68, which followed several years of an extremely low percentage of 4-N players.

To be classified as 4-N, a player must have played NHL games only within a single season.  When the league doubled in size for 1967-68, who did the expansion teams go for?  Sure, some of them were longtime NHL veterans, but quite a few of them were guys who’d played a handful of games here and there in the preceding several seasons.  When someone who played five years prior gets back into the NHL, it doesn’t shift the year where his 4-N status falls – he is no longer a 4-N player at all.

A lot of players suited up in 1967-68 who had not been in the NHL just one year prior.  Assuming my compiling is correct, just 50.69% of NHL skaters in 1967-68 had played so much as a single game in 1966-67.  But 67.71% of skaters in 1967-68 had played games two or more years prior.  And 91.72% of skaters who played in 1966-67 also played the next season (1967-68), the highest percentage in NHL history by a staggering margin.

The extremely low 4-N percentages of the years immediately preceding 1967-68 are not a reflection on an overall increase in the caliber of player during those years – it’s a statistical illusion that exists because of the large-scale search for talent that commenced for the 1967-68 season.

The Other Bumps

Three other years stand out as notable statistical illusions: 1993-94, 2003-04, and 2011-12.  In each case, there is a bump for these seasons that is immediately followed by a large drop.  For 1993-94, it may stand to reason that this is a direct result of the NHL adding its fourth and fifth teams in just three seasons.

However, in each of these three seasons, the one following it was affected by a labor stoppage.  The 1994-95 and the 2012-13 seasons were cut from 82 down to 48 games, and the 2004-05 season was not played at all.

Why is this important?

If you back up a couple sections, you may notice that there was a drop in the number of skaters who played NHL games in both of the shortened seasons.  If you already noticed that part and remembered it, thank you for paying attention and retaining that bit of information.

A great deal has been written about how patient or impatient teams are with their prospects.  Believe me when I say that, from compiling the database, I have not seen significant evidence that points to teams being more or less patient with young players (or veteran players, for that matter) than in years past.  There were good players in the 1930s who were given only a year or two to get it together in the NHL and then banished to the minors if they couldn’t, just as happens today.  There were prospects who were given five or six years to prove that they would never be able to put it together, just as happens today.  All the talk about how teams would be patient with rookies or young players back in the day, or how they’d only give a rookie or a young player back in the day just a handful of games to prove himself, is Grade-A bullplop.

Why is this important?

In the shortened seasons, we first deal with the fact that there were fewer skaters who played NHL games.  But for players who were in the minors, or who were marginal NHLers in the first place, the season in question still existed from the front office assessing their future NHL prospects.  A player who first saw action in 1993-94 may not have made the NHL roster out of camp in 1994-95, and not gotten a call-up in the shortened season.  The team was still assessing whether he could play in the NHL at that point, and by 1995-96 he may have been passed on the depth chart by younger players who – even if they weren’t necessarily better – were more likely to receive a longer look.

In 1994-95, 2012-13, and 2005-06 (the year following the wiped-out 2004-05 season), there is a drop in the number of players getting their first taste of the NHL – and the year after those, it returns to normal levels.  That will also be in a later section.

The 1970s

The 1970s were a turbulent time in pro hockey.  The NHL was expanding rapidly, and in multiple cases it was done specifically to go into a market and thwart an attempt by the newly-founded WHA to monopolize it.

Everything that I said in the last couple pages about the early days of the NHL, or of any pro sport, applies to talking about the WHA: enormous financial and market disparity, instability, owners unable to make payroll, owners skipping town in the middle of a season, you name it.

In addition, in the database I do not treat years in the WHA as equal to the NHL – I had done this for the NHA over a half-century prior, but my thinking was that since the WHA teams could not compete for the Stanley Cup, it was not equal.  Arbitrary, yes.  So what.  Once you download the database (soon to follow), you can add WHA players or player-seasons to it and re-run everything if you so desire.

The WHA fielded 12 teams in its first year (1972-73), in addition to the fact that the NHL had 16 teams.  It grew to 14 teams by 1974-75, at a time that the NHL was up to 18 teams.  (That’s right, there were as many major pro teams in 1974-75 as there will be in 2021-22).

I’ll mention again that I do not count WHA seasons in the database as “experience”.  Someone who played in the NHL for a year, then jumped to the WHA where he may have retired after several seasons of excellence…he’s still a 4-N player in the database.

The WHA began crumbling in 1976-77….down to twelve teams, then to eight, and finally just six finished the 1978-79 season.  And only four were a part of the merger/absorption with the NHL for the 1979-80 season.

Since I do not count WHA seasons as prior experience in the database, there’s a big spike in 4-N players in 1979-80 as well.  Some of these were guys getting their first pro hockey action in the NHL, and some of them were WHA veterans of several years who didn’t last beyond that season.  I don’t know that all of this can be accounted for, so it’s a reason to simply keep this in mind when looking at that year.

Even so…

Now go back and look at the chart of 4-N players over time.  The 1979-80 season, which has a big asterisk attached to it for reasons that are quite literally one paragraph above this, checks in with a 4-N rate of 6.50%.  This is still below almost every season of the years from 1940-41 to 1952-53, and is on par with the rest.  (1945-46 is a notable exception; many teams simply brought their players who had fought in the war right back.)

Yes, this can all be taken very literally.  But the fact that – even without compensating for other factors – the biggest of expansion years had 4-N rates below even normal years in the Original Six era is a very interesting tidbit.