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August 18, 2012
Summer Skate
Pacific Division

by Robert Vollman and ESPN Insider


Los Angeles Kings

With the fourth-best possession statistics in the league going into the playoffs, the Kings hardly came out of nowhere. Dominating their opponents all season, their only struggle was the bad luck that kept their shooting percentage to a ridiculous, league-worst 7.5 percent.

They became virtually unstoppable once things clicked.

The Stanley Cup champions made some excellent midseason changes, replacing coach Terry Murray with Darryl Sutter and acquiring Jeff Carter, while finally getting rid of Jack Johnson in the process.

Since then, GM Dean Lombardi has wisely refrained from making any more major moves, confident that his enviable collection of talent, including Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, will be sufficient to challenge the San Jose Sharks for the Pacific Division title.

Trending up: C Jeff Carter
Last season: 4.8 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 8.1 GVT

Columbus hoped Carter would be the man to ignite Rick Nash after acquiring him for Jakub Voracek and some picks from the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2011 offseason. But Carter struggled with foot and knee injuries with the Jackets, dropping from 36 goals and 66 points to just a 50-point pace.

The 27-year-old was dynamite once he was wearing Kings uniform, playing great down the stretch and leading the postseason with eight goals. Playoff success is an excellent indicator of increased scoring the next season, much as it was when Carter's 46-goal, 84-point 2008-09 season followed his 11-point postseason run with the Flyers.

Trending down: D Willie Mitchell
Last season: 12.1 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 6.6 GVT

What an amazing season for veteran shutdown defenseman Mitchell, who led the Kings with a plus-20 on his way to a top-10, 9.6 defensive GVT.

His offensive totals were equally impressive, scoring a career-high 24 points -- five of which came with the man-advantage -- while taking 104 shots, 16 more than his previous career high.

Even if Mitchell's new offensive streak is somehow legitimate and he somehow had something to do with a red-hot Jonathan Quick stopping 94.4 percent of shots while Mitchell was on the ice, how much of this success is sustainable for a 35-year-old?

Anaheim Ducks

Despite dropping 19 points and missing the playoffs, Anaheim was actually a slightly better team last season, just not nearly as lucky. For example, the Ducks' overtime and shootout record went from 13-5 in 2010-11 to 5-12 last season, a swing that could account for up to 15 of the 19 points by itself.

Fortunately their possession game improved from 28th overall in 2010-11 to 22nd last season, a boost that was especially noticeable under new coach Bruce Boudreau.

They've also really solidified their blue line by replacing Sheldon Brookbank and Lubomir Visnovsky with Bryan Allen and Sheldon Souray.

Though Daniel Winnik will help, unfortunately they still suffer from a serious lack of forward depth, forcing them to heap the tough minutes onto the broad shoulders of stars like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, which should limit their production and relegate Anaheim to playoff bubble team status at best.

Trending up: D Cam Fowler
Last season: 0.9 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 5.7 GVT

Not only will Lubomir Visnovsky's departure allow the 20-year-old Fowler to retain all of Anaheim's best offensive opportunities, but the arrival of Bryan Allen and Souray, joining Francois Beauchemin and Toni Lydman, means he'll be relieved of some of his defensive responsibilities, too.

While the role change alone is enough to improve Fowler's terrible minus-53 over his first two seasons, so will some better luck. Anaheim goalies had just an .888 save percentage while he was on the ice last season.

Offensively Fowler dropped from 10 goals to just five last season despite increasing his shot total from 123 to 128. If his shooting percentage rebounds from 4.1 percent back up to 8.1 percent, then his points should follow suit, from 29 back up closer to 40.

Trending down: RW Teemu Selanne
Last season: 13.7 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 7.8 GVT

This might be the last time we can write this, but 42-year-old players don't score 66 points. Mark Messier and Igor Larionov managed 43, "Dr." Mark Recchi scored 48 and the incomparable Mr. Hockey Gordie Howe elbowed his way to 52 -- can we really expect more from the Finnish Flash?

Being so desperate for forward depth, the Anaheim Ducks paid an extra $1.8 million to get Selanne and Saku Koivu back for one more season, but don't count on them to match last season's totals. Selanne was already getting almost two-thirds of available power-play time, had the difficulty of his even-strength assignment significantly eased, played all 82 games and still required a lucky 10.3 percent on-ice shooting percentage to record his 66 points.

San Jose Sharks

Though the team has missed the postseason only once since Tomas Hertl, their first-round draft pick this year, was 4 years old, 2011-12 was still a disappointing season for the Sharks. San Jose had enjoyed two consecutive appearances in the final four, five straight 100-point seasons, the last four of which were first-place Pacific Division finishes -- all snapped with a second-place, 96-point finish and first-round exit.

