There is no doubt that the game of hockey is getting faster and, as a result, younger. Yet, in 2016-17 that didn’t stop 44-year-old ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr from outscoring his age, 40-year-old Matt Cullen and 37-year-old Chris Kunitz from contributing to a second straight Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup title, 39-year-old Zdeno Chara from skating in more than 23 minutes per game, or 36-year-old Henrik Zetterberg and 37-year-old Joe Thornton from finishing among the league’s best in assists. Several teams who witnessed the impact that older players had on their teams last year went out and signed older free agents this summer in hopes of a repeat performance. It hasn’t happened for most of those teams. The majority of players age 36 and older who signed with new teams this off-season have struggled to meet expectations.
Jagr, of course, is the poster boy of the anti-youth movement. The 28-year NHL veteran has somehow remained consistent throughout his career even into his mid-40’s, but despite a 46-point campaign last year, got little attention this summer and it looked like his illustrious career was over. However, the Calgary Flames swooped in at the last minute, signing Jagr to a one-year deal in early October. At $2MM for the year, it was a low-risk, high-upside singing. Yet, through 36 games, that upside has not shown up. Jagr has only been healthy for 19 games, in which he has only one goal and six assists. Even if Jagr was magically healthy for each of the Flames remaining games this season, he would be on pace for a career-worst 24 points. It seems that Jagr’s days are finally done.
He’s not alone though. The Penguins aging role players also decided to leave Pittsburgh this off-season, with Cullen heading home to Minnesota to join the Wild and Kunitz chasing a fourth Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Both players have been nothing short of a disappointment so far. Cullen, who was a major contributor to the Pens’ success last year as a dependable checking center and 30-point scorer. So far with the Wild, Cullen has been a non-factor offensively (7 points) and defensively (team worst -11) through 35 games and was even a healthy scratch earlier this month. Despite the incredible talent around him, Kunitz has just 10 points this season, a pace which is a far cry from his recent back-to-back 40-point seasons.
Who else is on the list? Defenseman Mark Streit was a complete disaster in Montreal, released by the Canadiens after just two games. Journeyman goalie Michael Leighton hasn’t done much better, already on his third team in 2017-18 and without an NHL appearance thus far. Despite the time-tested theory that Radim Vrbata always performs his best in Arizona, the aging scorer bolted the Coyotes for the Florida Panthers, who so far have only received 12 points and 29 games from the signing.
The jury is still out on a few veterans. Francois Beauchemin returned home to Anaheim this summer and many expected him to improve his game back on a familiar roster. While Beauchemin’s 7 points through 30 games pale in comparison to the better seasons of his career, it’s similar to the production he showed last year with the Colorado Avalanche. With the Ducks struggling as a team, it seems fair that Beauchemin’s play has also been a bit lacking. That hasn’t been the case for Ryan Miller, another aging addition in Anaheim. His .928 save percentage and 2.23 GAA has been very good. However, Miller has only gotten the win in four of his ten appearances and missed much of the early season due to injury. Miller has performed better than the rest of his team, but had he been healthy it may have reversed the Ducks’ fortunes early on. Matt Hendricks has already matched his point total with the Edmonton Oilers last season now with the Winnipeg Jets last season. He’s playing a valued energy role and the Jets likely don’t have many gripes. With that said, Hendricks needed only seven points to match that total from a down year in 2016-17 and has a been playing a less-physical game than he has in the past. Hendricks hasn’t been bad, but Winnipeg would undoubtedly rather see 2014-15 Hendricks, who posted 16 points and 220 hits.
The one team who has had great success with veteran signings in 2017-18 is the Toronto Maple Leafs. San Jose Sharks legend Patrick Marleau chose to sign in Toronto, leaving the only team he had ever played for, but the Leafs had to give him three years and $18.75MM to get it done. So far, it hasn’t been a bad investment. Marleau has 19 points in all 36 games, including 12 goals, and the 38-year-old should easily reach 40 points for the 18th time in his career. However, the real breakout veteran performance has been from the 36-year-old Ron Hainsey, whose signing was initially panned by many. Yet, Hainsey is on pace for one of, if not the best offensive campaigns of his career with 15 points so far. Forming a dynamic duo with Morgan Rielly, Hainsey seems rejuvenated late in his career and it has shown in an improvement on Toronto’s back end. But even the Leafs weren’t perfect though; the signing of Dominic Moore has been a disappointment. Moore has only nine points and has been a frequent scratch after a season with the division rival Boston Bruins in which he put up 25 points and played in all 82 games.
The NHL has been an increasingly difficult place for mediocre older players to find work. There has been a movement toward younger rosters, with veterans settling for minimum contracts, tryouts, or simply heading to Europe. Yet, exceptions continue to be made, especially for some talented older players. After the results this elderly free agent group has shown, veteran signings – especially those demanding big money and term – will surely become even less frequent.