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September 1, 2011
Summer Skate
Atlantic Division

by Timo Seppa

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Summer Skate – Philadelphia Flyers

This offseason, the Flyers finally addressed their constant question mark, inking Ilya Bryzgalov to mind the nets for the next nine seasons.

With Chris Pronger returning to health after an injury-plagued 2010-11 campaign, Philadelphia figures to be much stronger in its own zone. That is, if Bryzgalov is the crease-dwelling cornerstone he was signed to be. So, can he measure up to expectations?

Trending up: D Chris Pronger

Last season: 5.4 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 7.6 GVT

After coming over in a trade from the Anaheim Ducks before the 2009-10 season, Pronger paid immediate dividends for the Flyers. Not only did the future Hall of Famer quickly become the de facto Flyers captain and put up an amazing two-way performance worth 18.8 GVT, he also led a third franchise to the Stanley Cup finals in his first season with that team. Now that's the definition of a difference-maker. Unfortunately, in 2010-11, Philadelphia's fortunes went the way of Pronger's health. In the running for the Presidents' Trophy for a good part of the season, the Pronger-less Flyers sagged late and were eventually swept out of the second round of the playoffs by the Boston Bruins. Expect a somewhat healthier and more productive third season in Philadelphia from Pronger, the odds-on new captain of the Flyers.

Trending down: G Ilya Bryzgalov

Last season: 21.5 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 12.3 GVT

While Flyers GM Paul Holmgren signed top free-agent goaltender Bryzgalov to an exorbitant nine-year, $51 million contract, Capitals GM George McPhee signed top free-agent goaltender Tomas Vokoun to a bargain one-year, $1.5 million contract. Although Vokoun is four years Bryzgalov's senior, he's never posted a save percentage below .919 since the lockout -- that's an elite netminder. Bryzgalov, on the other hand, has not been the same kind of sure thing. Mixed in with the fine .920, .920 and .921 save percentages of 2007-08, 2009-10 and 2010-11 that everyone conveniently chooses to remember are below-average seasons of .910, .907 and .906 in 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2008-09. History would tell you that it's a flip of the coin whether you get the good Ilya or the bad Ilya, and in any case, he'd have to play like Tim Thomas in 2010-11 to be worth that cap hit.

Name to know: Brayden Schenn, center

The MVP of the IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo this past January is more than ready to make his mark in the NHL this season. Several NHL sources thought he was ready to be an everyday player in the league last year. NHL sources also have said they believe that Schenn is the best prospect in all of hockey. Although I would have two or three other names in front of Schenn's in a formal ranking, I don't deny the center's top-end upside. Schenn is slotted to start the season on the third line, but there's a real chance he'll force the Flyers' coaching staff to promote him by midseason. He is a plus puck handler with tremendous hockey sense and controls possession with the best of them. His intangibles are great, as he works his tail off at both ends of the rink and shows a very desirable physical game. Schenn's skating has been his major issue, but he has shown notable improvement in that area, and it's very hard to find a real fault in his game now. He's ready to be an NHLer and, with time, an impact player.

Summer Skate – Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins nearly won the Eastern Conference regular-season race without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup. That fact alone should have fans excited to see what this team can do in the 2011-12 campaign. Although Crosby's status remains uncertain as he recovers from a concussion suffered in January, Malkin figures to be back and ready to start the season. And the projections show that the All-Star center should provide a very welcome boost for the Pens.

Trending up: C Evgeni Malkin

Last season: 3.5 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 9.5 GVT

Already three seasons ago now, Malkin's breakout campaign of 2008-09 -- when he captured the Art Ross Trophy for most points in the regular season and the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP -- seems far off in the rearview mirror. The past two seasons, Malkin has taken big steps backward in games played -- from 82 to 67 to 43 -- and in per-game production, from 1.38 to 1.15 to a sub-elite 0.86 points per game. Some of that can be chalked up to bad luck, though, including a career-low 8.2 percent shooting percentage. This year, word was that Malkin had been working hard with ex-teammate Sergei Gonchar in hopes of getting back in the mix for the later playoff rounds, had the Pens made it deeper into the postseason. Hopefully, that extra effort will help jump-start a productive return from his knee injury.

Trending down: G Marc-Andre Fleury

Last season: 22.2 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 7.8 GVT

Did enigmatic Marc-Andre Fleury finally figure things out in 2010-11? It was only the second time in his career that he posted an above-average save percentage. His .918 mark was the second best of his career, and it probably was his best overall performance, given that the .921 he set in 2007-08 was in an injury-shortened sample of 35 games. Reasons to believe: Fleury played even better than the save percentage would show, given the unsettled defense he played behind in October (when he got off to a horrific start, temporarily giving way to backup Brent Johnson). Reasons to doubt: the usual cruel regression to the mean for goaltenders, and Fleury's well-established .908 save percentage over 367 career games.

