The Flyers could easily have taken a huge step backward in 2011-12 given the departure of franchise cornerstones Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, a career-threatening concussion to captain Chris Pronger and an unbelievably bad first half of the season by big-money signee Ilya Bryzgalov. Instead, Philadelphia got excellent contributions from pickups Jakub Voracek, Maxime Talbot and Jaromir Jagr and fantastic debut campaigns from youngsters Matt Read and Sean Couturier. For good measure, the Flyers were able to oust archrival Pittsburgh -- arguably the Cup favorites -- from the playoffs in a wild and woolly six-game series.
Trending up: G Ilya Bryzgalov
Last season: 0.6 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 2.9 GVT
Nine years, $51 million wasn't an advisable contract, period. And that's even if Bryzgalov had continued to produce as he had in Phoenix. We didn't think that would be the case, which is why we picked Bryzgalov as the Flyer to be trending down in our 2011 Summer Skate.
With last season's dodgy .909 save percentage, Bryzgalov has proved himself to be a coin flip at best to produce an above-average season (.920-.921 in 2007-08, 2009-10 and 2010-11) given more frequent below-average campaigns (.907-.910 in 2005-06, 2006-07, 2008-09 and 2011-12) since the 2004-05 lockout.
A disastrous .887 performance over 11 postseason contests didn't increase confidence in the Flyers' netminder. That said, Bryzgalov does have the track record of upside, so -- assuming there will be a season -- improvement is possible.
Not a great contract, though, is it?
Trending down: F Scott Hartnell
Last season: 16.5 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 9.4 GVT
Hartnell beat or tied career highs in goals (37), assists (30), points (67), plus/minus (plus-19), power-play goals (16), shots (232) and games played (82), and was within one second in ice time (17:47). As far as advanced metrics, he shattered his previous best GVT (12.7) and nearly doubled his second-best total (8.7).
But the stat you should focus on is Hartnell's 15.9 shooting percentage, well above his 11.4 career mark, which is almost certainly a sign of some favorable bounces as opposed to a newfound skill.
What, did you think that the 11-year NHL veteran was suddenly having a breakout season at age 29?
What's going in Hartnell's favor is an excellent track record of health, having played 80-plus games in each of the past five seasons and continued ice time with Claude Giroux, who can comfortably be considered one of the league's five best skaters.
The Penguins were dominant offensively last season, walloping the opposition for five-plus goals in more than a quarter of their games. At times, you would have thought it was the second coming of Wayne Gretzky's Oilers. In particular, after Sidney Crosby's return on March 15, the team averaged 4.5 goals per game in their final 13 contests, enough for Vegas to tab them as favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately, Pittsburgh couldn't keep pucks out of the net in their first-round matchup against the rival Flyers, with Marc-Andre Fleury leaking goals with just a .834 save percentage. In perhaps this summer's most underrated move, veteran Tomas Vokoun was brought in to share regular-season netminding duties and maybe the No. 1 job for the 2013 playoffs.
Trending up: C Sidney Crosby
Last season: 9.9 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 12.1 GVT
In 2010-11, Crosby recorded 32 goals, 34 assists, 66 points, plus-20, and 17.4 GVT, a nice season by most players' standards. Of course, when you consider that he did it in only 41 games, exactly half a season, you realize just how special it was, and what hockey has lost out on in the 101 games that Crosby has missed over the past two seasons. Prorated, Crosby's 34.8 GVT would have been among the 25 best by a skater of all time.
The fact is, a forward's peak years are on average at age 24 or age 25, and both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are right at that peak now. Given health -- obviously, a huge caveat with the Penguins' captain -- Crosby could easily put up a 25 or 30 GVT campaign for head coach Dan Bylsma in 2011-12. Our projection, which doesn't account for the exact nature of Crosby's injury, is based on 49 games played. You can hope for more or fear less, but it sounds reasonable given his recent struggles.
Trending down: F Pascal Dupuis
Last season: 19.2 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 10.5 GVT
We could have picked Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin here to inevitably regress from his incredible 33.5 GVT campaign, but as we've got him projected second overall among skaters (21.2 GVT), we'll pass as we're still expecting big things from the big Russian.
