Why Do Stars Fade?

Have you ever wondered why a given player is in decline? Sure, players age, and eventually they can’t play at the same high level anymore. That is normal and without mystery. But what about, say, Vincent Lecavalier, a former annual MVP Candidate who now struggles to reach 70 points in a season?

Lecavalier scored 52 goals in 2006-2007, and 40 in 2007-2008. He was still in his late 20’s at that point, yet Lecavalier fell to 29 goals in 2008-2009, and has since failed to crack 30 goals in any season. He and teammate Martin St. Louis used to be equals, Lecavalier even outplayed him on many nights, but now the 36-year-old Martin St. Louis remains an elite scorer, while Lecavalier, four years his junior, has faded into his shadow. Is he still a good player? Yes. But if you showed a Tampa Bay Lightning game to someone who hadn’t watched hockey since 2006, they might recognize the face, but they would hardly recognize the player. He’s just not the same.

So what happened? I ask this question all the time. If you’ve read my recent blog on the state of the current NHL game, you know that the game has changed since Lecavalier’s 40+ goal seasons, and it is harder for almost everyone to score now, no matter how good they are or were. Just look at Alex Ovechkin.

But that only explains how unchanged players can still have changes (i.e. declines) in their production. It doesn’t explain why players change. It doesn’t explain how Martin St. Louis is still a great player at 36-years-old when Lecavalier isn’t half what he used to be at 31. It only explains why production can be harder to come by, not why certain individual players are actually skating slower, when really they shouldn’t be.

Lecavalier is not the only example of this. 31-year-old Henrik Zetterberg scored 43 goals and won the Conn Smythe in 2007-2008. But his regular season total dropped to 31 goals in 2008-2009, a drop of 12, and has since not gone higher than 24. So far this season he is on pace to score only 16 times. The only time he scored less than 16 goals in his career was his 2nd season, when he scored 15 in 61 games.

What happened? Did the Cup run, or back-to-back Finals runs, permanently wear down his body? Some credence could be lent to this argument due to the fact that, save for maybe Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom, the whole Red Wings squad has not been the same since their collapse to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals. They looked physically beat after the first two games against Pittsburgh, which was in my opinion the only reason the Penguins came back to beat them in seven games.

Is it possible they’re still worn down, somehow? Don Cherry and many others believe that’s precisely the reason Alexander Ovechkin’s goal totals have declined every season in 2008. Maybe there is a good reason more goal-scorers don’t throw hits with the reckless abandon Ovechkin does.

But even with long, grueling seasons, or big, grueling hits that wear a player’s body down, shouldn’t the body heal over the offseason, maybe even end up stronger for it? I wish someone would ask an NHL player that question, because being too good to play in the NHL myself, I have no way of answering.

Motivation can be another problem. For instance, is it possible Henrik Zetterberg lost the motivation necessary to stay at the very top after winning the Cup? He has already admitted to turning a switch on and off for regular season games vs. playoff games (in an interview he did last year); is it possible he does the same for workouts? Zetterberg was always such a workhorse, at least on the ice. He’s a Smythe winner, a true champion before he even won the Cup. Laziness would be hard to imagine.

But he, like Vincent Lecavalier, has not been the same in years. It has to be something.

But what? What could be the culprit for all these players? Add 26-year-old Ryan Getzlaf to the list of players with questions swirling about their work-ethic. I am among those asking the questions about Getzlaf. While still productive as ever save for early this season, Getzlaf hasn’t seemed quite at his best in years. He played at an extremely high level in 2008-2009, regular season and playoffs, that I have not seen him at since.

Once one of the league’s most electrifying players, 27-year-old Zach Parise also has not been nearly the same this season since coming back from injury. At least with him there is a fair explanation: he was injured for almost a full season. But they say he is healthy now, we’re over 1/4 through the regular season, and we still haven’t seen the old Zach Parise yet.

What is happening to so many of these great players? Many are in their prime years, yet they are declining instead of improving or at least maintaining their high level of play.

I don’t have the omniscient answer, save for that it must come down to either unknown injuries, wear-and-tear on the body, work-ethic, or some combination of the three, depending on the player.

What do you think? Alexander Ovechkin, Vincent Lecavalier, Henrik Zetterberg, Ryan Getzlaf, Dion Phaneuf until recently was struggling mightily, Dany Heatley, Olli Jokinen, Simon Gagne, Eric Staal this season, and many more, all are players who have seemed to decline in the recent past or are currently in playing below previous levels.

Why? I leave that question to the readers.

Thanks for reading,

Written by Shark Circle

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