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October 6, 2009
Inside The VUKOTA Projections
Even Strength Play

by Richard Pollock

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One glance at the weight assigned to the five-on-five category in ESPN The Magazine's upcoming NHL projections will tell you how important it is for teams to excel at even strength. But allow us to briefly reinforce that point by telling you that the top 10 teams in even-strength goal ratio all made the playoffs last season. Only two teams in the bottom third of that category reached the postseason, and both were eliminated in the first round.

That finding bodes well for the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, the top three five-on-five teams in our projections. Although all three flourish in this category, each team achieves its results differently.

Chicago and Boston feature deep, well-balanced teams. The Blackhawks have a solid attack with the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa up front and even-strength point producers Dave Bolland, Andrew Ladd and Patrick Sharp rounding out the five-on-five top performers. The same goes for Boston, as the Bruins boast three lines that can score anytime. In addition, Boston has puck-moving defensemen such as Dennis Wideman, Matt Hunwick and Zdeno Chara.

VUKOTA projections for those teams feature a large number of players recording 40 or more points during the 2009-10 season, with the Blackhawks led by Kane's projected 77-point campaign. The Penguins, on the other hand, achieve their dominance through their two superstars. Although Pittsburgh is not as deep as the other aforementioned teams, Sidney Crosby (VUKOTA: 108 points in 2009-10) and Evgeni Malkin (VUKOTA: 119 points) produce at incredible even-strength levels. As you can see by their projections, both Crosby and Malkin account for the production of a player like Kane and a second 40-point producer. So although there are other respectable even-strength players on the Pens, their offense, unlike Chicago's and Boston's, is centered on two superstars.

The projections did produce some curious results, with the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues projecting near the bottom of the league in five-on-five play.

Those results could catch some off guard; understandably so, as both teams boast a fair number of talented forwards and defensemen and are considered potential playoff teams.

The source of the lowly projections is their previous performance. Although the Blues made the playoffs last season, they finished 21st in the league in five-on-five goal differential. Part of that shortcoming may be the result of playing three of the top seven five-on-five teams six times each last season -- the Detroit Red Wings (No. 4), Chicago Blackhawks (No. 5) and Columbus Blue Jackets (No. 7). So perhaps the Blues' ranking reflects their strength of schedule more than any particular deficiency at even strength.

St. Louis may be listed quite low on our scale, but do not let that fool you. With the full-time returns of Paul Kariya and Andy McDonald plus the more significant return of former first overall draft pick Erik Johnson (who was not included in the projections because of a lack of sufficient data), the Blues could exceed the team's low even-strength projection.

Meanwhile, the Kings finished 28th in five-on-five goal differential last season. With a roster full of young players on the rise, such as Anze Kopitar (VUKOTA: 60 points) and Dustin Brown (56 points), this team certainly could exceed projections, which are based largely on L.A.'s previous poor play. But although the Kings have a talented roster, there is no statistical evidence from the recent past to suggest a breakout in 2009-10.

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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