After a turbulent season during which the Capitals fired their longtime foul-mouthed coach, Bruce Boudreau, and replaced him with longtime Cap Dale Hunter, Alex Ovechkin & Co. managed to sneak their way back into the playoff picture and into the second round, after upsetting the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in the first round. Now coached by Hall of Famer Adam Oates, the Caps should be eager to prove that they are closer to the team that beat Boston in the first round than the one that limped along for most of last season. A less divisive season should help them in that goal.
Trending up: G Braden Holtby
Last season: 1.4 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 4.2
Holtby has not yet secured the starting job for the Caps in net, and his main competition, Michal Neuvirth, apparently does not think much of him, but VUKOTA is head-over-heels in love with the big guy from Saskatchewan. Looking past the raw projected GVT total above, we can also see that VUKOTA has projected only a hair under 25 games played for Holtby. As such, on a per-game basis, VUKOTA has Holtby as the ninth most valuable goaltender in the NHL next season, ahead of such luminaries as Cam Ward, Roberto Luongo, Jaroslav Halak and Jimmy Howard, among others, not to mention the aforementioned Neuvirth.
If Holtby is given the reins, we can expect him to challenge for an All-Star berth. After outdueling Tim Thomas in the first round last year, and playing Henrik Lundqvist to a standstill in the second round, the only question remaining for the former fourth-rounder is if he can keep it up over a full season. That said, even if given a partial time-share with Neuvirth, expect Holtby to end the season as the undisputed No. 1.
Trending down: C Mathieu Perreault
Last season: 6.9 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 4.6 GVT
Although a major scorer as a junior in Quebec, and a significant producer with Hershey in the AHL, former sixth-rounder Perreault was not counted on to be a big points producer in the NHL. So his ability to produce at a top-six level across parts of two seasons and then over a full season in 2011-12, in spite of third-line minutes, has certainly been a pleasant surprise for the Caps. While the historical evidence points to a player with somewhat of a Midas touch around the net, there is not a single player in the league who should ever be expected to score on more than a quarter of his shots, as Perreault did last season, scoring 16 times in just 60 attempts.
Had he taken enough shots to be considered, last season's mark would have ranked 20th in NHL history. Beyond that expected regression, Perreault will have to find new chemistry with new linemates, as his most constant companion from last season, Alex Semin, has gone to play for Carolina. Finally, with Mike Ribeiro now on the team, Perreault will require an injury to a teammate to get more than fourth-line minutes once again.
In only the second year of a rebuild under GM Dale Tallon, the Panthers rode lucky performances in close games -- and a down year by the Washington Capitals -- to a berth in the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, as the winners of the Southeast Division. With power-play ace Jason Garrison gone to Vancouver, even a stellar season by replacement Filip Kuba will leave the Panthers hard-pressed to repeat atop the division. And frankly, even if the oft-rumored trade for Roberto Luongo takes place, the Panthers still look like long shots to repeat.
Trending up: F Sean Bergenheim
Last season: 2.4 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 5.8
Signed by the Panthers to a big contract after scoring nine playoff goals as division rival Tampa Bay made the Eastern Conference finals in the 2011 playoffs, Bergenheim showed some of the ability that earned him the raise. His 17 goals were the most on the team after the big line of Weiss-Versteeg-Fleischmann. However, with only six assists, the Finnish veteran was only 11th on the team in points.
VUKOTA sees Bergenheim's production as due for an increase to better match his salary. The versatile left winger is trusted in tight spots at even strength and on both special-teams units and should maintain a steady role on the Panthers' second line. That accounts for the defensive portion of his GVT. Offensively speaking, the man is due for a change in his luck. While he was able to put the puck in the net, his linemates were unable to comply, as the Panthers scored on only 6.5 percent of their shots while he was on the ice. A rebound to league average -- which might be helped if he can play with top prospect Jonathan Huberdeau -- will see Bergenheim's assist total double, if not increase even more.
Trending down: D Filip Kuba
Last season: 9.2 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 5.3 GVT
Brought on as the ostensible replacement for the departed Jason Garrison, Kuba is coming off a great renaissance season in which he partnered with Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson in Ottawa. Staying relatively healthy, at age 35, Kuba had his most productive offensive season in three campaigns.
Unfortunately for him (and the Panthers) Karlsson did not follow Kuba to Florida. Now slated to pair up with youngster Dmitry Kulikov, Kuba's puck luck should be coming to an end. Although still a useful player when healthy, we should expect the lesser skills of his new teammates to combine with some age-related ill health and bring about a reduction in his production going forward.
Only four teams had a greater difference between their success at home and their success on the road than Winnipeg last season. With the thunderous support of a revitalized fan base in the 'Peg, the Jets were an above-average home team in 2011-12, yet they could not manage to take that rate of success with them on their travels.
Although there was hope that the Jets could be relocated to a more geographically suitable division in time for the upcoming season, the matter was put on hold when the NHLPA kiboshed the league's suggestion. The issue may be a part of the ongoing CBA negotiations, but in the meantime, Claude Noel's Jets return largely intact, looking to take the next step after a fairly surprising first season following their relocation from Atlanta.
Trending up: F Bryan Little
Last season: 6.6 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 7.6
While the Jets as a team suffered from subpar netminding last season, few felt that burden more than Little, as Jets goalies stopped only 89.9 percent of even-strength shots while he was on the ice, well below the league average and a fair bit below their own regular rate of mediocrity. The end result, while of little effect to his points total, caused his plus/minus to invert, from plus-11 to minus-11.
