Debunking Myths: The Sophomore Slump And Top NHL Rookie Skaters

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Buyer beware, the fantasy hockey guides read. Mark Stone may have put up 64 points last season, but don’t expect a repeat. The guide could then offer a variety of reasons; it could be an unsustainable shooting percentage that accounts for this statistical downturn.

Instead, fantasy guides and analysts alike often offer up two words to describe why a rookie will not be able to repeat a promising inaugural season: Sophomore slump.

No Evidence of Sophomore Slump Among Top NHL Rookie Skaters

It is a term that has taken on a mythical form, a label dreaded by fans and players alike as some sort of inexplicable disease that can befall the young and promising. Usually, that player will bounce back but not until his third NHL season.

The sophomore slump, however, is an abnormality, at least when it comes to skaters in post-lockout hockey. The only players where there is any indication it consistently exists is with goaltenders.

There are certainly outliers who display a “sophomore slump.” Perhaps most notably was Cory Conacher, who went from a Calder Trophy candidate one year to a 7-goal, 26-point player in his second season. Fast forward the tape and he is currently playing in the Swiss League.

On average, however, when analyzing the statistics of the 122 skaters who have received votes for the Calder Trophy between the 2005-06 season and 2012-13, there was no significant statistical drop after their initial season (player statistics for the 2012-13 season were prorated for the purposes of comparison with the rest of the data).

In fact, on average rookie forwards hardly drop at all, less than a point from their rookie season. Rounding up to full points, however, an average rookie fitting the above criteria plays in 72 games and scores 20 goals and 45 points in their rookie season.

In their sophomore season, the average rookie forward also plays 72 games and scores one less goal, 19 resulting in one less point, 44. Hardly a slump, even if there isn’t any increase in scoring from second-year forwards.

Unsurprisingly, forwards have their best year in their third NHL season, on average scoring 20 goals and 47 points despite only playing in 69 games.

So maybe Stone takes a step back this year, and it could even be a significant one. But between Stone, Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Mike Hoffman and the rest of the forwards it is highly unlikely they all put up less points.

Defencemen given a calder vote usually have a slight downturn in their second season, but again it is not enough to be considered a slump: 38 points as compared to 36 in their second NHL year.

Those numbers return back to 38 points on average in a defenceman’s third season, but goals never return to rookie numbers. The average rookie defencemen scores 7 goals in his first season, and just 6 in the next two.

The lack of a major statistical sophomore slump is more surprising in defencemen because theoretically there would be cause for it to occur, namely second-year defencemen would in theory be asked to play more difficult minutes, and potentially have less offensive zone time.

Both of these would, one assumes, conspire to see defencemen produce significantly less points in their second year, certainly more than two less on average, and only one less goal.

Combining forwards and defencemen gives a macro sense of how first-year skaters fare statistically in their first three NHL seasons: The average skater scores 39 points in their first season, 38 in their sophomore season and 41 in their third NHL season.

There are obviously a ton of exceptions to this rule. In fact, a few of the players who received Calder votes never even made it to their third season for a variety of reasons; Alexander Radulov, Michael Sauer and Marc-Andre Gragnani did not play three straight years.

For the most part, however, being a standout player in one’s first NHL season means they will follow it up with an almost equally strong second year and an even stronger third NHL season.

This isn’t overtly surprising when it comes to forwards and defencemen. The same skills that help a player succeed in his initial NHL season will help them succeed in all the other ones that follow.

An outstanding rookie season usually leads to a player finding themselves in a better situation the next season as well. A coach is likely to give this player more powerplay time, and ice time in general, both conducive with boosting, or at least maintaining, offensive output.

This also means a young player will likely play with better players more consistently, which won’t hurt offensive output either.

So contrary to what the analysts say, most of the time there is nothing to worry about as a rookie skater enters their second year. Their base-line talent is already there, what remains to be seen is how much better they can get.

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