Name to know: Eric Tangradi, Left Wing

Tangradi had a fair second professional season, scoring 18 goals and 33 points in 42 AHL games. He was 10th in scoring on his AHL team, but he didn't play a full season for various reasons, including a 15-game NHL stint, and he was third on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton club in terms of points per game. His performance also earned him a call to the AHL All-Star Game. Tangradi is a hard-hitting power winger with solid offensive skills. I wouldn't say he has the potential to play a top line mainly because of lackluster skating, but he has a decent enough combination of hands, vision and scoring ability with his physical assets to be a fine player in the league. If he doesn't make the Penguins out of camp, he'll likely be the first call-up option, and it shouldn't be long before he solidifies a spot in Pittsburgh.

Summer Skate – New York Rangers

The Rangers faced plenty of adversity last season. Injuries shortened the season of Ryan Callahan. Marian Gaborik was snakebit in the scoring department. And Michael Del Zotto never emerged to become the power-play quarterback the club believed him to be. But after a big offseason signing, the Blueshirts should be better than 2011-12, as Brad Richards should help reignite Gaborik, while filling the PP QB role. And there could be more help coming from the farm system as well.

Trending up: RW Marian Gaborik

Last season: 10.2 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 11.1 GVT

About the only thing that didn't go really wrong for Gaborik in 2010-11 was health, as 62 games played was actually better than his 57 game-per-season average since the lockout. Gaborik's production took a big hit, though, dropping to a relatively anemic 0.77 points per game after consistently staying above a point per game since 2005-06. The bad-luck shooting percentage -- 11.5 percent versus 15.1 to 19.1 percent over the previous five seasons -- should come around on its own, while the slight dip in shots per game should improve dramatically when elite playmaking center Richards steps over the boards, providing Gaborik with arguably his best linemate ever.

Trending down: C Brad Richards

Last season: 17.5 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 14.0 GVT

When GM Glen Sather landed Richards -- the top free agent of a relatively thin free-agent class -- it was a clear win for the Rangers. Though the nine-year, $60 million sticker price was moderately high for a player who will be pushing 40 at the end of the contract, Richards was a perfect fit for the Blueshirts. Not only have the Rangers been looking for legitimate top-six forwards for the past several seasons; they were ideally looking for a slick-passing center who could maximize their investment in Gaborik as well as a boost to their mediocre power play. The 2004 Conn Smythe winner should provide plenty of assists to Gaborik as part of his point-per-game production and a steady number of power-play points along with winning key draws, especially on the man advantage. That said, VUKOTA sees a potential drop-off based both on age and the fact that Richards recorded his highest shooting percentage since 2003-04 last season (10.3 percent vs. an 8.8 percent career average).

Name to know: Tim Erixon, defense

With the Flames unable to ink their top blue-line prospect ahead of a looming signing deadline, the Rangers acquired Tim Erixon in a trade from Calgary in a deal that could be considered robbery in some countries. Erixon was one of the top defenseman for Skelleftea, logging 20 minutes a night for one of the best teams in the SEL. He was also named a top three player on the Swedish WJC team in Buffalo. He played a lot of hockey with 2011 lottery pick Adam Larsson (drafted by the Devils) this past season on the same SEL team. Erixon not only logged more minutes than him on the same team, he scored nearly triple the amount of points and performed better than him at the World Juniors. That's not to say he's on the same level as Larsson, but I wouldn't say he's that far off. Erixon was also one of the top shutdown defenders for Team Sweden at the World Championships. He's one of the elite defensive prospects in the game, with off-the-charts hockey sense, top-end shutdown ability, fine mobility and can move the puck at a high level. He still has to bulk up a little, but he doesn't shy from the physical game. There's a lot to be excited about with Erixon, and it shouldn't be long before he's playing significant NHL minutes.

Summer Skate – New Jersey Devils

An anemic offense. A more-or-less season-ending injury to its young star player, Zach Parise. A first-year coach fired before Christmas. Salary cap constrictions all season long.

Safe to say the Devils' season did not go the way they envisioned when they inked mega-free agent Ilya Kovalchuk to his massive -- and drama plagued -- contract last summer. So the question now becomes whether the team can right itself this season and meets its top-of-the-conference expectations.

Trending up: LW Ilya Kovalchuk

Last season: 8.8 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 10.7 GVT

Kovalchuk still gets a bad rap for being a prima donna and for not working hard, but this appears to be more media trope than truth about the former Thrashers' captain, and it certainly doesn't seem to be his teammates' opinion of him. That said, management, teammates, media and fans alike are first and foremost looking for the Russian Olympian to score, and he certainly can improve on what he has done thus far with New Jersey. For whatever reason, Kovalchuk's shooting percentage is down significantly in his 108 games while in a Devils' sweater. A 15.1 percent career shooter when traded from Atlanta, Kovalchuk only shot at an 11.5 percent clip for New Jersey. Maybe another try at a Kovalchuk-Travis Zajac-Parise super-line will do the trick to get Ilya back to expected production levels.