So we've decided to pick 33-year-old Pascal Dupuis, who's had the good fortune of playing on Crosby's wing for the past few seasons, and with possession monster Jordan Staal when the Penguins' captain has been out of the lineup. Like the Flyers' Scott Hartnell, Dupuis set career highs across the board in 2011-12: goals (25), assists (34), points (59), plus/minus (plus-18), shots (214), and shooting percentage (11.7). As a consequence, his GVT was more than double his previous best (9.4).
While we're still projecting Dupuis to have his second-best season ever, any combination of factors could take a big bite out of his value: diminishing production with age, a Crosby injury (with no Staal to play with in the interim), or less puck luck finding the twine.
New York Rangers
The Blueshirts made good on last year's VUKOTA projections that ranked them fourth in the NHL, finishing with the first seed in the East before bowing out of the playoffs in the conference finals. Anecdotally, the Rangers relied on the elite goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist (true) and loads of shot blocking (true, but way overblown) for their success, while falling short in the playoffs because of a lack of scoring (a bit simplistic).
The offseason cure was a trade for Columbus' Rick Nash, but solving a scoring problem in the NHL isn't always as easy as adding a sniper. The team embarks on its next campaign without three forwards who have taken on tough assignments and fared well in the possession game, Brandon Dubinsky, Brandon Prust and Artem Anisimov, without finding adequate replacements for them. The end result is that the Rangers may have fixed a couple leaks in the dyke while springing a few unexpected holes. But fortunately for the Blueshirts, their top four defensemen won't be one of those areas.
Trending up: D Marc Staal
Last season: minus-0.4 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 4.0 GVT
In 2009-10, Staal was a second-year player and only 22 years old, yet he was already one of the top-10 defensemen in the NHL by GVT. Called upon for all the tough defensive matchups -- such as shutting down Alex Ovechkin -- he was a legit No. 1 defenseman and formed an excellent shutdown duo with Dan Girardi throughout 2010-11.
Unfortunately, lingering effects of a February 2011 hit by brother Eric Staal of the Hurricanes knocked Marc out of nearly half of last season. When he returned, he was relegated to a third-pairing role, bumped completely off the power play, and even had a diminished penalty-killing role. Staal finally worked his way back to form by the playoffs and was a key contributor in the Rangers' run to the Eastern Conference finals, getting the third-most ice time despite not regaining his role on the man advantage.
The bottom line is that, even with the emergence of Ryan McDonagh, Staal is a top-flight defenseman when healthy. It's reasonable to expect Staal to blow away VUKOTA's expectations if he's fit to play. -- Seppa
Trending down: D Michael Del Zotto
Last season: 12.6 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 8.7 GVT
Del Zotto's early career has been full of ups and downs. He was involved in Calder Trophy talk in early 2009-10, before finishing minus-20 despite 37 points. That was followed by only 11 points and a replacement-level GVT during his sophomore campaign that included a trip back to the minors. And last season was a breakout in some respects, but with disturbing lapses in play that put him in head coach John Tortorella's doghouse on occasion.
Will Del Zotto become an elite point-producer from the blue line, perhaps the next Erik Karlsson? Or a third-pairing defenseman who gets some second-unit power-play time? MDZ certainly was considered a valuable enough asset to end up off limits in the Rick Nash deal, but he has proven to be hit-and-miss offensively in his three NHL seasons, and has had only one ostensibly solid season on defense. With Staal regaining some of the top responsibilities, it's likely that Del Zotto's prime minutes will decrease unless he keeps the quality high.
New Jersey Devils
When looking back on the Stanley Cup winning Los Angeles Kings, it's popular to mention their improved performance over the latter portions of the regular season. But in fact, the Devils played even better. New Jersey flew under the radar despite putting up a better goal differential over both the second half of the season and final third of the season than the surging Kings.
That said, the postseason could have played out very differently for the Devils -- for instance, if they had lost their seven-game opening round series with Florida. Now, the bar may be set too high. Realistically, last season's fourth place team in the Atlantic Division -- now without their best all-around player Zach Parise -- may well end up right in the same exact spot, maybe in or maybe out of the playoffs.
