Summer Skate Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings are a great but aging team, losing veterans Chris Osgood, Brian Rafalski, Kris Draper and possibly Mike Modano to retirement this year. They are led by their remaining veteran talent such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Detroit has one of the league's best minor league systems of prospects, and great opportunities will soon become available for young players, given the age of many players on Red Wings' roster.
Trending Up: D Jakub Kindl
Last season: Minus-0.8 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 1.1 GVT
With the retirement of Rafalski and Lidstrom likely to hang it up soon, there's room on the blue line for young defensemen such as Brendan Smith or Jakub Kindl. Kindl likely will begin the season at No. 7 on the depth chart with the arrival of Ian White and Mike Commodore. Despite having led Peter DeBoer's OHL Kitchener Rangers defensemen in scoring two years in a row, then placed second among AHL Griffins defensemen with back-to-back 33-point seasons, the 24-year-old Czech managed just four points in 48 games while averaging just 13.5 minutes per game last year with the Wings. This year, expect Kindl to continue chipping his way up the depth chart, with a modest but noticeable contribution from the third pairing.
Trending Down: D Nicklas Lidstrom
Last season: 16.1 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 11.0 GVT
We're not saying Lidstrom is an ageless cyborg, but word has it that Detroit scouts first discovered him when he emerged from a ball of energy looking for Sarah Connor. With Lidstrom having won the Norris Trophy at age 40, Detroit risks arousing Skynet's suspicion if he actually trends up from here. Instead, the Wings likely will add a few more gray hairs to the LidstromBot 2000, program him to manage one more strong 40-point season, then send his components back to the factory to be repackaged into a new prospect.
Name to know: D Brendan Smith
Smith had a successful first professional season in Grand Rapids of the AHL, and if it weren't for a midseason injury, he would have made an appearance at the AHL All-Star Game. Smith's primary value comes from his offensive game, and he's in the upper tier of the prospect world in terms of offensive upside from the back end. After obliterating the WCHA with 15 goals and 52 points in 42 games while with the University of Wisconsin in 2009-10, he put up a very respectable 12 goals and 32 points in 63 AHL games this season. He's a dynamic skater and puck handler who can create a scoring chance on any given shift thanks to his natural abilities. Smith is exciting to watch, although sometimes he tries to do too much offensively. Curbing some bad habits on that front would address the only current major issue with Smith. The 22-year-old, who was the Red Wings' first-round pick in 2007, is knocking on the door to be an NHL regular, and, with Rafalski gone, that door might open sooner rather than later.
Summer Skate Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks ran into some bad luck coming off their Stanley Cup-winning season, losing many close games in 2010-11. That trend continued in the postseason, as they lost in seven games to the powerhouse that was the Vancouver Canucks in the first round despite outscoring them. This offseason the Blackhawks dealt Brian Campbell to Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon -- the one who gave Campbell his outrageous contract in Chicago in the first place -- to free up cap space and keep players like Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp. The Blackhawks were then forced to retool their depth lines with even less cap space than last year, which leaves Chicago's fate even more dependent on the play of its big stars than last year. Fortunately for the Hawks, one of their biggest stars still seems to be on the rise.
Trending Up: D Duncan Keith
Last season: 10.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 12.0 GVT
Last season we pegged Keith as the team's "trending down" pick, and he fell even further than we projected. That leaves us comfortable in predicting a bounce-back season from the 2009-10 Norris Trophy winner. Although Keith is unlikely to return all the way to the 14-goal, 69-point level, he'll be good for up to 50 points and some Norris trophy votes.
Trending Down: C Jonathan Toews
Last Season: 20.8 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 14.6 GVT
Jonathan Toews was one of the few Blackhawks stars to continue rising last season, leaving him overdue to come crashing down to Earth in 2011-12. The youngster can't be expected to continue to kill penalties, work the power play and handle the tough two-way, top-line even-strength minutes with a dwindling supporting cast while increasing his production each season. Coach Joel Quenneville will have to focus Toews in a key role or watch him finally slow down.
