Saturday, February 09, 2008

Why The Lack Of American Top Scorers Is Alarming

About a week ago, I wrote about the lack of American top scorers in the NHL. Despite an increase in players who are born in the US, there has been a decrease in the top scorers in the league among these players. Right now, the top scoring American in the NHL is Scott Gomez of the New York Rangers and his 52 points place him 28th in the overall scoring race. It takes 79 players before the 10th American (Peter Mueller of the Phoenix Coyotes) appears.

This is alarming because never before has the percentage of players in the league from a country increased while the number of top scorers from that country decreases. Faux Rumors comments that he does not find this alarming. He believes that the number of top scorers from a given country is cyclical in nature and right now USA is at a low point. This belief requires a lot of faith since the American top scorers have not yet completed one cycle. In the 1990's with John LeClair, Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Kevin Stevens etc., USA produced a reasonable number of top scorers but this has stopped. In order to complete one cycle, it is necessary for there to be another period of American top scorers. However, merely completing one cycle would not prove anything is cyclical in nature (it may be a fluke that a cycle ever occurred - or it might be driven by some other factors). Further, with no attempt to explain a cyclical mechanism, this theory must be taken as conjecture at best.

In order to support his cyclical theory, Faux sites Canada and its top scorers. For the vast majority of NHL history, hockey players came almost exclusively from Canada. Hence, the top scorers were exclusively (or almost exclusively) Canadian. In the 1980's, we saw the first group of players from other countries that were good enough to crack top scoring lists. This group included Peter Stastny and Jari Kurri. Nevertheless, most top scorers remained Canadian players. In the 1990's there started to be a much larger group of non-Canadian players in the NHL top scorers, hence the number of Canadians declined. Nevertheless, there have always been Canadian top scorers. In fact, in every season in NHL history, at least two of the top five scorers in the league have been Canadians. The fine print on that statement is 1997/98 where Wayne Gretzky finished fourth in the scoring race and there was a tie for fifth that included Ron Francis, however since John LeClair had more goals, it is more correct to say LeClair was the fifth highest scorer. Even if we accept this season as an exception, it is still correct to argue that in every year in NHL history the top five scorers plus ties have included at least two Canadians. Therefore, it is hard to argue that the number of Canadians in the top scorers has ever significantly declined and hence it is hard to argue anything cyclical is going on.

You did hear Canadians complaining that they were losing their game and you did hear Canadians bemoaning the lack of Canadian top scorers (at least when compared to the 50's, 60's and 70's when almost all NHL players were Canadians). This was brought on largely due to the Canadian failure to win a medal in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. It was largely an overreaction to a single poor showing in the Olympics.

Faux goes on further to argue that the cyclical nature of Canadians in the top scorers can be better seen if we include a few more top scorers. He notes that in 2002/03 7 of the top 15 scorers in the league were Canadian. In 2003/04 there were only 6 Canadians in the top 15. Last season, it was up to 10 of the top 15. So far this year, 9 of the top 15 are Canadian. Although there might be a bit of truth to this drop in Canadian top scorers, it is not a big trend. I think you could easily argue that in any given season (since the mid 90's) there are a constant 8 +/- 2 Canadians in the top fifteen scorers. The difference from year to year is largely a random fluctuation. At any rate, this decline does not correspond directly with the years when Canadians were worried about the lack of top scorers. By 2002, they had won Olympic gold in Salt Lake City and all was thought to be well with Canadian hockey. It is true that some years on the low side of the 8 +/- 2 of the 15 top scorers being Canadian occurred in the late 90's, but it seems something that could just as easily be explained as random changes which are being forced to fit a model.

The fact that USA is producing more NHL hockey players than ever before is a good thing. The fact they are not producing the stars is a bad thing. I think it shows something has been wrong with the American hockey system. For most of recent history, American players who came to the NHL had been seasoned in the NCAA. The NCAA has become a far more American league in recent times. In the past, future NHL stars from Canada like Rob Blake, Joe Nieuwendyk, Adam Oates, Paul Kariya and Rod Brind'Amour all played in the NCAA. This is no longer the case. The NCAA has largely shut out Canadians. In doing so, they have reduced the number of top players in the league and have reduced the growth opportunities for the potential NHL star in their league.

In order to try to respond to this, the USHL was created. This is a US Junior hockey league, which may not be on par with any of the Canadian Hockey League junior leagues but it is growing and an increasing number of NHL draftees come from this league. I think it would be an interesting test to see a USHL champion team play a CHL champion team. I suspect the CHL team would win, but it would give us a look at how big the difference between the leagues are or are not.

There is also the US National Team Development Program which has been created and gives American players who are younger than draft age a place to play against high competition. It has not been around long enough to have produced NHL stars yet, but some potential stars in the NHL today including Patrick Kane and Peter Mueller are graduates.

It is alarming that USA, while producing more NHL players, is producing less stars. This is unprecedented in NHL history. Never before has a nation produced more players while simultaneously producing less top tier players. I think it showed a problem in the US development system which has been addressed. It is too early to see if the changes made will solve the problem, but they are likely a step in the right direction.

Recalling my last comment about how USA Hockey will probably suffer in the next round of international tournaments now the the "Modano Generation" is grey of beard...

Michael Farber of SI put out an article in which he muses on the team that USA will field in 2010 in Vancouver. Here's his list of forwards: Patrick Kane, Scott Gomez, Phil Kessel, Paul Gaustad, Erik Cole, Dustin Brown, Brian Rolston, Zach Parise, Brian Gionta, Chris Drury, Peter Mueller, Mike Grier, David Booth, Ryan Malone. (With Mike Knuble, David Legwand and Chris Higgins as "bubble" players.)

Let's take the list for granted, for the sake of the discussion. I can't fault the list that much anyway except the inclusion of Mike Grier baffles me a bit, and I don't really know much about David Booth other than his success in previous junior international tournaments.

Furthermore, since we have been talking about scoring primarily, let's assume that the defensive corps and the goaltenders for Team USA are of "good enough" quality for the Olympics. Perhaps an argument for another time, but anyway...

I can't see that list of forwards competing with the best of Canada, or even the best of Kazakhstan. Okay, so I'm exaggerating but not by much.

We can see now that the US is having its over-dependence on the 1996 World Cup veterans broken in a painful way. I would be surprised if the US team advances to the medal round in Vancouver.

I would love to be wrong.
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