Is the Sophomore Slump for Defensemen for Real?

Rick Roos


Although there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to fantasy hockey, some recurring outcomes or tendencies can – and should – form at least part of the basis for evaluating players you might draft or those already on your teams.

Dobberites are familiar with the “fourth year rule,” where past data has suggested that a player is more likely to break out in his fourth full season at the NHL level versus his second, third, fifth etc. There’s also the so-called “rookie wall,” where a first-year player not used to the rigors of an 82-game campaign will often see his stats drop in the second half of his debut season.

Another observation which has received considerable fantasy attention/speculation of late is the defenseman sophomore slump, which supposedly suggests that rearguards who are productive as rookies tend to do worse in their second (i.e., sophomore) season. But is the defenseman sophomore slump for real? If so, are there common traits shared by those most negatively or non-negatively affected which would allow us to better predict who might be most vulnerable to sophomore slumping? These are questions I’m tackling this week in a special Cage Match.

Definitions and Line Drawing

Before we gather and dissect data, we first must decide (1) how we define a rookie defenseman, (2) how many points a rookie defenseman must score in order to be a candidate for a sophomore slump, and (3) how far back to go in examining data.

I think we should look at only d-men who were true rookies in their first season, meaning they could not have previously played in any regular season games. My reasoning is any regular season action provides invaluable experience which makes someone perform differently both as a rookie and sophomore than someone who’d never taken the regular season ice before his rookie campaign.

Additionally, I excluded anyone over age 26 in his first season, since they don’t qualify as NHL rookies. Beyond that, I omitted those who were rookies in 2003-04 because that meant they would’ve been two years older for their second season due to cancellation of the 2004-05 campaign. Similarly, I excluded anyone who was a rookie or sophomore in 2012-13 due to that season only having a total of 48 games.

I debated what to do about d-men who, for whatever reason, didn’t play 60+ games as a sophomore, since I didn’t want that to possibly throw off the data. Ultimately I decided to keep in those players since injuries or scratches are part of the game. But I did eliminate one player (Erik Johnson) who would’ve otherwise qualified but missed his entire second season due to injury.

In terms of a points threshold and range of years, I went about things backwards by first deciding how many defensemen I wanted to analyze. I figured a number less than 20 would provide too few data points, but anything more than 30 would make it too difficult for me to crunch numbers. With that in mind, I settled upon rookie defensemen who played from 1997-98 onward and posted 29+ points in their first year, since that yielded a total of 24 qualifiers.

Why go back to 1997-98, rather than more or fewer years? Two reasons – the early to mid-90s was a much highe