Name to know: C Marcus Kruger
Kruger has developed very well in Sweden and has quickly become the top prospect in an elite Chicago system. He didn't match the point-per-game scoring rate he had put up in the Swedish Elitserien as a 19-year-old in 2009-10, but his 35 points in 52 games in 2010-11 were the best on a Djurgarden club that really lacked top scoring talent. Kruger also got a small taste of NHL action toward the end of the season -- albeit with limited ice time -- playing in seven regular-season matches and five playoff games.
Kruger is a very skilled player and gets regular praise within the industry for his top-level hockey sense. He's a gifted possession player who can create a lot of offense and plays a gritty two-way game. He's still young and his body is about where you'd expect a 21-year-old to be physically, if not a little behind. If Kruger enters camp with a little more muscle and is ready to log a full NHL season from a physical standpoint, look out for him next year.
Summer Skate St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues began the 2010-11 season in first place, but before long they were devastated by injuries and found themselves once again on the outside looking in. They finished the season on a strong note, thanks to a big offensive upgrade from acquiring Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk from the Colorado Avalanche, and they picked up some needed veteran depth in the offseason, adding Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner. It's time for the Blues to finally realize their potential and make a long-overdue return appearance to the NHL playoffs.
Trending Up: RW Jamie Langenbrunner
Last season: -0.4 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 1.7 GVT
Since the lockout, Langenbrunner has averaged almost 20 goals and 55 points, topping out at 29 goals and 69 points and plus-25 in 2008-09. Two years later, he managed just nine goals and 32 points, and he dropped to a career-worst minus-18. A change in role and scenery is just what Langenbrunner needs to reverse this trend and potentially end his great career on a high note. The pressure is off in St. Louis, as the Olympic silver medalist and two-time Stanley Cup champion will be called on to provide only secondary scoring and veteran leadership for the tremendous young talent he'll be playing alongside.
Trending Down: C Andy McDonald
Last season: 14.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 8.9 GVT
Injuries have caught up to McDonald -- one of the few Blues older than 30 at the end of last season -- and this might be the season when he finally slows down. McDonald is coming off a strong 20-goal, 50-point, plus-18 season despite playing just 58 games and averaging 20 minutes per game. Barring perfect health, McDonald, now 34, is unlikely to reach those levels again this season.
Name to know: LW Evgeny Grachev
After scoring 40 goals and 80 points in 60 OHL games in 2008-09 as an 18-year-old, Grachev's prospect stock skyrocketed, and he was the kind of player who had people wondering not whether he would play but just how good he would be. Two underwhelming AHL seasons later, expectations have been reduced for Grachev, who requested a trade from the New York Rangers and was dealt to the Blues on the draft floor this past June.
There's still a fair amount to like with Grachev's game, though. He's a 6-foot-4, 222-pound forward who can skate at a fine level, is a hard worker and certainly projects, at the moment, to be a good third-line player. He has some offensive upside, but it doesn't look as if that will be his game. Instead, he likely can be a big-body power winger who can play good defense and chip in some offense. Grachev likely has hit his ceiling, and he could play on St. Louis' bottom six this season.
Summer Skate Columbus Blue Jackets
Tired of missing the postseason -- as they have for all but one of their 10 seasons -- the Blue Jackets signed the puck-moving defenseman and Rick Nash-linemate they've always needed in James Wisniewski as well as getting Jeff Carter. If the new acquisitions click and Steve Mason returns to rookie form, the Blue Jackets could be a surprise playoff team.
Trending Up: D Kris Russell
Last season: 3.1 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 4.8 GVT
Generally playing carefully sheltered, offensive-minded minutes, Kris Russell may be the defenseman who benefits most from the arrival of power play specialist Wisniewski. Supported by his newly acquired twin brother Ryan and now 24 years old, this could be the breakout year when Kris surpasses his usual 21-23 point seasons and produces closer to his highly decorated stint with the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers. There he led all Tiger defensemen in scoring three seasons in a row.
