Will Age Finally Catch Up with Martin St. Louis in 2013-14 NHL Season?

Daniel WagnerFeatured ColumnistSeptember 19, 2013

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 07:  Martin St. Louis #26 of the Tampa Bay Lightning in action against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on February 7, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Lightning 4-2.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Martin St. Louis has spent his entire career defying the odds. At 5'8", St. Louis has always been one of the shortest players in the league, and he had to battle his way to the NHL after going undrafted. Despite the limitations of his size, St. Louis has had a Hall of Fame career and it still isn't over.

His most impressive accomplishment came just last season, when at the age of 37 he became the oldest player in NHL history to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer.

Just how much longer can St. Louis defy the odds and remain ageless? There are several reasons to believe that St. Louis will still be one of the top offensive players in the NHL in the coming season.

The first is that he is in insanely good shape.

This picture of St. Louis' legs made the social media rounds last week, and it certainly makes it easier to understand how he continues to skate so well and out-battle larger players. His legs look completely unrealistic, as if they were drawn by Rob Liefeld.

St. Louis is renowned for his commitment to fitness, which was necessary for him to overcome the long odds against him because of his size. Now that same commitment to fitness may help him to produce at a high level for a few more years.

It also helps that his role as a playmaker tends to have less wear and tear on the body. As a set-up man, intelligence and vision are just as—if not more—important than physical ability, so age may have less of an impact than on a goalscoring forward who needs to drive to the net and take more physical punishment in order to continue producing points.

It also helps that he's setting up arguably the best sniper in the game: Steven Stamkos. The two players at opposite ends of their careers have developed remarkable chemistry, and the 23-year-old Stamkos helps St. Louis stay young by making it a bit easier for him to rack up assists.

Stamkos already has a 60-goal campaign under his belt and has 100 goals in 124 career games, with St. Louis picking up assists on over 50 percent of those goals. Last season, St. Louis assisted on 19 of Stamkos's 29 goals. Having a trigger man as good as Stamkos makes St. Louis' job as a playmaker a lot easier, but it's also a mutually beneficial arrangement, as Stamkos also benefits from having St. Louis as a set-up man.

One of the most impressive aspects of St. Louis' Art Ross-winning season is that it wasn't dependent on how he was used by the Lightning or on luck. Looking at the underlying statistics from the last four years shows that not much changed behind the scenes for the 2012-13 season.

Martin St. Louis Even-Strength Underlying Statistics
SeasonGPTOI/60Off Zone Start %Corsi Rel QoCP/60On-Ice Sh%On-Ice Sv%PDO
 Statistics from BehindtheNet.ca

Offensive zone start percentage refers to the percentage of shifts a player starts in the offensive zone as opposed to the defensive zone. While St. Louis started a small percentage more of his shifts in the offensive zone compared to 2011-12 and significantly more than 2010-11, it was actually significantly lower than in 2009-10.

His quality of competition indicates the strength of the opponents he faced throughout the season. While St. Louis faced weaker competition in 2009-10 and 2010-11, it was tougher than what he faced in 2011-12.

So then, his boost in point production didn't come from an easier assignment or playing soft minutes purely in the offensive zone against weak competition. Instead, he saw just a small uptick in offensive zone starts and an increase in his quality of competition.

St. Louis also didn't get any luckier in 2012-13 than his previous season, with his on-ice shooting percentage actually lower than 2011-12. While his on-ice shooting percentage was higher than his career average and much higher than the NHL average, that comes as a result of playing with a finisher like Stamkos, who has yet to have a shooting percentage under 12 percent and a career average of 17.2 percent.

It seems viable that St. Louis and Stamkos together could sustain an on-ice shooting percentage north of 12 percent for another season, having done it twice already.

All of those statistics came at even-strength, but the Tampa Bay Lightning power play didn't exactly light up the league, finishing 13th in power-play percentage. The biggest reason for St. Louis' career-best points per game came from receiving more ice time while playing with a player with whom he has great chemistry.

There's one other thing to look at: How did his Art Ross season compared to other 37-year-olds in league history and how did those players follow up those seasons at 38?

Martin St. Louis put up one of the best seasons from a 37-year-old in NHL history, scoring 60 points in 48 games. The points alone make him the 19th-highest scoring 37-year-old ever, just two points behind Wayne Gretzky at the same age.

That's already elite company for St. Louis, but when you consider that it came in a shortened season, it becomes even more impressive. In terms of points per game, St. Louis' 2013 season was the second-best ever from a 37-year-old, behind only Mario Lemieux's 2002-03 season when he scored 91 points in 67 games. 

Top Six Seasons from a 37-year-old by Points Per Game
Mario Lemieux2002 036728639143-251.358
Martin St. Louis2012 13481743601401.250
Joe Sakic2006 078236641004621.220
Johnny Bucyk1972 737840539312181.192
Jean Beliveau1968 696933498255151.188
Gordie Howe1965 667029467583 1.071

Only 10 players have put up a point-per-game or better at 37. While this doesn't take into account the era these players played in, that would only serve to highlight how impressive St. Louis' accomplishment truly was, as none of these players led the league in scoring, though Lemieux almost certainly would have done so if he had stayed healthy.

So just how do players who excelled at 37 tend to do at the age of 38 and beyond? What can we expect from St. Louis?

Looking at the 50 players who scored the most points per game at 37 and how well they did at 38 should provide a good guideline, excluding players who retired or didn't play enough games for a useful comparison. Lemieux, for example, only played 10 games at 38.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the majority of these players saw a decrease in their points per game, but the drop isn't as large as might be expected. On average, these top players scored 0.133 points fewer at 38 than at 37, equivalent to about 11 points over an 82-game season. If St. Louis saw that decline in points per game next season, he would still score approximately 92 points over an 82-game season.

Adam Oates saw the largest increase in points per game, going from 71 points in 82 games to 68 points in 66 games. In fact, he is the only player in NHL history to score at or above a point per game at the age of 38, though a few did so at 39 or 40. 

Just 15 players matched or increased their points per game at 38. Of course, it would be unlikely for St. Louis to match last season, which was the best points per game rate of his entire career, it seems possible that he will become the second 38-year-old in NHL history to score at a point-per-game pace.

Adam Oates, Mark Recchi, Ray Whitney and Cliff Ronning were all able to match or increase their points per game from age 37 to 38 and are all undersized to some degree—like St. Louis, Ronning is 5'8". Oates, in particular, is an interesting comparison, as St. Louis is also primarily a playmaker. A positive sign, then, is that Oates was able to play another four seasons after the age of 38, again scoring above a point per game at 39.

While history shows that most 38-year-old NHL players see a decline in performance, there are players who have defied the odds. With his fitness and Stamkos at his side, St. Louis could be one of them and once again be among the top scorers in the NHL.


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