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July 31, 2009
Summer Skate
Southeast Division

by Richard Pollock

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Using the Puck Prospectus projection system, VUKOTA, PP and ESPN team up to take a look at one breakout and one declining candidate per team for the 2009-2010 season.

(Note: For a definition of GVT, Goals Versus Threshold, click here)

Summer Skate: Florida Panthers

Patience is a virtue if you are a fan of the Florida Panthers. After finally making some strides in the right direction last season, the team lost its best defenseman, Jay Bouwmeester, via trade/pending free agency. If the Panthers are to keep their momentum moving forward, the organization will need its young and highly paid players, like Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and David Booth, to continue their improvement. Too bad our projections show one of them backsliding next season.

Trending Up: RW Nathan Horton

Last Season: + 3.8 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 9.0 GVT

Nathan Horton has always been a player with loads of potential. He possesses a nasty shot and has the perfect size to become a dominant NHL power forward. Unfortunately for Panthers fans, Horton has been rather mediocre since making the team in 2003-04. However, now is the time for those disappointed supporters to rejoice; VUKOTA has Horton's GVT of 3.8 from 2008-09 jumping to 9.0 in 2009-10. VUKOTA also has Horton's point total jumping by 10 points (to 56) and obviously still sees the 24-year-old as a player on the rise.

Trending Down: C Stephen Weiss

Last Season: + 10.1 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 8.1 GVT

While VUKOTA has Horton improving on his 2008-09 season, the system also has Stephen Weiss coming back to the pack. Now, it may not be a significant lessening of GVT standing, but considering Weiss's age (26), it looks like he may have come close to his peak production last season. Temper your expectations for Weiss moving forward, as he may not become any better than he currently is.

For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Florida Panthers, click here.

Summer Skate: Atlanta Thrashers

After a difficult 2008-09 season, the Thrashers have added some talent through free agency (Nikolai Antropov), trade (Pavel Kubina) and the Entry Draft (Evander Kane). However, even with that added skill and depth, the key to the Thrashers' success may still hinge on the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, the progression of Zach Bogosian and the play of the talented Kari Lehtonen. So who will sizzle in Hotlanta?

Trending Up: G Kari Lehtonen

Last Season: + 5.1 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 8.7 GVT

Pegging Kari Lehtonen as a dominant starter at the NHL level would not constitute an overstatement. The big Finnish netminder has the skills and poise to dominate in the NHL; unfortunately, a poor team in front of him and constant injuries have worked against the former first-round pick so far in his career. Considering his talent and past numbers, along with comparables, VUKOTA has Lehtonen raising his GVT next season. Sure there is concern about his injury history -- VUKOTA has him projected to play only 43 games -- but the chance is there that Lehtonen could finally remain healthy and play a full NHL season.

Trending Down: C Rich Peverley

Last Season: + 9.1 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 5.8 GVT

Last summer at this time, few people had any idea who Rich Peverley even was. After moving from Nashville to Atlanta, Peverley became a very pleasant surprise for John Anderson and the Thrashers. While there is reason for optimism after last year, VUKOTA doesn't agree. So, even though he is just 27 and has produced offensively at other levels, VUKOTA doesn't see Peverley as the almost point-per-game player he was after he showed up in Atlanta last season.

For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Atlanta Thrashers, click here.

Summer Skate: Washington Capitals

After a heartbreaking second-round loss to the rival Penguins, the Capitals will be looking to make amends for that defeat in 2009-10. Having lost Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov and having added Mike Knuble, the Capitals really don't have many holes at forward. Defense, on the other hand, is another story. So unless the team's young defenders, like Karl Alzner and John Carlson, come along quickly, the Capitals may be spinning their wheels next season.

Trending Up: D Karl Alzner

Last Season: - 0.7 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 2.2 GVT

Much has been written about the former Calgary Hitmen defenseman, and much of those writings have been positive. Alzner brings a nice mix of physical play, puck-moving and leadership skills to the table. With his expected promotion to the NHL next season, VUKOTA projects Alzner's GVT to jump. Taking into account Alzner's pure skill level and overall potential, combined with the Capitals' needs on the back end, it would not be overly surprising to see Alzner exceed his projected GVT.

