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January 20, 2010
Illegal Curve
Busting Out?

by Richard Pollock

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Heading into the season, Puck Prospectus brought you VUKOTA projections. Obviously no projection list is foolproof, but there were a number of notable players on VUKOTA’s list that many other hockey analysts expected to have big seasons. Certain players, however, have not lived up to those expectations so far in 2009-10. As a result, today we will look at why some players have struggled so much this season and whether those struggles are: a) actually as bad as some people think, and b) whether these player’s respective struggles should or should not continue moving forward.

Here are four players who have not lived up to expectations so far this season:

1) Jason Spezza—Projected 30 goals, 44 assists, 74 points, 13.5 GVT

Prior to his injury, Spezza looked lost without Dany Heatley riding shotgun on the top line. Make no mistake, Spezza is a pass-first player, and the loss of Heatley hurt, but his five goals in 30 games this season is just horrible. Coming into this season, Spezza averaged one goal for every 0.37 games played over the course of his career; this year, the big center is averaging only 0.16 goals per game.

Why is that? Well, coming into this season, Spezza averaged 2.42 shots on goal per game, yet this season, Spezza was averaging 2.6 shots per game. So shots on goal have not been an issue—and you have to believe when he returns that his shooting percentage will move back towards his career average of over 14 percent (this season his shooting percentage sits at just over six percent).

In reality Spezza, when healthy, has played most of his even strength shifts with Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson, so Spezza’s quality of linemates has not been much of an issue. The fact is that Spezza has had trouble adjusting to playing without a gifted sniper like Heatley, and that adjustment has seemingly been coupled with a number of bad bounces. Look for Spezza to tear it up once he returns to the lineup.

2) Brad Boyes—Projected 30 goals, 35 assists, 60 points, 11.4 GVT

First off, who has not been a bust in St. Louis? Boyes is actually the team’s leading point producer with nine goals and 23 assists in 48 games. While he is on pace for just over 52 points this season, Boyes is only on pace for a paltry 15 goals. That is especially important because the 27-year-old Boyes scored 33 goals in 2008-09 and 43 goals the season prior.

So what is wrong with Brad Boyes? Similar to Jason Spezza, Boyes is suffering from his worst career shooting percentage, sitting at 7.6 percent this season, while his career average is 13.8 percent. Additionally, Boyes had a career shots on goal per game of 2.48 heading into this season, and he has posted an almost identical total so far this season—2.45 shots per game.

Some may argue that Boyes has seen too many different linemates to develop necessary chemistry with his teammates. While that may be a factor, Boyes played with a myriad of different linemates last season too. Boyes really just had a difficult first of the season; he remains the Blues’ leading point producer per 60 minutes of even strength ice time and should increase his goal total over the second half of the season.

3) Alexander Frolov—Projected 27 goals, 33 assists, 60 points, 11.6 GVT

Frolov is the lightning rod for criticism in Los Angeles. Fans, analysts, coaches, and management have grown fed up with the Russian winger at one time or another this season. One camp says that Frolov hasn’t reached his potential and could be a perennial 35 goal scorer if he stopped exhibiting lazy tendencies on the ice. The other camp says that Frolov “is what he is” and can provide a team with 20+ goals, solid defensive play, and good even-strength production. This season, Frolov has scored only 11 times, but he has added 19 assists.

Before analyzing why Frolov has struggled, let’s first establish that Frolov is in a contract year, as he is an impending UFA (unrestricted free agent) this summer. So, his harshest critics cannot start spouting off that Frolov only plays in his walking year, etc.

Prior to this season, Frolov averaged 2.2 shots per game, while this season, he has averaged 2.4 shots per game. So, his shots on goal are just above course for his career. Again, just like the two players listed above, Frolov is enjoying the worst shooting percentage total of his career so far this season, as he sits at 9.7 percent.

What about playing time? Well, Frolov has played 19:05 minutes per game this season, down from 19:55 minutes last year. However, in the 2009-10 campaign, Frolov is playing 2:25 minutes per game on the power play, compared to 3:23 minutes on the power play last season. As you can see, not only is Frolov’s overall ice time down, but so is his power play ice time.

In actuality, Frolov has actually been better at even strength this season (2.05 points per 60 minutes of even strength ice time) than he was last season (1.62 points per game per 60 minutes). When taking into account that Frolov has played the majority of his games alongside defensive center Michal Handzus, he actually has not been as bad as some have thought. While it is likely that Frolov is playing his final games for the Kings in the remaining half season, he could be a very useful winger for a number of teams next year.

4) Bryan Little—Projected 27 goals, 24 assists, 51 points, 7.5 GVT

Last year was supposed to be Bryan Little’s breakout season. The Edmonton native tallied 31 goals and became a go-to scorer on an offensively talented club. What has gone wrong this season? In a word—everything.

Little is the ninth-leading scorer... on the Atlanta Thrashers. Players like Colby Armstrong, rookie Evander Kane, and defenseman Zach Bogosian have more goals this season than the talented Little. To those who think Little may have been a one-hit wonder with his offense last season, keep in mind that he was a 100-point producer in the OHL on two occasions and has demonstrated tremendous stick handling ability, shooting ability, and hockey sense.

The most befuddling part of Little’s struggles has been the fact that he has played extensively with point-producing forwards. The linemates he has played with most have been Slava Kozlov and Todd White, and it may be no surprise that all three players are having down seasons. Obviously Little’s 6.8 percent shooting percentage, compared to an extremely high 18 percent shooting percentage last season, has been a big reason for his troubles.

What about ice time? The former Barrie Colts forward has played 15:37 minutes per game total and 2:51 minutes on the power play per game. Last season, Little was playing 16:55 minutes per game total but, more importantly, he played 4:00 minutes per game on the power play. So, not only is Little’s overall ice time down, but so is his power play ice time. Furthermore, he tallied 3.42 points per 60 minutes on the power play last season and has a terrible 1.90 points per 60 minutes of power play ice time this season.

This is an interesting issue for Atlanta management because clearly Little has lost some playing time to free-agent signings such as Maxim Afinogenov. Afinogenov himself has been quite good, but what if he bolts for another team in the offseason— possibly following Ilya Kovalchuk out the door? If that is the case, then Little’s development may have been slowed at the expense of playing time for older players who may not even be around Atlanta for very much longer.

The statistics may not kind to Little, but the youngster still has the potential to turn it around in Atlanta. Maybe that begins this season with the trading of some veteran players, or maybe he turns it around under the current circumstances. One thing is for sure, if you cannot succeed offensively in Atlanta, you will probably have trouble succeeding offensively anywhere in the NHL.

**Thanks to Behind the Net and Dobber Hockey for some of the utilized statistics and information used above**

Richard Pollock is Editor for the hockey website Illegal Curve.

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