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October 3, 2011
NHL Preview
NHL's Top 10 Breakout Candidates

by Robert Vollman and ESPN Insider

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Over the years, we've learned to identify the types of players that most consistently match or even exceed the breakout potentials predicted by the VUKOTA system. Looking at such factors as previous history, age and puck luck, we've picked 10 players who have the best chance at breakout seasons in terms of our player valuation metric, goals versus threshold (GVT).

David Booth, LW, Florida Panthers
Last season: -2.8 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: 4.8 GVT

Booth went from 31 goals, 60 points and plus-10 in 72 games in 2008-09 to just 40 points and minus-31 in 2010-11 after his concussion-shortened 2009-10 season, but much of that was due to factors outside of his control. He took a career-high 280 shots but converted on just 8.2 percent -- far worse than his 12.6 percent in 2008-09, and yet better than his teammates, who converted on just 6.9 percent when sharing the ice with him. And Florida's goalies, who stopped just 88.9 percent of shots behind him, are probably as much to blame for his terrible plus-minus score as he is. In 2011-12, expect Booth's numbers to improve along with his fortunes.

Jimmy Howard, G, Detroit Red Wings
Last season: 3.5 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: 10.6 GVT

The second player on our list is another 27-year-old American, who after four solid years for the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL was runner-up for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year in 2009-10. Unfortunately for him, Jimmy Godpad's save percentage dropped from a splendid .924 to a below-average .908 last season, something the VUKOTA system suggests will be corrected in 2011-12.

Miikka Kiprusoff, G, Calgary Flames
Last season: -2.1 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: 4.9 GVT

Lots of sub-replacement-level goalies are projected to improve, but none are expected to cross the water line and actually help their team as much as Kiprusoff. A former Vezina Trophy winner, Kipper has started at least 71 games in each of the past six seasons, during which time he has earned the seventh-most GVT among goalies, and consistently outperformed his team's alternatives by a wider margin than any other NHL starter. Calgary is not an easy team to play behind, but Kiprusoff nevertheless earned a .920 save percentage in 2009-10, a level close to which he should return this season, especially if backup Henrik Karlsson can give him a break from time to time.

Tuukka Rask, G, Boston Bruins
Last season: 5.6 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: 10.2 GVT

It will be a good season for another Finnish goalie, who stole the starting job from Tim Thomas once before, in 2009-10, when he led the league with a .931 save percentage and a jaw-dropping 1.97 goals-against average. Quite frankly, any goalie with the good fortune to play in Boston is going to post fantastic numbers, and being 13 years his partner's junior could win Rask more time in the most coveted crease in the league.

Kurtis Foster, D, Anaheim Ducks
Last season: 1.5 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: 6.1 GVT

The list of those set to break out includes more than just Finnish goalies and 27-year-old Americans; it includes talented players who just need a change of scenery. Foster struggled in Edmonton with linemates scoring on just 7.1 percent of their shots, but having been dealt to Anaheim, where he's likely to share the ice with the same type of firepower that helped him earn 42 points in 72 games with Tampa Bay in 2009-10, the giant Foster could be due for a bounce-back season. While it's true that he'll be fighting the likes of Lubomir Visnovsky, Cam Fowler, Toni Lydman and Francois Beauchemin for ice time, he needed only 17 minutes a game with Tampa Bay. In 2011-12, expect his assists to rebound from 14 to closer to the 34 he earned with the Bolts.

Sam Gagner, C, Edmonton Oilers
Last season: 2.3 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: 6.6 GVT

Gagner started his career at such a young age (18) that most people don't realize he just turned 22 this August. How many 21-year-olds could boast four 40-point NHL seasons? With consecutive seasons scoring 41-42 points in 68 games, it may sound like 2007's sixth overall selection has peaked early, but he's bound to bust out in the last year of his contract. His poor minus-17 last season was more a consequence of the abysmal .876 save percentage Oiler goalies had behind him than his own well-rounded play, making Gagner VUKOTA's surprise selection as this season's biggest improvement out of Edmonton.

Scott Gomez, C, Montreal Canadiens
Last season: 0.6 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: 4.8 GVT

Gomez is one of the league's biggest whipping boys, but why blame him for getting awarded a ridiculous contract? He always gives his best, and we should be happy for him that his agent scored him an absurd deal that nets him $7.5 million this year. Despite relatively difficult ice time, Gomez has great possession numbers that may not have helped him in a season that his linemates scored on just 4.7 percent of their shots, but will inevitably result in a return to his usual success. Though not the playmaker he once was when he led the league in assists, he's nowhere near last year's player who posted dramatic career lows of 38 points and minus-15.

Zach Bogosian, D, Winnipeg Jets
Last season: 0.1 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: 4.2 GVT

Drafted third overall in 2008, Bogosian already had three full seasons under his belt by his 21st birthday this July. With just 40 points and a minus-45 over the past two seasons, there are those that have lost faith in him, but there's no way he would be awarded all his team's toughest minutes if they didn't believe in him. Last year, the team scored on just 5.9 percent of their shots with him on the ice, far lower than his opponent's 8.9 percent, making Bogosian a sure bet to finish well into the black in 2011-12 if he can wrestle even a few of the softer assignments from Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom.

David Clarkson, RW, New Jersey Devils
Last season: -1.3 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: 2.7 GVT

Clarkson went from 24 points and plus-3 in 46 games in 2009-10 to just 18 points and minus-20 in 82 last season, but that was largely thanks to a PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage) just as bad as David Booth's. Clarkson is not the below-replacement-level player his GVT suggested last year. He was trusted in pretty tough situations and yet his possession numbers stayed roughly even. In 2011-12, expect Clarkson's numbers to improve along with his linemates' horrible 4.1 percent shooting percentage.

Jakub Voracek, RW, Philadelphia Flyers
Last season: 3.5 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: 7.5 GVT

The 22-year-old Jakub Voracek was an absolute scoring machine in the QMJHL, scoring at roughly the same rate as his new teammate Claude Giroux. Acquired in the Jeff Carter trade, a change of scenery could be just want Voracek needs, especially when going from a team like Columbus, where his linemates scored on just 8.6 percent of their shots and where goalies stopped just 90.2 percent of shots behind him. The seventh overall pick from 2007 has missed just five games in his three seasons, and averaged 48 points over the past two seasons -- potentially far less than he can achieve alongside Giroux, Danny Briere and Jaromir Jagr in Philadelphia this season.

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

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

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