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Fun with WAR% historical timelines

A look at Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Karlsson over the years

NHL: MAR 23 Penguins at Stars Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The latest perk and data hitting the hockey internet from Top Down Hockey are Historical Player Cards, detailing history in the “modern advanced stats era” in the NHL since 2007.

Here are a few interesting ones and some thoughts on what it could mean for specific players.

There is a perception or narrative that’s become popular that mostly based on boxcar statistics or games played that Erik Karlsson struggled or was outright “bad” by his standards for the majority of his recent past few years (barring, of course 2022-23). Karlsson’s offensive playdriving has never gone away, but coincidentally or not his finishing left him the year before he went to San Jose (2018-19) and continued for two more seasons.

Then in 2022-23, of course, was a great bounce-back and Karlsson himself acknowledged re-finding his passion and joy of coming back to the rink in the last year. It showed in a major way with renewed finishing and an increase back to being the game’s top offensive-minded defender. All things considered, if he stays healthy this is an elite player who will offer a tremendous offensive impact.

Karlsson’s addition to the Penguins will make a fascinating ripple effect for Kris Letang’s future. After being a dominant player and truly one of the best defensemen in the whole league during the entire decade of the 2010’s, Letang’s WAR% impact started to fall off in the previous three seasons as he has gotten deeper into his 30’s. It remains to be seen just how the Pens will manage and split up assignments and duties between their two star right-handed defenders, but it could only serve to help to reduce Letang’s ice time a little, offer him slightly easier competition and see how that might boost his game.

Letang’s days of being a 90% percentile overall WAR player might be over, but adding Karlsson could give Letang a slight boost from the 66% percentile he was at last year. Letang was such a complete player in and around that 2016 Stanley Cup run, it will be interesting to see if he might morph back towards an all-around type of style and not the all-out offense that he has been in the most recent few years.

Now 31-years old, it remains to be seen if Bryan Rust’s best playing days are behind him, but the aging curve indicates this is the case of entering a post-peak period of his career. Rust still has five years remaining on his contract, and there could be some hope for a bounce-back on his worst WAR season of his career in 2022-23.

The disappearance of Rust’s finishing was a startling and impactful negative last season, he’ll need to get that back as a supporting player on a scoring line surrounded by a lot of talent in Pittsburgh. The Pens have bet on him to do that with his long-term contract, now it’s his turn to hold up his end of the bargain moving forward.

Rust is not to the point where his ability should totally fail him or completely drop away as drastically as it did last season, so it would probably make a good bet for him to re-gain a better form in 2023-24 than what he showed in 2022-23. But sustaining his 2019-22 standard moving forward is likely to be a tremendous challenge.

With Rust presenting a potential cautionary tale of extending a past-peak player, what does that mean for Jake Guentzel, who will more or less be in the same boat age-wise for his next contrct? While Rust is a sturdy complimentary and valid top-six player, Guentzel shows in this chart why he is a legitimate, premiere first line winger with playdriving and overall offensive ability.

(Also, whatever the Pens’ first line did defensively in 2019-20, can they get back towards that? A very weird aberration in an otherwise all-offense type of impact).

Guentzel has proven he’s worth the long-term commitment into the second half of his career due to his consistent and excellent point production and play driving.

Reilly Smith is yet another mid-career (nice way to not say “old”) type of key player for the Pens. Smith also exhibits what we would expect to see with a peak in his 20’s and some WAR drop-off in recent years, highlighted by the defensive impact falling away. Luckily though, his offensive element has remained rather consistent over his entire career and should be easy to rely on as a player who will be counted on to produce for the Pens.

Smith more or less replaces the spot Jason Zucker departs from. As well-known around these parts, Zucker’s career hit a big injury-induced rough patch from 2020-22, coinciding unfortunately right when he was traded to Pittsburgh.

A HUGE contract season got Zucker back on track and playing similar to how he did in his earlier days. They’re big skates for Smith to fill, however it remains unknown if the Zucker of last season will sustain moving ahead. “Contract year juice” can be fleeting and difficult to maintain.

Lars Eller will be interesting to track since Kyle Dubas was not shy this summer to anoint Eller as the team’s expected third line center. Now getting deeper into his 30’s, Eller too has experienced the expected, consistent decline in WAR% over the last few years. His offensive slide is standing out and particularly noteworthy, since it looks like the Pens will be placing him in an important role.

Pittsburgh will no doubt be hoping for 2019-21 era Eller results more than what he has been able to accomplish in the previous two seasons. It’s arguably a risky bet based on recent performance, though at a two-year contract with a reasonable cap hit, Eller could eventually be worked down to the fourth line if performance dictates.

With the focus towards timelines of careers, we turn to a player near the end of his line in Jeff Carter. Carter experienced enough of a late-career rejuvenation to get an extension in Pittsburgh in 2021, but since then has dropped off massively since that point. He’s a shell of who he was on the ice from his 2007-17 days, but has at least moderately compensated for that in the past few years with a more consistent and better defensive impact compared to earlier on.

Carter’s chart shows the unavoidable- Father Time is undefeated and he does no jobs, as the lingo goes. Everyone eventually slows and will become unable to maintain their spot in the game as time goes by, aging happens and younger players enter the league with each passing month and year. But the two key anchors on the Penguins are making a run at holding back the hands of time for as long as possible.

Even through age-35, Sidney Crosby has been a special case with little decline even as he gets long in the tooth for an elite hockey player. That isn’t breaking news with this chart but is nice to see in graphical form just the same. While Sid’s skating explosiveness has faded compared to where he was 10 or 15 years ago, he has found ways to adapt his game and remain on par with the sport’s top players through his consistency and offensive impact.

While nothing can last forever, Crosby still looks like he should be a viable top line player for a while yet. That’s no small feat as he enters year freaking 19 of his NHL career this fall.

Finally, we end with Evgeni Malkin, who himself has been absolutely no slouch at maintaining a tremendous career for an unreal amount of time. Unlike Crosby, Malkin has had to do that in the face of recent serious injuries as well. While there was some realistic and reasonable concern about how Malkin would hold up with a four-year contract as an aged player, last season looked about as good as any he’s ever had as far as WAR% and offensive impact goes.

For access to 10,000+ historical cards and graphs from over the years, check out JFresh Hockey on Patreon.