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January 6, 2011
Howe and Why
Tim Thomas the Biggest Surprise So Far

by Robert Vollman

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Which players have been the biggest surprises and disappointments of the 2010-11 NHL season so far?

To answer that question, we'll compare each player's actual contributions to their preseason projections we calculated using the VUKOTA system. In order to compare all types of contributions, whether they're defensive, offensive or in the shootout, we'll use GVT, which allows us to compare everyone from stay-at-home defensemen to power forwards.

Goalies exceeding expectations

Goalie    	Team             	GVT	VUK	Diff
Tim Thomas	Boston Bruins    	26.3	4.8	21.5
Ondrej Pavelec	Atlanta Thrashers	17.5	-0.6	18.1
Jonathan Quick	Los Angeles Kings	17.9	2.1	15.8
Carey Price	Montreal Canadiens	14.3	1.6	12.7
Cam Ward	Carolina Hurricanes	13.0	3.3	9.7

Among active goalies who have faced at least 3000 shots since the lockout, Thomas entered the season with the third highest even-strength save percentage, so it's not necessarily a surprise that 2008-09's Vezina winner would be this year's best goalie. That said, his .949 save percentage is 16 points higher than his career high, when he finished tied for the second highest single-season save percentage in history, so it should definitely cool off a little in the second half.

The only surprise that can possibly compare is Atlanta's Ondrej Pavelec, whose save percentage jumped from a career best of .906 last season to .939 and whose goals-against average (1.96) dropped below 3.00 for the first time. While it's not unusual for players to break out at age 23, his .939 save percentage is far higher than the .912 he earned in the AHL. Normally a spike like that could be attributed to an overachieving blue line, but look how poorly Chris Mason has done between those very same red pipes. His save percentage is 16 points below his career average, and his goals-against average a full goal higher.

Goalies with disappointing performances

Goalie    	Team             	GVT	VUK	Diff
Martin Brodeur	New Jersey Devils	-8.1	4.0	-12.1
Chris Mason	Atlanta Thrashers	-4.1	4.0	-8.1
Craig Anderson	Colorado Avalanche	-2.1	5.9	8.0
Rick DiPietro	New York Islanders	-7.6	-0.2	-7.8
Ty Conklin	St. Louis Blues    	-5.0	2.2	-7.2

The biggest disappointment so far has been Martin Brodeur. Struggling with an elbow injury, behind a blue line where Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder have surprisingly failed to adequately replace Paul Martin and Mike Mottau, Brodeur is setting career lows in every category. Despite his age (38) there's just no way that the future Hall of Famer could get this bad this fast, so if he's healthy, he ought to enjoy a significant improvement under the defensive system that will no doubt be instituted by new coach Jacques Lemaire.

Skaters exceeding expectations

Skater    	Team             	GVT	VUK	Diff
D. Byfuglien	Atlanta Thrashers	11.0	2.7	8.3
Kris Letang	Pittsburgh Penguins	10.9	3.3	7.6
Logan Couture	San Jose Sharks    	8.1	1.0	7.1
Brian Boyle	New York Rangers	6.2	0.1	6.1
J-M Liles	Colorado Avalanche	8.6	2.5	6.1
Sidney Crosby	Pittsburgh Penguins	15.9	10.0	5.9
Steven Stamkos	Tampa Bay Lightning	13.3	7.6	5.7
Jordan Leopold	Buffalo Sabres    	6.9	1.7	5.2
Dustin Brown	Los Angeles Kings	9.4	4.2	5.2
Alex Tanguay	Calgary Flames    	7.5	2.4	5.1

While we've discovered in the past that a strong postseason can be a leading indicator of a break-out season, Dustin Byfuglien's 16-point playoff performance with Chicago didn't prepare us for this year, where he's already set a career high in single-season points at just the 38 game mark. Will it continue? As long as he continues to enjoy more than 22 minutes of top-line action per game (he averaged 16 on depth lines in Chicago), the 25-year-old could continue to make the most of his prime years.

On the other hand, Logan Couture, Brian Boyle and Dustin Brown are all enjoying awfully good shooting percentages around 15 percent -- a transient skill that has a tendency to evaporate over time. The exceptions, of course, are generational talents like Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby.

While Sid the Kid should continue to take Kris Letang along for the ride, from where is John-Michael Liles getting all his production? The 30-year-old is a perpetual minus player leading the team with a plus-11 and is already just two shy of last year's scoring total. In this case we can probably chalk Liles' exceptional performance up to an extra four minutes of ice time on a team capitalizing on 23 percent of power play opportunities with nine forwards are shooting near or above the 15 percent range. And the rest of the Avalanche isn't that far behind; when even players like Cody McLeod and Greg Mauldin are sniping at a 13 percent clip, you know a team is riding a hot streak.

Skaters with disappointing performances

Skater    	Team             	GVT	VUK	Diff
Ilya Kovalchuk	New Jersey Devils	0.1	5.8	-5.7
J. Pominville	Buffalo Sabres    	-0.6	4.6	-5.2
Kyle Quincey	Colorado Avalanche	-1.6	3.3	-4.9
David Clarkson	New Jersey Devils	-2.0	1.8	-3.8
Gilbert Brule	Edmonton Oilers    	-1.3	2.5	-3.8
Andrew Cogliano	Edmonton Oilers    	-1.8	2.0	-3.8
Chris Phillips	Ottawa Senators    	-0.9	2.8	-3.7
Eric Nystrom	Minnesota Wild    	-2.5	1.2	-3.7
Jay McClement            
St. Louis Blues	-1.1	2.5	-3.6
P. Hornqvist	Nashville Predators	1.0	4.6	-3.6

After signing one of the NHL's most lucrative contracts, Ilya Kovalchuk responded with just eight goals and a horrible minus-26 in his first 34 games. In total, Kovalchuk is 16 points off the pace VUKOTA expected of him, a total exceeded only by players nursing injuries. While it's hard to believe that Kovalchuk will actually fare better under a tight, defensive Jacques Lemaire system, Kovalchuk is just too talented a shooter to remain at a 7.9 shooting percentage. Expect him to see a lot more twine and far fewer posts the rest of the way.

While not featured on this list, the other big disappointment is in Washington. Of the six other players who have missed no more than five games and are at least 10 points short of their projections, three of them are Capitals: Mike Green (16), Alexander Ovechkin (13) and Nicklas Backstrom (11). Obviously this all boils down to Alexander the Great, who has "only" 13 goals and 41 points in 38 games. But there's not much cause for concern -- the 25-year-old Russian is still in his prime, one of the best players in the game and leading the league in shots for the sixth straight season. His bizarre 7.7 shooting percentage will return to normal in short order, and he could easily match even Crosby and Stamkos in second-half scoring.

A version of this story originally appeared on 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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