Trending down: LW/C Patrik Elias

Last season: 12.8 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 9.7 GVT

The play of alternate captain Patrik Elias was a shining beacon in an otherwise disappointing Devils season in 2010-11. In the context of ugly team numbers, such as 2.08 goals for per game -- by far the worst of any team since the lockout (the 2007-08 Islanders are second, miles ahead at 2.30 GF/game) -- Elias managed to be the only Devils forward scoring at a legitimate top-six rate at even strength, with his 2.1 even-strength points per 60 minutes (ESP/60) distantly followed by the likes of Kovalchuk, Zajac and others at less than 1.6 ESP/60. While VUKOTA expects age to start eroding the 35-year-old's production, that should be mitigated by improved play from the rest of the team.

Name to know: Adam Larsson, Defense

The fourth overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft is one of the most NHL-ready defenders you'll get from a first-year draft-eligible prospect, and what Adam Larsson accomplishes this year in the NHL will likely hinge on how quickly he adjusts to the NHL pace on the smaller ice surfaces. Some critics were worried about Larsson's offensive decline this year, but keep in mind he was on one of the best teams in the Swedish Elite League. He also shared ice time with two older defensemen in Tim Erxion and David Rundblad, who may be the best defensive defenseman and offensive defenseman prospects, respectively, in the game. There is very little to worry about when it comes to projecting Larsson. He doesn't stand out in any one particular area, but he's seemingly above average at every aspect of the game. He can skate, pass, handle the puck and shoot and is an intelligent player. It isn't that hard to see him being a steady force on the Devils' first pairing for many seasons.

Summer Skate – New York Islanders

It's fairly easy to overlook the Islanders, given that the franchise has spent every season since 2007-08 in the Atlantic Division basement. The benefit or those seasonal shortcomings comes in the form of high draft picks, which should put some exceptionally talented players on the ice for the 2011-12 season. Mix in the savvy pick up of Calder Trophy finalist Michael Grabner and a few savvy signings on the cheap, and there's legitimate reason for excitement on Long Island. Leading the way will be their former No. 1 overall pick.

Trending up: C John Tavares

Last season: 11.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 13.5 GVT

A two-point-per-game player for consecutive seasons with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League prior to turning 18 years old, John Tavares was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NHL entry draft. He's shown franchise player potential, but has it turned into franchise player reality? The jury's still out, as Tavares fine 54-point rookie season took only a moderate step -- not a Stamkos step -- forward with a 67-point sophomore campaign.

The light seemed to go on for Tavares in the second half of the season, as the man who had been Mr. Garbage Goal started to flash some pretty nifty moves -- stickhandling through the opposition to create his own scoring chances was suddenly part of Johnny T's NHL toolkit. To start off his second summer vacation, Tavares had an excellent showing for Team Canada at the IIHF World Championship. With a growing core of talented youngsters supporting him, signs are pointing toward a potential breakout season for Tavares.

Trending down: C Frans Nielsen

Last season: 13.1 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 8.0 GVT

Nielsen was a revelation in 2010-11, becoming a deadly tandem with the high-flying rookie Grabner and later meshing with Kyle Okposo to form a fine trio. Nielsen did it in nearly every phase of the game, scoring at a near-top-six level at even strength (1.7 ESP/60), putting up a league-leading seven short-handed goals and taking over as active leader in shootout percentage among players (59.3 percent). Reason for optimism: His young linemates just might get better. Reason for pessimism: It all can't keep going quite this well, can it?

Name to know: Nino Niederreiter, LW

The fifth overall pick from the 2010 draft got a brief taste of NHL life before being sent back to the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. Sources have said Niederreiter lost a little motivation after the demotion, but as the season went on, he showed signs of performing like the top-end power forward he has the potential to be. He should make a serious push to become a regular in the Islanders' lineup this season.

Niederreiter is a hard-working forward who gives his all at both ends of the rink. He projects to be an above-average physical player in the NHL, and with how quickly he's developed physically compared to where players his age usually are, that aspect of his game may become apparent rather quickly at the highest level.

He certainly has offensive abilities -- he's a fine puckhandler and a plus shooter -- although I wouldn't label him a dynamic offensive player. He's one of the safer players in the prospect world to project as a top-six forward, and he's advanced enough to possibly reach that projection pretty soon.

A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.

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Top 10 Prospects (08/31)
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Premium Article Summer Skate (08/24)
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Premium Article Summer Skate (09/07)
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From Daigle To Datsyuk (09/02)

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