Trending Down: C Jeff Carter
Last season: 16.6 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 13.8 GVT
Given his career highs of 46 goals and 84 points in 2008-09, why project Carter to drop from 36 goals, 66 points and plus-27 in his first season as a Blue Jacket? How can he suffer while playing alongside Vaclav Prospal, Nash and Wisniewski? Answer that by considering what happened to the other star forwards acquired since the lockout: Sergei Fedorov, Anson Carter, Kristian Huselius, R.J. Umberger and Fredrik Modin. Playing in the challenging Central division with an underpowered supporting cast led to an average drop in points from 58 to 43 for those players. Something similar could happen this year to Carter.
Name to know: C Ryan Johansen
It wasn't that long ago when Johansen was a prospect who some thought might go undrafted. A massive growth spurt and many dominant performances later, the fourth overall pick from the 2010 draft has quickly established himself as one of the elite and most complete prospects in hockey.
He's commonly referred to as a jack-of-all-trades type who can skate, stickhandle, pass and shoot at an above-average level. He couples those abilities with a tremendous frame, a good physical game and excellent defensive work.
Johansen isn't a guarantee to break camp with Columbus, but it would be surprising if he didn't. Aside from just bulking up and improving his strength and conditioning -- something all 19-year-old prospects have to do -- there isn't a major reason why he can't be a sufficient NHL player next year. He might have to start on the bottom six, but make no mistake, Johansen is a top-line talent and it shouldn't be long before he's entrenched on a Blue Jackets scoring line.
Summer Skate Nashville Predators
The Nashville Predators had a great season, finishing second in the tough Central division with 99 points and advancing out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Unfortunately they just don't have the funds to keep their key players, let alone attract the ones required to follow up on last year's success. This offseason the Predators bled players like Steve Sullivan, Marcel Goc, Joel Ward, Cody Franson, Matthew Lombardi, J.P. Dumont and Shane O'Brien. Nashville's fate is in the hands of star goalie Pekka Rinne and top defensive pairing Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
Trending Up: C Mike Fisher
Last season: 2.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 4.7 GVT
Having given up first- and third-round picks to take on his huge contract, Nashville expects much more of Mike Fisher this year than what he achieved through last year's injury-riddled campaign. Fisher is a great character guy and a leader who will work hard to bounce back this year, and even the stone-cold objective mind of VUKOTA is projecting him to succeed. Unfortunately, even with a big improvement Fisher will still finish well short of earning that $4 million contract.
Trending Down: LW Sergei Kostitsyn
Last season: 8.5 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 6.0 GVT
The Montreal castoff surprised everyone by leading the Predators in goals (23) and points (50) last year thanks to a league-high shooting percentage of 24.7, up from 11.9 percent the previous season. Studies have shown there to be a large luck component in shooting percentage, which is why Kostitsyn is likely to regress when his shooting percentage comes crashing back down to normal.
Name to know: D Mattias Ekholm
I could have put a few names here such as the newly signed Wisconsin Badgers center Craig Smith or the talented Swiss defender Roman Josi or the dynamic Ryan Ellis, but Ekholm stands above them and is a player that people should really know going forward.
Ekholm had a monstrous breakout campaign in the Swedish Elite League at 20 years of age, scoring 10 goals and collecting 33 points in 55 games while logging more than 22 minutes a game. NHL sources have called the talented defenseman a "blue-chip prospect."
Scouts rave about his mobility and physicality at 6-foot-4, and they also note his defensive skills and hockey savvy. In the span of a season, Ekholm's development has vaulted him to the status of one of the better defensive prospects in all of hockey. While Nashville tends to take it slow with its prospects in regard to bringing them to the NHL, Ekholm is advanced enough both physically and mentally that he could push for a starting job this year. With Shea Weber and Ryan Suter both on the cusp of free agency, Ekholm also provides insurance for the Predators should one of their top defenders choose to test the market.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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