People are loving Justin Schultz. He should be in the NHL right now, and he’s only 22!

Player age has become a bit of a discussion point over the last week or so. There isn’t a lot of NHL topics to discuss, but it came up in Thirty Thoughts last week:

12. Two years ago, Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford explained his belief that you cannot truly judge a defenceman until he turns 24. Rutherford says it’s the hardest pro position to learn. While in special cases some become early superstars, you can find a diamond in the rough by waiting a little.

13. I was reminded of that while watching Calgary prospect TJ Brodie of the Abbotsford Heat. He started the 2010-11 season with the Flames and there were coaches saying he was ready for the big league. It didn’t work out. Now he’s 22, coming off a season where he dressed for 54 NHL games, playing very well for the stingiest defensive team in the AHL’s Western Conference. The Rutherford theory is strong in this one.

I wanted to throw my hat into the ring here and sort of compare whether or not that’s true, whether top defencemen are a little bit younger than top forwards. The initial inclination is “yes”, that defenders have a longer prime, take longer to break out and are effective well into their 30s.

Then I came across this post at mc79hockey last week in response to Rutherford’s comment. Tyler looked at defencemen who play a “defensive” role, and found that ”the majority of these guys made it in the NHL by age 23.” Many of the league’s top defensive defencemen, in Tyler’s sample, like Karl Alzner or Tim Gleason or Barret Jackman, came into the NHL at young ages. The post was in response to a “well, let the kids develop” topic that has consumed the Edmonton Oilers’ blogosphere for the last five years or so. At what point do we get to write off players like Colton Teubert or Martin Marincin from ever being effective players at that position in the NHL?

When you think of the best players in hockey, many break in at an early age. Not just on defence, but your elite two-way players who play in every situation. Patrice Bergeron made it at 18. Anze Kopitar at 19. Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber both came in at 20. When players break into the league, it’s not because they’ve reached a developmental threshold, it’s that they’re simply very good hockey players, and they can do at 26 what they do at 20. When a 19-year old breaks in and scores 25 goals, we notice that reading the stat sheet in the newspaper. When a 19-year old defenceman breaks in and plays an excellent defensively-aware game, it’s tougher to notice because of no objective standard to define that play. Good defensive players have to build a reputation to be taken seriously. Even though, say, Pernell Karl Subban had some terrific puck possession numbers this past season, it remains that he’s considered a bit of an enigma by his coaches and the press.

His coach trusted him with more ice-time per game than everybody in the league except for 17 players, so he must be doing something right.

I thought it would be interesting to average out the ages of the top players at each position to see how they stack up. If the average defenceman who sees a lot of minutes, for instance, is consistently older than the average forward, there is something to Rutherford’s comments. Like Eric T. when he was forging his new quality of competition metric at NHL Numbers, I used ice-time as my objective “player goodness” measure.

I just averaged out the age of the top 90 forwards in ice-time in a given year, the top 60 defencemen and the top 30 goaltenders to see any discernible difference between the positions. Naturally, I prefer Tyler’s method, but this is about a positional comparison:

Again, not terribly scientific, but I am willing to concede that perhaps forwards and defencemen break in at similar ages. There is a crop of good, young defencemen in the league right now. Team Canada won the gold medal in 2010 with three defencemen under the age of 25, and if it has a positional advantage over any country right now, it’s on defence. For some reason, this country has just decided to start pumping them out in the last few years. That’s lowering the average age of defencemen right now, but I think it’s clear that players at that position can be a little bit older than forwards.

Goalies are another story, about a year-and-a-half older on average except for this past season, presumably because Dwayne Roloson was no longer in the Top 30. The best few goalies over the last three years by save percentage, Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne, played their first games at ages 28, 23 and 23 respectively, but Thomas wasn’t a starter until 31 and Rinne not until 26.

The top defencemen in minutes played for the last three seasons, Jay Bouwmeester, Duncan Keith and Zdeno Chara, came in at 19, 22 and 20. Even a guy like Dan Girardi, considered a late bloomer due to his status as an undrafted All-Star, played 21 minutes a night over 82 games at age 23.

I still think drafting a defenceman high is risky (less risky than drafting goaltenders, however) because development can get screwy in the two years after the draft, but the highly effective guys seem to break into the NHL at an early age. The lesson isn’t “all defencemen should be playing regular minutes at 20″, it’s that “if the defenceman isn’t playing regular minutes by 20, he’s probably not going to be a stud”.

This is important to people discussing the Colton Teuberts and TJ Brodies of the world. I think generally hockey fans like to focus on what a prospect MIGHT become than what he or she is likely to become.

It also means that at age 24 and still without an NHL game under my belt, I’m probably not going to win a Norris Trophy.