Digging into rookies playoff lists so far, something seemed…off. I was admiring a few performances (mainly Heiskanen’s TOI numbers), but the list of 20 NHL rookies who have played so far seemed a little too short, so I’ve looked back over the last decade to compare:
2018-19 (so far): 20
First – a few obvious disclaimers concerning 2018-19:
- We’re only a few games in. Lineups are not set in stone, and there will absolutely be some subs coming in on teams that are losing and getting desperate. This could increase the total.
- Injuries will happen, which could also increase the total should the subs be rookies.
- Gusev is poised to join Vegas and Makar is reportedly close to signing with the Avalanche, so the total could become 22 very soon.
However, these disclaimers come with some basic math behind them:
- If every losing team makes one roster change (big assumption), AND every one of those insertions is a rookie (bigger assumption) – that would increase the total to 28. Still the lowest in recent memory by a longshot.
- If we assume every team in the second round suffers one injury (big assumption), AND every subsequent insertion is a rookie (bigger assumption) – that would only add another 8 rookies to the total.
So, based on these generous assumptions, the most rookies we could see is around 30-35 (but its more likely to be lower). Essentially, starting in Round 2, every remaining team would need to find a way to get 3 additional rookies into the lineup.
Why is this number so low? The last post-season to have a total close to this low was 2003-04, which featured 28 newbies. 2002-03 and 2001-02 both had a total of 30. So unless drastic injuries and substitutions occur, this playoffs will have less rookie representation the before the lockout.
Potential explanation #1: Are there fewer rookies in the league to start out with?
Maybe this is just a case of proportional representation? According to NHL.com, the total number of rookies to suit up in at least 1 game this year was 207.
In 2017-18: 205
In 2016-17: 235
In 2015-16: 226
There doesn’t seem to be significant variation here, especially not since last season.
Potential explanation #2: Are there fewer quality rookies in the league to start with?
Taking this one step further – I limited the search only to players who played at least 5 games (eliminating the brief emergency players every team sees occasionally).
Still nothing jumps out at me. What if we increase the threshold is 20 games played:
Still nothing obvious of interest.
One more – this is the total of rookies to play 20+ games and score 20+ points (regular season):
Here we go, finally something useful. Between last season and this one, the league saw a huge dip in what I’ll call “quality rookies”. 20+ games played and 20+ points would probably get a player into the post-season lineup on their squad, so it seems very possible that this total number is directly correlated to the total number we see currently in the ongoing playoffs. But why did this drop happen? I’ll have to dig into this next week… This seems a like a logical path to investigate as the source of the problem, but empirical data tells us its not the only factor here. Last year’s Stanley Cup Champions, the Washington Capitols, played 6 rookies during their cup run. 3 of them played 20 regular season contests, but only 1 of them surpassed 20 points in the regular season. So the would have been unaffected by this dip in “quality rookies”.
Potential explanation #3: Are teams with more rookies just not making the playoffs?
If you take those league total numbers I listed above (the 20+ game totals) and perform basic division,you get the following:
Average #rookies/team in playoffs = 1.3
Average #rookies/team in regular season = 4.9
So the average team had 4.9 newbies play in their lineup for a good chunk of the campaign, but in the playoffs that number is way down. I can think of 2 possible reasons for this:
- Teams are choosing to sit their rookies (so far) in the playoffs in favor of veterans.
- Teams with more rookies (boosting the average) aren’t good enough to make the playoffs
Addressing the first point – you can see my math above on how the total would look if every team had injuries and every team subbed in rookies. It still wont bring the total up to a number that looks like last season or earlier. This is certainly a factor, but it does not account for the magnitude of the drop. Plus, look at the count from Washington last year –
Addressing the second point – this might be a thing. I could go through every playoff and non-playoff team and calculate their number of rookie. But if this were to be the case, why is it only showing up this post-season? If there is a trend of bad teams getting the best draft picks and the best rookies, then there should be a historical trend of rookies not playing as much in the playoffs. But we have over 10 years of precedent saying that the number should be higher. I’m not sold on this idea, but the logic does check out.
If I had to put my money on one of these ideas, I’d dig more into why the number of 20+ games and 20+points rookies went down this year, and see if that matches with anything were seeing in the post-season. But I’m not 100% convinced, and there might be multiple factors in play here. Maybe this will all go away by next round if losing teams go crazy and revamp their lineups even more drastically than in my assumptions above.
What do you think? Are there more potential causes that need to be dug into? ny personal theories on this observation? Let me know on twitter or in the comment section, because frankly this is a weird one that has captured my curiosity.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy the glorious Stanley Cup playoffs!