Trending up: C Travis Zajac
Last season: 1.2 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 4.7 GVT
Before a knee injury knocked Parise out for the majority of 2010-11 and an Achilles injury sidelined Zajac for most of 2011-12, the dynamic duo were arguably the best pair of two-way forwards in the NHL, scoring well over 2.0 even strength points per 60 minutes while putting up double digit Relative Corsi figures, meaning they were badly outshooting opponents when they were on the ice. Team success followed personal success, as the Devils put up 106 and 103 points in those years, finishing first in the Atlantic Division both times.
Zajac managed to score 14 points in 24 playoff games, a good sign that he has returned to form. Heading into his age-27 season, a slight decline might be around the corner, but shouldn't have much effect yet. Assuming that the Achilles injury hasn't taken a notch out of his speed and mobility, a return to near his form of a couple seasons ago can be expected -- exceeding our conservative projection.
Trending down: RW Ilya Kovalchuk
Last season: 22.8 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 12.8 GVT
After his first full season with the Devils, Kovalchuk was considered at least a moderate bust given his skills, reputation and long-term contract. What a difference a year makes. The Russian winger finished fourth among skaters in GVT, behind Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, Hart Trophy nominee Steven Stamkos, and Hart Trophy snub Claude Giroux.
That said, a big portion of Kovalchuk's value (5.2 GVT) came from a newfound shootout skill -- he set a record for most shootout goals in a season, going 11 for 14. But can anything close to that 78.6 percent rate persist? Consider that prior to last season, Kovalchuk had scored 11 career shootout goals ... in 42 attempts. It might be easy come, and easy go.
New York Islanders
Though New York is getting big contributions from young veterans like John Tavares and Travis Hamonic, Islanders fans are growing impatient waiting for the part of the rebuild where a wealth of prospects actually plays on their NHL team and not on some junior team they've never heard of. It's one thing to lose with youngsters that are going through the growing pains of figuring out how to play with the big boys, and another to be watching another lost campaign with the likes of Steve Staios, Brian Rolston, Marty Reasoner, Milan Jurcina, Mark Eaton, and Mike Mottau filling half the roster while literally providing sub-replacement-level play.
The Islanders went into this offseason looking for a top-four defenseman to go along with Hamonic, Mark Streit and Andrew MacDonald after missing out on Christian Ehrhoff last summer, while they hope that top prospects like 2011 fifth overall pick Ryan Strome step in to major roles on the team.
Trending up: D Lubomir Visnovsky
Last season: 7.0 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 8.2 GVT
While New York does a surprisingly good job of re-signing their own talent -- like Tavares, Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, and Frans Nielsen -- to multiyear contracts at reasonable cap hits, getting new talent to come to the Island seems nearly impossible. Consider Ehrhoff's reluctance to sign with the Islanders after they traded for his rights, Evgeni Nabokov's refusal to join New York after his waiver claim and Visnovsky's attempts to nullify his trade from Anaheim. For just this reason, trading for a top-four defenseman appeared to be the right approach for the Isles, because it ostensibly takes the player's preferences out of the equation.
While taking a huge step backwards from a 68-point campaign worth a whopping 19.2 GVT in 2010-11, it's reasonable for the Islanders to expect the 36-year-old Visnovsky to hang on for one more solid campaign, which is the remaining term left on his contract. The Slovakian blueliner's 5.4 shooting percentage in 2011-12 was considerably below his 8.7 percent career mark, and his power play production suffered from poor 8.6 percent shooting by his teammates while he was on the ice. Look for some of those percentages to bounce back for a more productive for Visnovsky on Long Island.
Trending down: LW Matt Moulson
Last season: 15.7 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 10.5 GVT
We've gone through a couple seasons of people wondering if Moulson was for real after breaking out at the late age of 26. Prior to that first season in New York, Moulson only had 10 points to show for 29 career games with the Kings. But his counting stats have only kept getting better, as he has set career highs in goals, assists and points in each of the past three seasons.
Make no mistake about it: Moulson's a finisher. Though it's true that his 16.4 shooting percentage was higher than his career average, it wasn't by much. His median is a quite high 14.6, with a respectable 13.1 percent in 2010-11 being the low water mark. That said, Moulson isn't likely to get much better than he is now, and you wouldn't expect any further bump as a side benefit of Tavares' improvement anymore.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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