There were only 20 players in the NHL who scored at least 32 goals during the 2016-17 season.
A lot of the expected names are on that list. Superstars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko are there with underrated stars like Jeff Skinner, Brad Marchand and Nikita Kucherov. There were also a few surprises, highlighted by the immediate impactful play of rookies Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. The surprise there wasn’t that they were good or that they became 30-goal scorers in the NHL, but that they did it so quickly in their first season.
But the real stunner in that group was Patrick Eaves and the 32 goals he scored after splitting time between the Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks.
Why was his output so unexpected? Eaves has not been a top goal-scorer at any point in his NHL career. Before 2016-17, he topped the 20-goal mark just once in his career, and that was as a rookie (when he scored exactly 20). That also was during the 2005-06 season, the one year out of the past 30 when goal-scoring in the NHL skyrocketed. There were 126 players who scored at least 20 goals that season. In 2016-17, there were only 96.
Accounting for injuries, Eaves has had only one other season (2014-15) when he scored at a pace that would have put him over 20 goals in an 82-game season.
That happens rarely for many players in a similar situation.
That 32-goal season came in Eaves’ age-32 season, a point when most depth players like him won’t typically have their best offensive seasons. Now that he is signed for three more years in Anaheim at more than $3 million per season, what should the Ducks expect out of him going forward?
Was the 2016-17 season just a monster fluke in the goal-scoring department, or is there really a part of Eaves’ game that changed and will allow him to be a more consistent, impactful goal-scorer at a point in his career when most players are slowing down?
For comparison’s sake, I went back to the start of the 2005-06 season to find players in a similar situation to Eaves — players at age 32 or older who scored at least 32 goals in a season after previously failing to come close, and what they accomplished in subsequent seasons.
There were no other solid parallels, believe it or not.
Usually a player who scores more than 30 goals in his early 30s has been a dominant offensive player early in his career. In this case, the only players who came close to Eaves were Jason Blake and Mike Sillinger.
Blake scored at least 22 goals between ages 29 and 32 before erupting with a 40-goal season in his age-33 season. He scored more than 16 goals just once over the final six seasons of his career. Blake was a better goal scorer in his late 20s than Eaves was, though, so their situations differed.
Sillinger is a little closer.
During his first 13 seasons in the NHL, he topped 20 goals three times before scoring 32 during the 2005-06 season, when the 34-year-old split time between the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators. In the next two seasons, he scored 26, then 14 (in only 52 games), and a year later was out of the NHL.
That indicates an uncharted career path for this era.
An encouraging sign for the Ducks exists heading into this season, though. Even if Eaves doesn’t come close to duplicating that 32-goal effort, he should still be a decent investment at that price tag.
When he has been healthy, Eaves has been a strong depth player who can drive possession and add some offense. It has been hit-and-miss at times, and he had a bit of shooting percentage luck in 2016-17, but if he can take more than two shots per game, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him push 15 goals again.
If the Ducks can get that production and some strong two-way play, those goals will be almost as good as gold.
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