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August 5, 2009
Summer Skate
Northeast Division

by Gabriel Desjardins

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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: Boston Bruins

The Boston Bruins were the beasts of the East with the best regular-season record in 2008-09. With nearly the same core group of players, with the possible exception of Phil Kessel, the Bruins will attempt to put their second-round blunder against the Carolina Hurricanes behind them and take a step toward hoisting the Stanley Cup next June. If projections hold, they'll have the benefit of increased production from an oft-injured veteran ... even if a team pillar shows a few cracks.

Trending Up: C Patrice Bergeron

Last Season: + 2.8 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 6.1 GVT

Bergeron, the 45th overall selection in the 2003 NHL draft, has now had two serious injuries, and it seems unlikely that he'll recover the ability he showed when he was 20 and 21 years old. VUKOTA also thinks he'll have trouble staying in the lineup again this year, but even so, it sees an improvement on last year's shooting percentage (5 percent), which would greatly improve Bergeron's production.

Trending Down: G Tim Thomas

Last Season: + 35.8 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 20.2 GVT

How does a 35-year-old goaltender who is suddenly the NHL's top goalie follow up his best season? No matter what, it figures to be a disappointment. The projection seems to indicate Thomas, nicknamed "The Tank," will do exactly that, falling more than 15 points from last year's NHL-best GVT. Goalies often fall apart as quickly as they appear on the scene, so expect regression but not disaster. The projection still places Thomas as the best player on the Bruins roster in 2009-10.

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

Summer Skate: Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto aided its goaltending situation by signing Jonas Gustavsson, aka "The Monster," but has hindered its chances by putting an emphasis on big skaters this offseason. Without a dynamic roster, can the Maple Leafs have a miracle season? Or are they destined to be one of the worst teams in the NHL next year?

Trending Up: G Vesa Toskala

Last Season: - 18.0 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: - 4.0 GVT

Toskala suffered behind a team that took the most penalties in the league and let opponents rain shots down on him in firing-squad fashion. His own personal performance didn't help matters, but he wasn't any worse than Chris Osgood, whose statistics don't look anywhere near as bad as Toskala's. Is it even possible for the Leafs to have the worst penalty-killing unit in the league again this season? Probably. But it's just as likely that the team improves, which in turn could bring up Toskala's 2009-10 performance several notches. Of course, considering the depths of last season, "several notches" still may not help much.

Trending Down: LW Jason Blake

Last Season: + 11.8 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 7.8 GVT

We considered "the entire Leafs organization" or "the Leafs fan base" as the most likely candidate for collapse, but few signs point to a last-place finish in the NHL next year. Perhaps there's some solace in that.

However, any improvement in the standings will likely not come from Blake, who will have a difficult time replicating his performance from last year. In 2008-09, he led the team in scoring at even strength and on the power play, while playing against the other team's top lines, along with taking shorthanded minutes against the other team's first power-play unit. At age 36, VUKOTA thinks this season will be unkind to him. It pegs the winger for a 49-point season and a lot of missed games (33).

For ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek's take on the Toronto Maple Leafs, click here.

Summer Skate: Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres were in the thick of the playoff race largely because netminder Ryan Miller was in net. When Miller went down with an injury, he took the rest of the team with him. The Sabres, while an excellent special-teams group, posted below-average results on offense and defense in even-strength situations. Will Thomas Vanek get the offensive support he needs to take Buffalo to the next level?

Trending Up: C Jochen Hecht

Last Season: + 0.3 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 4.3 GVT

This past season was a low-water mark for the 6-foot-1, 199-pound lefty-shooting center. Not that long ago, Hecht excelled on defense and received time on the power play. He's never been a consistently healthy guy and 2009-10 looks likely to bring a return of the injuries of the past. However, VUKOTA expects a big bounce back for his scoring and defense.

Trending Down: G Ryan Miller

Last Season: + 18.2 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 10.4 GVT

Sabres fans should rejoice at the prospect of Miller's return, but they would do well to curb their expectations. While Miller's absence played a large role in last season's late slide, his presence this season may not have the huge impact some expect. Historically comparable players show a downward trend after reaching this stage in their career, meaning the play of the Michigan native may decline from its high standard.

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

Summer Skate: Ottawa Senators

The Senators had a disappointing year in 2008-09, going from a Stanley Cup contender to a basement dweller. Heading into camp, will the ongoing Dany Heatley saga drain any hope that Ottawa has of rebounding for next year? How will the team react if Heatley comes back or if he's dealt away? Perhaps even more concerning, how will the Sens compete if their always-reliable, longstanding leader hits the skids?

Trending Up: G Pascal Leclaire

Last Season: - 9.6 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 0.7 GVT

Seriously, what is it with goalies in Ottawa? One year he is unbeatable and leading the Sens towards the Stanley Cup (paging Ray Emery), and the next year he is barely a notch above replacement level and spend the entire season on the bench.

Part of the problem is that it is tough to judge a goalie over a short amount of time. This is particularly true for the 12 games Leclaire played last year. Recently acquired from Columbus along with a second round pick in exchange for Antoine Vermette, the latest Senators stopper figures to play a lot more this season in Ottawa. The 26-year-old netminder has been too good recently to write off completely and could have an even bigger impact than his projection suggests.

Trending Down: RW Daniel Alfredsson

Last Season: + 15.2 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 11.3 GVT

Through all the ups and downs in Ottawa, Alfredsson has always been a steady contributor. But he's starting to fall off. Playing nine extra games than he did in 2007-08 covered up a huge production drop-off for the team's captain. 37-year-old scorers are a risky bunch as it is, and his power-play efficiency was down last season. VUKOTA sees a pedestrian season for him, with 62 points in 73 games.

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

Summer Skate: Montreal Canadiens

The Habs have had an interesting offseason so far. Two of their three best players from last year, Alexei Kovalev and Alex Tanguay, are gone. (Tanguay is unsigned, but the Canadiens have made it known he won't be back). The possibility of a reunion with Saku Koivu ended with his signing in Anaheim. The Canadiens responded to their losses with a blockbuster trade that brought Scott Gomez to the Bell Centre for a package headlined by Christopher Higgins, and added former Devil Brian Gionta and the ex-Flame Michael Cammalleri through free agency.

Changing the face of the franchise could help, but expect the Habs also to see some changes in production from some returning core players. And oh yeah, there's that lingering issue in the crease to address.

Trending Up: LW Andrei Kostitsyn

Last Season: + 3.2 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 7.4 GVT

Is Kostitsyn, the 10th overall selection in 2003, a scorer on the verge of a breakout season or just undisciplined and destined never to fulfill his potential? VUKOTA has no intangibles section, but it sees Andrei recovering enough to reproduce his season of two years ago (when he was 22) and crest the 20-goal plateau.

Trending Down: D Andrei Markov

Last Season: + 15.3 GVT | VUKOTA Projection: + 13.0 GVT

Markov, the recipient of a four-year deal in 2007, has hit a performance peak the past two years despite staying healthy, a skill that eluded him earlier in his career. As he hits age 31, VUKOTA projects no drop-off in skill. That's the good news. The bad? The system expects a return of the injuries that kept him out of the lineup nearly one in five games, with an expected 67.4 games played for next season.

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

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

Gabriel Desjardins is a contributor to Puck Prospectus and runs the statistical hockey site Behindthenet.ca. You can contact him at: info at behindthenet.ca.

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