Trending Down: RW Alexander Semin

Last Season: + 22.3 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 14.4 GVT

Now don't get scared that Semin is suddenly going to fall off the face of the earth next season. VUKOTA is not projecting that. Rather, the system is projecting Semin's GVT to fall from his extremely high level, down to a more reasonable one. Even though that is a significant drop, a 14.4 GVT is nothing to scoff at. In actuality, his projected GVT for next season is slotted in as the 30th best expected GVT in the entire NHL for next season. That said, Capitals fans have to be a little bit disappointed that his point total is expected to drop by more than ten points.

For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Washington Capitals, click here.

Summer Skate: Tampa Bay Lightning

Last season can only be considered a nightmare for those in and around the Lightning organization. So, as the team moves forward into 2009-10, it's pretty likely only positive steps can be made. The Bolts did well to add Victor Hedman at the draft and Mattias Ohlund via free agency, but a return to form from some of its current players may be the key to a turnaround in the Bay, and one of the team's former signings seems ready to step up.

Trending Up: D Andrej Meszaros

Last Season: + 2.2 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 5.7 GVT

One of the Lightning's best signings from last offseason ended up having a difficult first year in Florida that eventually ended in injury. With a tough first season in Tampa now behind him, Meszaros can focus his attention on reverting back to his fine Ottawa form. In fact, VUKOTA has Meszaros' GVT jumping 2 goals in 2009-10. The system has Meszaros scoring 10 more points than last season, as well as playing 10 more games. These projections seem quite reasonable, considering the former Senators defenseman is a great skater, can move the puck from his own zone and can contribute on the power play.

Trending Down: G Mike Smith

Last Season: + 11.8 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 4.9 GVT

After posting a very good GVT last season for Tampa Bay, VUKOTA has Smith coming back to earth in 2009-10. Maybe more concerning is the fact that VUKOTA has Smith playing only 42 games for the Bolts. Even with his less-than-inspiring projection for next season, Smith's concussion issues are said to be a thing of the past. So, if he can keep his head on straight (pun intended), the netminder's talent and the improved defense in front of him may actually allow him to avoid such a steep decline.

For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Tampa Bay Lightning, click here.

Summer Skate: Carolina Hurricanes

After exceeding expectations last season and making it all the way to the Conference Finals, the Hurricanes have their collective eyes on the Stanley Cup Finals next season. While that is always a difficult task, a rebound year from Erik Cole, along with continued production from Eric Staal, Ray Whitney and Tuomo Ruutu, will make that goal far more feasible. Unfortunately for Hurricanes fans, a return to the later rounds of the playoffs will be made more difficult if a linchpin player takes a significant step back in 2009-10. According to Puck Prospectus' projections, that will be exactly the case.

Trending Up: LW Erik Cole

Last Season: + 3.8 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 6.0 GVT

Cole may be more of a bounce-back player, but he fits the bill nonetheless. In 2008-09, Cole registered a GVT of plus-2.5 in Carolina and plus-1.3 in Edmonton, for a combined plus-3.8 GVT. With only 18 goals and 42 assists last season, Cole fell off from his best seasons and had trouble fitting into the mix in Edmonton. Back in Carolina for a full year, he should fare much better. According to VUKOTA, Cole is expected to increase his GVT by 2.2 points up to plus-6.0 in 2009-10.

Trending Down: G Cam Ward

Last Season: + 16.5 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 8.2 GVT

It would be hard to replicate Ward's play down the stretch last season. He was simply remarkable at the end of the season and during the first two rounds of the playoffs. After that, he struggled against Pittsburgh, when fatigue and an apparent undisclosed injury really set in. While he posted an impressive GVT of plus-16.5 in 2008-09, next season VUKOTA has Ward slotting in at half that figure next season. That would be a monstrous drop-off for the Canes' most important player.

There are reasons to suggest this projection won't come to pass, however. The netminder is capable of building on last year's playoffs, especially with the motivation of an Olympic spot on his plate, so a significant drop-off may not be in the offing after all.

For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Carolina Hurricanes, click here.

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

Richard Pollock is Editor for the hockey website Illegal Curve.

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