It could be speculation. It could be science. But why are Swedish Superstars still at the top of their game in their late 30’s and early 40’s, and what does this mean for the General Managers that have to re-sign them? There appears to be a higher number of elder statesmen of the NHL from the U.S. and Canada, but their roles have diminished so greatly while their Swedish counterparts continue to dominate. The aging North American players aren’t being extended the big contract, but their play hasn’t warranted it either. In many cases their hands are being forced as teams leverage a players legacy against losing him to free agency (see Modano, Mike and Tkachuck, Keith).
When Henrik Sedin, reigning Hart and Art Ross Trophy Winner, and his identical twin brother Daniel’s identical twin 30.5 million dollar contracts expire at the end of the 2013-14 season they will be 35 years old. While the man who drafted them 2nd and 3rd overall in 1999 (former Canucks General Manager and current Toronto Maple Leafs G.M. Brian Burke), was waiting in their native Sweden prior to the pair entering Unrestricted Free Agency last July ready to open the Vault to the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Fund, current Canucks G.M. Mike Gillis was able to re-sign his only proven offensive weapons. Those contracts seem very favourable to the Canucks now but more than a few skeptics doubted the Sedins worth at the time.
Gillis swore he wouldn’t use the Ken Holland Approach of circumnavigating the salary cap system and signing players to “Retirement” contracts, but ended up caving and signing Roberto Luongo for the remainder of his playing days, and further, shortly after refusing to offer the same to the Twins. Henrik promptly had a record year, while Daniel, despite injured, finished with an identical points-per-game average. One must wonder how the twins feel about that, as Henrik has since stripped Luongo of the Captaincy and continued on his break-neck points pace in 2010-11, while Roberto has failed to live up to the hype.
Henrik currently sits 10th in league scoring, on pace for a 100 point season (12 shy of last year’s total), all without yet registering a goal 9 games in to the season. He’s been busy setting up his brother Daniel who has nearly notched a goal-per-game to start the season, and ranks third in league scoring with 12 points in 9 games. The twins, both slow developing seemed to have finally cemented their identities as great second line players, posting between 71 and 84 points each between 2005/06 and 2008/09 leading up to their first chance at free agency. They have now officially proven to be two of the absolute best in hockey, mentioned in the same breath as Crosby and Ovechkin. But Ovi already has the life-time agreement, and the trend of signing 30-something free agents to big money has all but died as teams give term to young players they hope will continue to develop, rather than big bucks to players they hope will continue to produce. The question is: what does this mean for the Sedin’s next contract?
Behind them now on the list of the NHL’s top scorers are a trio of 35-year-olds which include two former teammates, Tod Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison, as well as Tampa’s Martin St.Louis, who are all clipping along at point-per-game or better paces. While St.Louis, like the twins, blossomed in to a premiere NHLer later in his career, Morrison and Bertuzzi are considered pleasant surprises, both scoring 40+ points last season, and both on the verge of early retirement. So what boat will the Twins be in at 35? Will we still need them? Will we still feed them? When they’re 35.
The answer I feel is in the genes.
Only two spots back of Henrik is countrymen Daniel Alfredsson, the soon-to-be 38-year-old face of the Ottawa Senators franchise, who, after a slight dip in production last season is starting off hot this year with 10 points in 9 games. One spot behind him is 40-year-old Finnish Flash Teemu Selanne. Aside from Selanne, Alfredsson and the trio of 35s, the rest of the top 30 scorers are young players in or entering their prime. Detroit’s Niklas Lidstrom trails only John-Michael Liles in scoring by defenseman this year, and went on a tear of three straight Norris trophies starting at the age of 35, and he looks to be in Norris candidate form again.
Perhaps the most overlooked aging Swede in the league is one of few backstops that hail from the Tre Kronor. New Jersey must be planning on resting Martin Brodeur much more this season after acquiring 37-year-old Johan Hedberg, who spent last season with Atlanta relieving oft-injured Khari Lehtonen, and platooning with budding star Ondrej Pavelec. At the age of 36 Hedberg, a back-up goalie in the truest sense, played a career high 47 games, and posted an impressive .915 Save Percentage, very respectable 2.62 Goals Against Average, four shut-outs and a winning record of 21-16-6 on a non-playoff team.
Hedberg is revered for his work-out regimen, and Alfredsson and Lidstrom are aging very gracefully. Or maybe it’s the calm demeanor most Swedish players exhibit. There are other older players in the league, but they’ve mostly assumed depth roles. Alfredsson and Lidstrom are still top-level competitors, and like the Sedins who have shown incredible durability in their playing careers, haven’t been hampered by injury. Even if the Sedins continue this pace in to their next go-round with free agency, based on their track record and their birth certificate, there’s a good chance they’ll still demand top dollar at 35.