Despite the drop in surface stats, Little has been one of the most reliable all-around forwards on the roster, playing on the first line at even strength as well as taking regular shifts on both special-teams units. Assuming the Little-Ladd-Wheeler line stays together, expect the former 12th overall pick to begin to truly live up to his potential as a bona fide top-six NHL forward in his age 25 season.
Trending down: F Kyle Wellwood
Last season: 9.7 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 6.7 GVT
Last year, at the age of 28, Wellwood set a new career high in scoring with 47 points. His 18 goals tied for his career best, previously accomplished in 2008-09 when he played in Vancouver. As with that previous high scoring season (in relative terms, of course), the feat was managed on the back of an unsustainable shooting percentage of more than 19 percent. Outside of those two seasons, Wellwood has never topped 14.3 percent shooting, which is in line with his career rate.
While VUKOTA can foresee the regression in Wellwood's offensive numbers, the fact he was given relatively easy shifts to begin with last season -- often starting in the opposition's end, while facing weaker defenders -- tells us that his opportunities to produce were maxed out. Should Noel want to gift some of those easier assignments to Wellwood's younger, more promising teammates, we should expect a further decline in his numbers.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Unable to repeat their team-wide heroics from the previous season, Tampa Bay endured a miserable 2011-12, with a porous backline unable to complement another stellar campaign by superstar Steven Stamkos. Dwayne Roloson, one of the heroes of the previous year, finally showed his age (42) and put together the worst season of any player in the NHL as measured by GVT (minus-22). No one else was particularly close to that dubious mark.
If the Bolts only replaced Roloson with adequacy, the Lightning should be able to gain a few points in the standings. That said, more will need to break right for Stevie Y's team for a return trip to the playoffs.
Trending up: D Victor Hedman
Last season: 4.7 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 5.9
Plagued by a series of injuries, including a concussion that cost him 13 games around midseason, the third year pro Hedman nonetheless showed signs of coming into his own. Playing mostly with seasoned veteran Eric Brewer, the 2009 second overall pick showed that he was capable of eating big minutes at even strength, while also spearheading the penalty kill and chipping in with the man advantage.
With improved health and steadier netminding behind him, Hedman might even surpass VUKOTA's expectations. Further, with the additions of Sami Salo and Matt Carle to the Lightning blue line, the heavy lifting may now be more equitably shared, leaving Hedman with more room to explore his offensive potential. If he can be prompted into taking more than one shot per game on net, we may see his point totals explode. -- Wagman
Trending down: F Teddy Purcell
Last season: 14.5 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 10.8 GVT
With Purcell and Martin St. Louis, the Lightning last year had the rare distinction of having two undrafted forwards skating regularly on the top line. Although St. Louis has proven himself time and again that he can maintain an elite scoring pace in the NHL, last year was the first truly above average season in Purcell's career.
Purcell had a lot going for him last season that cannot be expected to continue. For one thing, his shooting percentage of 15.8 percent was more than double his previous career mark of 7.5 percent. Furthermore, coach Guy Boucher nearly maximized the cushiness of Purcell's assignments and any added difficulty -- tougher opponents, more defensive shifts -- are bound to affect his productivity. Not that Purcell is not a useful player, but we would be safer expecting a return to the 50-point mark he displayed in 2010-11 than last year's 65 points.
Although often a team with a lot of good pieces, the Hurricanes have not been able to jell, with only one postseason appearance since winning the first post-lockout Cup in 2005-06. Captain Eric Staal and goaltender Cam Ward are two of the three players remaining from that team (joined by Chad LaRose), and the men who have replaced the erstwhile champions largely have disappointed in the past five seasons.
To that end, general manager Jim Rutherford oversaw a change of direction this offseason, most notably by trading for Eric's younger brother Jordan from Pittsburgh, while signing Alexander Semin from their division rival in Washington.
With improved team-wide health and some growth by some of the team's younger members, the Hurricanes look to return to the promised land of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Trending up: F Jeff Skinner
Last season: 7.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 13.1
With a concussion costing the sophomore sniper 20 percent of his season, Skinner also failed to live up to the promise he showed during his historic rookie campaign. Although his points-per-game pace was steady year-over-year (prorating his scoring across the full 82 games showed Skinner would have ended last season with only seven fewer points than his rookie season), Skinner also was given a greater chance to succeed offensively last year, opportunities that he failed to take full advantage of.
Increasing his time in the offensive zone and his even-strength and power-play ice time while also playing against weaker competition, Skinner should have had an increased points total. What went wrong, however, was a decline in his sniping skills. His shooting percentage dropped by a third (from 14.4 percent to 9.5 percent), especially after he returned from his injury.
Concussions are tricky like that. A player might be well enough to play without significant risk of recurrence, but the reflexes can sometimes take a little bit longer to return to their original state. VUKOTA expects Skinner to snipe again, and there is no reason to doubt it. The addition of Jordan Staal and Semin to the roster also should help in ensuring the Kitchener native always has skilled teammates to play with.
Trending down: F Jiri Tlusty
Last season: 6.9 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 5.5 GVT
Last year, playing as a 23-year-old, the shifty Tlusty nearly doubled his career scoring total with 36 points in 79 games playing alongside Eric Staal.
Although pinpointing the still young Tlusty for a drop in numbers, this is not to say that he lacks the skills to produce, or that last season was a fluke, as his shooting percentage was not much different from his career rate. Nor was his ice time especially geared for success, playing against tough competition and getting more than his share of defensive shifts. Rather, Tlusty likely will regress closer to his career production rates as the additions of Jordan Staal and Semin will cut into available ice time for offensive forwards, moving him from a potential unjustified top-line skater to more of a third-line role. A good third liner, but a third liner nonetheless.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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