Older defencemen with exceptional performances

There are always risks involved when signing a player to a big deal; those risks are amplified when said player is on the wrong side of 30. 

In Mark Giordano’s case, it was going to be tough: he’ll be 33 years old when his new deal, worth an annual average value of $6.75 million, kicks in. That’s not the problem. The problem is he’ll be 38 years old when it finally expires.

Right now, it looks great: just under $7 million for a defenceman who should be a multi-Norris winner at this point? Awesome. But as the years go on, it has the potential to get really ugly.

Good thing that’s just potential, and not fact. There have been defencemen who have continued to play exceptionally well as they’ve aged past typical peak years. The question is, can Giordano be among them?

All data collected from hockey-reference.

Old guys and time on ice

Had Giordano remained healthy ever since he rose to the task of being the Flames’ number one defenceman – that is to say, the past two seasons – he would have played 2,069 and 2,065 total minutes over the course of both years, based on his average ice times.

The injuries he suffered to ultimately limit his seasons weren’t indicative of age, but rather, bad luck: broken ankles aren’t surprising in hockey (especially when you’re instructed to block shots and have limited protection, as Giordano did at the time), and the torn bicep was a freak injury on a freak play. Sometimes, stuff just happens: it doesn’t mean a player is injury prone. 

So on that note, let’s keep this simple, and make the cut off 2,000 minutes in one season played. The following are defencemen who have successfully played at least 2,000 minutes in one season at age 35 or older:

  • Ray Bourque, ages 38, 39, 40
  • Al MacInnis, age 39
  • Nicklas Lidstrom, ages 37, 39
  • Scott Niedermayer, ages 35, 36
  • Sergei Zubov, ages 35, 36
  • Andrei Markov, ages 35, 36
  • Chris Pronger, age 35
  • Dan Boyle, age 35

Naturally, everyone on this list is a pretty gosh darn good player. We can all agree that Giordano definitely fits that basic criteria, at least. Most, though, are the absolute elite of the elite. Hopefully, at the end of Giordano’s career, we can say he was among that group. For the time being, now? It’s just hope.

Old guys and points

Had Giordano played full 82 game seasons his past two years, he projects to have scored 60, and then 65, points. 

Let’s go with that, and see which defencemen through the league’s history, aged 35 or older, have managed to score at least 60 points in a single season:

  • Nicklas Lidstrom, ages 37, 40
  • Al MacInnis, age 39
  • Sergei Zubov, age 35

That’s a much smaller list.

Being able to play big minutes for your team, despite your age, is huge, and incredibly important for your aging, veteran defencemen. Being able to maintain your scoring pace is even better – and there are only three defencemen who have ever really done that as they’ve gotten older.

And with that, we have to keep in mind: while Giordano has been projected to score 60 the past few seasons, he never actually has. His career high is 48. So instead, let’s try dropping the number to 50, and see it open up.

Including the players above, there are also:

  • Ray Bourque, ages 38, 39, 40
  • Nicklas Lidstrom, age 38
  • Mathieu Schneider, ages 36, 37
  • Larry Murphy, ages 36, 37
  • Al MacInnis, age 37
  • Mark Streit, age 37
  • Sergei Zubov, age 36
  • Andrei Markov, age 36
  • Scott Niedermayer, age 35
  • Brian Rafalski, age 35
  • Brad Park, age 35
  • Phil Housley, age 35
  • Chris Pronger, age 35
  • Pierre Pilote, age 35
  • Rob Blake, age 36
  • Brian Leetch, age 35

Again: a lot of great names, and a lot of defencemen who were still reliable producers, ages be damned.

If it weren’t for injuries, Giordano would easily have at least two 50 point seasons under his belt by now. As it stands, it’s something he’s likely to do at some point in his career. The question is: can it be done when he’s older?

Old guys and corsi

Caveat: we’re much more limited in looking up fancy stats, so a number of defencemen are going to be excluded, because we can’t really look at, say, Ray Bourque’s corsi. 

That said, it’s still something we should look at. After all, being able to play big minutes, and being able to put up points are both wonderful things… but so is being able to control the puck, and not give it up to the other team.

Let’s kick things off with CF% rel – a stat Giordano has excelled in lately, partly because he’s great, and partly because most of the rest of the Flames have been, uh, less than great.

These defencemen were all 35 or older when they posted a CF% rel of at least +5.0, with a minimum of at least 41 games played:

  • Kimmo Timonen, age 37
  • Dan Boyle, age 36
  • Bret Hedican, age 38
  • Brian Campbell, age 35

Again: not that many, but we have a far lesser pool of players with which to work. And again: while it’s not that many, it’s still certainly possible for older defencemen to bring an incredibly positive impact to their team. It’s just not particularly likely.

This past season, Giordano’s raw corsi was 49.8%: really good for the Flames, really not great otherwise. The season before, he clocked in at 54.1%: pretty awesome, no matter how you slice it.

Because we’re looking for really, really good older defencemen, let’s impose a minimum of 55% CF to be on this list, again with a minimum of 41 games played. These are the players you get:

  • Chris Chelios, age 46
  • Nicklas Lidstrom, ages 37, 38, 39, 41
  • Bret Hedican, age 38
  • Lubomir Visnovsky, age 38
  • Kimmo Timonen, age 38
  • Brian Rafalski, ages 35, 36, 37
  • Willie Mitchell, age 36
  • Dan Boyle, age 36
  • Michal Rozsival, age 35
  • Marek Zidlicky, age 35
  • Adrian Aucoin, age 35
  • Zdeno Chara, age 35

There are a variety of reasons these players would have performed so well – sheltered circumstances, being on a really good team, just being really good themselves – but fact is, they all did it at an older age. And if they can do it, who’s to say Giordano can’t?

