When an athlete sets a certain performance standard in his debut season and fails to replicate it in the following season, it is referred to as a sophomore slump. This phenomena does happen in sports, but how present is it in the National Hockey League?
The idea was to take the top 5 finishers in each year’s Calder race since the 2004-2005 lockout and examine the statistical change between their rookie seasons and their sophomore seasons. The four stats that were examined were goals per game, assists per game, points per game as well as each player’s plus minus differential. Remember that the bench mark rookie year used in this analysis was each player’s eligible Calder year which is defined as their first year of more then 25 games played (although other restrictions do apply), so do not be surprised if some players had played some games in previous years. The players were then ranked depending on how many of the 4 stats they had improved the following year. 11 seasons were covered in this analysis, regrouping 48 players, and it didn’t take into account Calder nominated goalies.
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Of the 48 players represented in the sample, 14 of them (29.17%) found themselves in the group who hadn’t managed to improve any of their stats in their sophomore season. Interestingly enough 5 of the 11 Calder winners are within this group (and one of them was Steve Mason who wasn’t taken into consideration, but also performed worst on all 3 of his main goalie stats in his sophomore season).
This might be pure coincidence or it might be that it’s hard to beat an award winning season, especially at such a young age. For example, in 2005-2006 Ovechkin put up the best rookie season point wise since the lockout even to this day with a total of 52 goals, 54 assists, 106 points & a differential of +2 on an awful team. He failed to beat any of those stats the following season but still managed to put up a pretty damn good sophomore season. Also some of the worst sophomore seasons can be found in this group. Notably Yakupov, Grabner and Gostisbehere.
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Next, 9 players found themselves in the “1 of 4” group, representing 18.75% of the sample. In this group the player that sticks out the most is Jonathan Huberdeau. Despite a +10 increase in plus/minus. his goals per game fell by 55.3%, as he actually scored 5 less goals in 21 more games during his second year in the NHL. Also talk about a rough defensive sophomore year for John Carlson, going from +21 to -15 for a change of -36! That is the second worst differential change after Larkin at -39 in the previous group, whose team got significantly worse this year.
As for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, he might as well be in the 0/4 category sporting an abismal -65.6% goals per game differential while his only improvement was an insignificant +5 increase in plus/minus.
Moreover, there are two forwards on this list who had a peculiar thing happen; they saw a significant increase in either gpg or apg while seeing a significant decrease in the other. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m referring to Adam Henrique & Jordan Staal. Despite a ghastly -59.1% decrease in goals per game, the third Staal brother did manage to up his assists per game by 21.6%.
Meanwhile, Devils forward Adam Henrique increased his goals per game by 21.1% but unfortunately dropped his assists per game by an ugly -74.8%, the worst apg differential among all players evaluated.
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In the following group, 11 (22.92%) players out of the total 48 managed to improve half of the 4 evaluated rookie stats in their sophomore season. It is important to note the Olli Maata’s sophomore season was impacted by a thyroid tumor and a shoulder surgery which forced him to only play 20 games. Also, if Mark Stone had posted 3 more goals he would of matched his stat line in 5 less games, not taking into account his plus minus. On the flip side, had Artemi Panarin scored 1 less goal in his second season he would have fell in the 1 out of 4 improvement group that was just covered.
Based on these stats, Dustin Penner & Ondrej Palat seemed to experience a role change in their sophomore seasons, both shifting towards playmaking rather than goal scoring. Penner saw a 20.7% decrease in goals per game despite a 50% increase in assists per game and a +4.4% differential in points per game. Meanwhile, Palat had similar differentials, with a -24.9% decrease in goals per game paired with a +41% increase in assists per game along with +15.3% in points per game.
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The next group is the “3 of 4” or 75% group. Of the 48 players analyzed 7 (14.58%) were able to improve in all but 1 of their evaluated rookie stats. Some players were pretty close to joining the 4 of 4 group. In fact, all 7 players in this group improved their points per game in their second NHL season.
Crosby needed to score 4 more goals, Phaneuf needed 3 more which could be asking a lot from a defender and Saad only needed one more assist to be a part of the all-improvement group. Let’s also all pause for a second and appreciate Crosby’s two first NHL seasons.
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Last but not least are the players who managed to improve all of their stats and avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Their were 7 (14.58%) of them, the same amount as the previous group who were able to pull it off. Shout out too Geno who was the only player in this time period to win the Calder and proceed to improve everyone of his stats the following season.
Another notable mention goes to Drew Doughty who increased each stat by more than 100% and increased his plus minus by 37, the best improvement for the period. He literally has the 48-player-high improvement in terms of percentage in all 3 per game categories while his plus/minus differential was highest among all evaluated players.
Using these stats to draw a conclusion it’s evident that the sophomore slump does exist in the NHL. Of the 48 players analyzed 23 (48%) improved 1 or less of the 4 stats, while 11 (23%) improved 2 to merit a pass, and 14 (29%) were able to improve 3 or all of them to beat the slump. It could be because players take on greater defensive rolls in their second year or they encounter harder match ups. One thing is for sure, the majority of them have trouble replicating the stats they put up in their rookie season during the following year.