Even after hiring a new front office (led by Kyle Dubas) that overhauled a significant portion of the team’s roster this offseason, the Pittsburgh Penguins are again set to have one of the oldest rosters in the NHL for the 2023-24 season.
After adding veteran forwards Reilly Smith, Noel Acciari, Lars Eller, and Matt Nieto, along with returning players all being another year older, the Penguins roster is going to be pushing an average age of 30 years. At the moment, their average age as a team is 29.7, and that is before any potential addition of San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson.
Add Karlsson to that mix, and the average age again rockets past 30 for the season.
The only players on the roster at this moment under the age of 28 are Drew O’Connor, Alex Nylander, and Pierre-Olivier Joseph. While it’s possible that somebody like a Samuel Poulin or Owen Pickering could play their way onto the roster in training camp and bring some added youth to the group, this is the team and it’s again one of the oldest rosters in the league.
So what does that tell us about the Penguins’ chances for success this season, and could they still possibly compete for a Stanley Cup with a roster that is again pushing an average age of 30 years old.
I went back over the past 20 years and look at some of the oldest teams in the league during that stretch and how they performed, and also the average age of the Stanley Cup champions during that stretch.
Let’s start with the latter group of teams and look at the past 20 Stanley Cup winners.
Those teams as a collective group had an average of 28.3 years old.
Of those 20 Stanley Cup winners, only six of them had an average of 29 or older, while only one of them (the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings) had an average age over 29.3 years old when they won the Stanley Cup. They had an average age of 32.1 years old. But they were an extreme outlier. And they were also, believe it or not, 15 years ago.
A lot about the NHL has changed in a decade-and-a-half.
We are also only talking about Stanley Cup winners which is a very small group of teams.
When it comes to simply making the playoffs, the older teams do tend to fare reasonably well.
Over the past 20 years there have been 29 teams that had an average age of 30 or older.
Out of that group, 20 of them went on to qualify for the playoffs, or close to 70 percent. And that seems like a pretty good number. But when you dig a little deeper, most of those teams that qualified for the playoffs in that age range were from the earlier part of the 2000s, and the earlier part of the salary cap era.
Over the past 10-12 years there has been a pretty significant shift in the success rate of teams pushing an average of 30 or more.
Going back to the start of the 2010-11 season, nine of the 12 teams that had an average age of 30 or older failed to even qualify for the playoffs. And that includes seven of the past eight teams over the past 10 years dating back to the start of the 2012-13 season. The only team over the past decade that had an average age of 30 or older to actually make the playoffs was the 2020-21 Capitals.
There were two teams in the league over the age of 30 a year ago — Pittsburgh and Washington — and both went on to miss the playoffs.
None of this of course means the Penguins are destined to miss the playoffs again because even last year they were just a point away and could easily make up that ground this season with some more consistent goaltending, or if they were still able to add the reigning Norris Trophy winner to their blue line.
It is just an example as to how much the NHL has shifted more toward younger teams over the past few years.
Back in the late 90s and early 2000s when there was no salary cap and teams like Detroit, Colorado, Dallas and New Jersey could load up their rosters with as many future Hall of Famers as they wanted age really didn’t seem to matter much. In fact, older teams tended to excel in those years and the Stanley Cup winners tended to be among the older clubs in the league.
But the salary cap has shifted that a little bit, put more limitations on how teams can be built and created a bigger necessity for having younger players make more of an impact. Now the most valuable commodities you can have on your team are the star-level players on their first or second contracts that are not yet making eight-figure salary cap numbers.
There was not any one move or series of moves this offseason that was going to change the Penguins’ roster in that direction, as they are fully committed to players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang being their core. And even if they had found some younger options than Smith or Acciari or Eller it really wasn’t going to alter the makeup of the roster that dramatically.
Age is also just one factor out of many in determining what sort of team you are going to have. But it is still interesting to see how little success the teams pushing an average of 30 (or exceeding it) have done over the past decade. They have not done particularly well and if the Penguins are going to get back to the playoffs they are going to have to defeat that trend.