Can Gio do it?

That remains to be seen. 

What doesn’t remain to be seen is we know it’s possible for older defencemen to perform exceptionally well. Over four different categories in this post – time on ice, points, and both relative and raw corsi – 27 different defencemen have qualified in at least one of them, and some of them, over multiple seasons.

Considering the number of defencemen who play in the NHL each season, let alone those who make it to age 35 and older, that’s not necessarily a lot, but it’s still a significant figure. 

That’s at 35 and older, though. If you want to make the criteria harder – and all the more relevant to Giordano’s final year – just seven players have experienced these levels of success from age 38 and up: Bourque, MacInnis, Lidstrom, Chelios, Hedican, Visnovsky, and Timonen.

This isn’t to say Giordano has to turn into a Bourque or a Lidstrom to make his deal worth it in the later years. After all, Boyle ranks pretty well in these categories, and you have to think Giordano can at least match Boyle. But it does point out just how dangerous those final years of his contract may end up being. He can perform well before then, but he’ll have to be flat out elite to make it worth it the entire six years: something very, very few defencemen have ever been able to do.

Giordano is a late bloomer – maybe that plays into his favour, and he carries his peak years further. Maybe, at 38 years old and another expiring contract, he’ll still be performing at that high a level. Some have done it, but not many.

It shouldn’t be counted on, and contingency plans will likely have to be made should Giordano become overpaid and a hindrance to his team. But at the same time… it’s possible. Twenty-seven different players are telling us it’s possible. A small handful say it can be done towards the end. Who’s to say Giordano doesn’t join their ranks?

It’ll have to be a hell of a career, and the odds are definitely against him. But then again, as someone who very nearly never played professional hockey to begin with, that’s where the odds have always been.

  • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

    No more than 3 years from now Gio will be playing second line minutes and will in actual effect probably NEVER get over 2,000 minutes in a season with Hamilton on board and the rise of Brodie. That means he doesn’t have to be that monster minute eater moving forward, meaning that with his already small amount of NHL minutes for a 31 year old “elite” Defenceman he should “ripen” nicely well into his 30’s.

  • DestroDertell

    Let’s remember that if Giordano fall so much in the last year that he’s not even worth 66% of his cap hit (even with the rise of the cap), the flames can buyout his final year and free 4.5M$ to play with.

    key word: if

  • DestroDertell

    It’s good to see that there have been quite a few elite defenders past the age of 35. I think we can bet on at least four good years from Gio. His work ethic off the ice is among the best in the league and fitness won’t be an issue. Like DestroDertell said, Gio can slot into the second pairing with the development of Hamilton and Brodie. I think that the last two years are an increased risk vetted to reduce the cap hit over the first four, which is extremely important for the cap crunch coming next season. Gio is signed for 6.75, a bargain next season when you look around the league.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    One thing mitigating the risk here that people aren’t really talking about is that Gio’s age is an outlier in comparison to the rest of the Flames new core.

    He’s going to be the only 36, 37 & 38 year old “core” player in those years.
    With Bennet, Monahan, Gaudreau, Hamilton, Brodie, etc. all just hitting their prime years during that time… if Gio takes a step back points, possession or otherwise, the team will still be elite and not too negatively affected.

    He can be shuffled down the lineup. If we had 3 or even 2 core players hitting those late ages during that time we would need to be more worried.

    If it can all fit cap-wise, Gio on your 3rd pairing at age 38, pushing for the cup won’t be a bad thing.

  • DestroDertell

    I don’t know if its me or the recent articles are so boring and not even make sense. Most of them are like:
    Who else did it?
    When?
    Conclusions: MAYBE he can do.
    Its a round circle bringing us back to ZERO

    • SmellOfVictory

      It’s summer, so they’re pulling article ideas from anywhere they can. And while the guys being used as comparisons aren’t in exactly the same situation, it does still provide some context to say that it has been done before, and provides some justification to paying him top pairing money until he’s 39.

      Also, all circles are round. 😉

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    The interesting one to me is Andrei Markov. Like Giordano, he’s been a very good (and under-appreciated) player for quite a while. Like Giordano, he ran into injury trouble in his early 30s.

  • The Fall

    Every Cup winning team for the past two decades* has had an elite, d-man playing huge minutes. Not just a serviceable, but Norris / Conn Smythe caliber. It is an absolute necessity, and you have to pay for it.

    (*maybe the ’06 Hurricanes are the only exception…)

  • MontanaMan

    Forget about trying to figure out the article – when was the last time that Pierre Pilote and Brad Park were mentioned on FN? For those of us old enough to remember them!!!

    • Joe Flames

      Old guys rule!
      My two cents:

      While nobody will like the contract in its final years, it is a great deal right now.
      Plus keeping our core together is huge when building a contender.
      Having guys like Gio as a 4/5 d in a few years keep the team from gambling on overpaying on a guy like engelund or smid. We will be paying Gio too much by then but it will be money deferred from his prime years (this year and next year).
      And as this article suggests, IF he retains some of his skills maybe we won’t be overpaying much at all at that point.
      But most of the guys listed in this article are in the HOF so the odds are against him staying elite. However nothing in Gio’s career so far has fit the usual pattern, so I think he will be very good for most of this contract.