This season’s stars aside, the sophomore slump phenomenon is very real

Since 2005-06, there have been 178 rookies with 25 or more points and 114 of them, or 64 percent, saw a drop in their points-per-60 the following season.

Fifteen games into the season and it’s looking like last year’s NHL rookie class missed the memo on the whole sophomore slump thing. If you’re unaware of the sophomore slump phenomenon, it’s the idea that a hot rookie season will almost certainly be followed up by a more disappointing second season. It seems counter-intuitive because young players generally get better as they approach their prime, but there’s no shortage of examples over the years to give credence to the trend. There was Nathan MacKinnon last season who went from 63 points in 82 games to a 49 point pace in an injury-riddled campaign. Before him there was Jonathan Huberdeau who posted three less points in his sophomore season in 21 more games. Before those two there was Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Staal, Brad Boyes and a bevy of other players who experienced the same drop from their rookie totals, only to bounce back again in their third season. Weird, right?

That hasn’t been the case this season though as most rookies have either picked up where they left off, or exploded to new heights. Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Klingberg are all point-per-game to start the season. Jason Zucker is close at 13 in 15, Victor Rask has improved to 10 in 16, and Kevin Hayes is at 11 in 16. The only disappointments so far have been Filip Forsberg and Aaron Ekblad, but Forsberg isn’t too far off his rookie pace and is starting to heat up, while Ekblad is playing 2.5 minutes less per game this season which dampens his numbers. But that begs the question of whether this is even a new trend or if the sophomore slump was bogus to begin with. Perhaps it was just anecdotally overblown thanks to its effect on a few stars, while missing the larger picture. That’s at least what I expected to find, but as it turns out, the phenomenon seems to be very real. Since 2005-06, there have been 178 rookies with 25 or more points and 114 of them, or 64 percent, saw a drop in their points-per-60 the following season. The average for the rookie season was 2.07 while the sophomore season was 1.88. I broke the rookies down into categories based on age, pedigree, development and rookie success to see if there were any underlying trends. What it boils down to is that the more unexpected the rookie season was, the more skeptical you should be about a repeat and the more likely there’s a sophomore slump.
age The slump tends to hit the oldest rookies hardest while rookies aged 19 to 22 are generally safe bets to repeat, but even they see a drop on average. That shouldn’t be too surprising as older rookies tend to lack pedigree and weren’t exactly elite players in their draft class.
pedigree The slump shows up most in the rookies that seemingly came out of nowhere: the longshots. There’s a drop from guys drafted before round five, but it’s much larger in guys drafted after that and especially in guys who went undrafted.
development The came-out-of-nowhere effect is even more pronounced here and it seems like overcooking a prospect is a real concern. The longer a prospect plays outside the NHL, the more likely he sees a big drop off in his sophomore season. The least surprising number here is that the guys who jump in right after the draft see almost no drop-off at all, since it’s usually only the most elite players that can do that.
rookie Here’s where the biggest effect is and it’s likely the reason for the debate. Out of every category and sub-category, the biggest drop-off comes from the guys who had the best rookie seasons. That’s what makes the whole thing more noticeable as it effects the best rookies most. The reason for that is they likely had a lot of good bounces go their way in their first season and things just weren’t as easy after that. Shooting percentages were inflated – maybe even because they’re new and less scouted – and that predictably regressed the next season. The inflated shooting percentage gives us higher expectations without a baseline of real underlying talent and that’s where the slump talk originates. It’s not that they’re having a bad season, it’s more because they played so out of this world that repeating is nearly impossible. What it comes down to is that if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. How unexpected the rookie season was to begin with is probably the best indication of whether to expect a slump or not. Marek Svatos putting up 32 goals in 61 games, four years after being drafted 227th overall? Good luck doing that again. Steven Stamkos going from 46 points to 95? Not that unexpected. Overall, there are some general trends that help discern who’s more prone to the slump, but it’s still peculiar that a player will generally see a drop in their production the next season across all age groups, development paths, and draft pedigrees. That could be just pure randomness, regression to the mean, or less shelter; either way the effect seems very real. Just don’t tell that to this year’s class, it hasn’t effected them one bit.

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