Last season saw some remarkable ups and downs among the NHL goal-scoring leaders. Corey Perry, a known 30-goal scorer, nearly doubled his output year-over-year to lead the pack, while the Canucks' Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin also took the opportunity to blow past their established goal-scoring levels and finish in the top five. Still more remarkably, Michael Grabner went from a waiver-wire pickup to tie for eighth overall in the NHL's goal-scoring race.
Meanwhile, familiar names like Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk suffered through substandard seasons, finishing well back of the pack; Ovechkin put just 32 pucks in the net in 2010-11 while Kovalchuk fell outside the top-20 scorers with a 31-goal campaign.
The real question, though, is not "Who surprised last season?" but rather "Who will lead the way in 2011-12?"
Hockey Prospectus' exclusive VUKOTA projection system attempts to answer that latter question, providing the top 10 projected goal-scorers for the coming season.
1. Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning: 47 goals
The Maurice "Rocket" Richard trophy winner in 2009-10 is slated to once again lead the league, according to VUKOTA rankings, and why wouldn't he? The 21-year-old has scored 96 goals over the past two seasons, so a projection of 47 goals is actually a whisker below his average over those years. And with Tampa Bay's power play likely slated to again finish as one of the best in the game, he should have every opportunity to match his previous accomplishments.
2. Alex Ovechkin, LW, Washington Capitals: 42 goals
There aren't many players who can call a 32-goal season an "off year," but Ovechkin had topped the 50-goal mark in four of his previous five campaigns, so expectations are higher. The 2010-11 season was the first in which he failed to hit double digits in power-play goals, and the first season in which his shooting percentage was below 10 percent. The high-volume, high-percentage shooter should also benefit from the return of Mike Green to Washington's power play in what figures to be a rebound season.
3. Corey Perry, RW, Anaheim Ducks: 40 goals
After three seasons in the 30-goal range, the 25-year-old Perry hit a career-high 50 goals last season, thanks in no small part to a career-high 17.2 shooting percentage and 14 power-play goals. He will be hard-pressed to match last season's breakout campaign, but should still end up near the top of the NHL's goal-scoring leaderboard -- particularly with all of the pieces from Anaheim's potent power play returning for another tour of duty.
4. Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins: 39 goals
Sidney Crosby scored 32 goals in just 41 games -- easily the best pace of his career -- but was derailed by a concussion and post-concussion syndrome. Injury remains the primary question mark for Crosby. VUKOTA (which has no input regarding the nature of an injury, and thus does not differentiate between a concussion or a broken hand) perhaps naively projects him to play 70 games and suggests that he should score at around his career-average rate.
5. Jeff Skinner, RW, Carolina Hurricanes: 36 goals
Skinner shocked many when he went from being the seventh overall pick to the league's top rookie over the course of a single summer, scoring 31 goals in the process. The fact is that Skinner has always had a penchant for filling the net; in his final OHL season, he popped 50 goals in just 64 games for Kitchener. Given that he recorded just six goals on the power play last season, the modest projected improvement is entirely reasonable, even if opposing defenders key in on him to a greater degree than they did last season.
6. Jeff Carter, C, Columbus Blue Jackets: 35 goals
Over the past four seasons, Jeff Carter has averaged 36 goals per season, which is precisely the number he scored last year. The projected number would have been a little higher had he not missed some time to injury in 2009-10, but then again he's also heading to the tougher Western Conference. His presence, along with that of fellow newcomer James Wisniewski, should help revive the Columubs Blue Jackets' moribund power play
at least once Wisniewski's suspension ends. Look for the positive and negative changes to essentially balance out, with Carter staying close to his established scoring rate.
7. Phil Kessel, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs: 35 goals
Phil Kessel has bested the 35-goal mark just once in his career -- in 2008-09, while lining up on Marc Savard's port side. That said, he's proved capable of remarkable goal-scoring, reaching the 30-goal mark in each of the past two seasons despite questionable help from his linemates. That may be thanks in no small part to the fact that he has fired the puck more frequently in Toronto than he did at any point with the Bruins. The addition of Tim Connolly should help him post the best numbers of his Maple Leafs career.
8. Daniel Sedin, LW, Vancouver Canucks: 34 goals
Over the past three seasons, the designated shooter of the two Sedins has scored 22, 21 and 23 even-strength goals. Last year, though, he hit a career high with 18 power-play goals after recording 17 in the previous two seasons combined. The loss of power-play weapons Christian Ehrhoff (signed with Buffalo) and Ryan Kesler (injured for the start of 2011-12) may impact those totals, so it only makes sense that Sedin is primed for a slight dip from last year's career high of 41 goals.
9. Bobby Ryan, LW, Anaheim Ducks: 34 goals
While Corey Perry made hay on the Ducks' productive power play last season, Bobby Ryan took a step backward. After scoring 23 goals on the man advantage over the two previous seasons, he recorded just five in 2010-11; only a career-high 28 even-strength goals prevented his overall totals from dropping off. Barring a leap forward, he's a known quantity overall, having scored between 31 and 35 goals in each of the past three seasons.
10. Eric Staal, C, Carolina Hurricanes: 33 goals
After flashing a 45-goal, 100-point campaign as a sophomore, Staal has taken on more responsibility and settled into an established scoring range over the last five seasons. He has recorded between 12 and 14 power-play goals and 29 and 40 goals overall in that span (the range would be even narrower had he not missed a dozen games in that 29-goal year; he was on a 34-goal pace) and the logical expectation is that he won't deviate far from that established range.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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