Unlike the additions of Martin Havlat and Brent Burns last season, there were no major offseason changes this year, just the swapping in and out of mostly cosmetic secondary contributors.

The Sharks are nevertheless a strong playoff-bound team, with three 30-goal scorers last season (Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski), and they are arguably the favorite to regain the Pacific Division title, though with Los Angeles as their chief rival this time instead of Phoenix.

Trending up: RW/LW Ryane Clowe
Last season: 8.0 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 7.7 GVT

Yes, you read that correctly. The projection is less than Clowe's 2011-12 production. But the choice to call out Clowe isn't so much about what VUKOTA sees, as what it doesn't see.

Though the VUKOTA projection doesn't predict Clowe will bounce back from four-season lows across the board in goals, assists, points and plus/minus, it doesn't factor in that the talented winger was playing through concussion and groin issues most of last season.

If Clowe had lost ice-time, or failed to manage his usual 180 shots, there might be cause for concern that his production drop is permanent, and that his career low 9.4 percent shooting percentage wasn't just some temporary bad luck fueled by injury. We normally don't bet against VUKOTA, but Clowe's is the type of situation that warrants an exception.

Trending down: D Brad Stuart
Last season: 9.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 5.9 GVT

Bringing back veteran shutdown defenseman Brad Stuart with a three-year, $3.6M-per-year deal isn't necessarily a bad move, provided that last season's solid performance in Detroit isn't expected to be completely matched.

Stuart, who turns 33 in November, will likely be the defensive conscience paired with either Brent Burns or Dan Boyle, allowing Stuart to move back to the left side. While Stuart's offense is unlikely to change, having been confined to a tight band of 20-23 points in five of his last six seasons, he might not be as successful defensively outside Detroit, where Niklas Lidstrom did the really heavy lifting. Consider also that the defensive-minded Stuart got to start in the offensive zone 54.3 percent of the time, easing his burden a bit.

While still a usable top-four defenseman and far better than his terrible first-round performance against Nashville last season, Stuart is not the top-pairing possession demon he once was, or that Detroit made him appear he could be. His career high plus-16 last season was more a consequence of a nifty 9.5 percent team shooting percentage and .921 save percentage when he was on the ice as opposed to particularly outstanding play on his part.

Dallas Stars

After four seasons of coming up just short of the postseason and two coaching changes, the Dallas Stars reloaded this offseason, losing Mike Ribeiro and Sheldon Souray but adding big-name aging veterans Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney, while trading secondary players Steve Ott and Adam Pardy to Buffalo for top-six center Derek Roy.

With another career season from goalie Kari Lehtonen, continued sensational production from young wingers Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn, and a little luck, the Stars are hoping this is the year they finally sneak into the West's top eight.

Trending up: D Alex Goligoski
Last season: 5.4 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 7.8 GVT

Acquired from Pittsburgh for James Neal and Matt Niskanen at the 2011 trade deadline, Goligoski finished off his amazing 2010-11 season (14 goals, 46 points, plus-20) with 15 points in 23 games in a Stars uniform.

Despite some truly fantastic possession-based play last year, Goligoski's counting statistics fell to just 30 points and an even plus/minus, a lot of which can be explained by his unlucky 982 PDO (the sum of the team's shooting and save percentages with him on the ice).

The departure of Sheldon Souray will ensure that the 27-year-old puck-moving defenseman retains the team's best scoring opportunities, while a little luck can ensure that his defensively sound and disciplined play will be reflected in his year-end totals.

Trending down: RW Michael Ryder
Last season: 13.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 8.8 GVT

Ryder's transition from Boston to Dallas was a successful one; he almost doubled his goals (from 18 to 35) and jumped to a plus-17 plus/minus while finishing one point shy of his career-high 63 points.

Unfortunately for Ryder, his numerous power-play opportunities will be harder to come by in competition with Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney and Derek Roy (plus Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn), and his own shooting percentage will likely drop from a career high 16.6 percent back down to the 10 percent rate at which he scored in three of the preceding four seasons.

And speaking of PDO, what hurt Goligoski last year helped Ryder. Ryder's sky-high 1030 PDO was fueled by a lucky team shooting percentage of 10.9 percent when he was on the ice, a total which will drop down a couple points from last season, leaving him closer to his customary 40-plus points.

Phoenix Coyotes

Despite back-to-back second-place division finishes and playoff appearances, things didn't look good for the Coyotes this time last year. They lost their star goalie, were devoid of big-name talent, and threatened the Detroit Red Wings as the league's oldest team.

But something magical happened last season in Phoenix. Again. Ingenious coaching by Dave Tippett and a brilliant season from goalie Mike Smith helped the Coyotes capture the Pacific Division title, win their first postseason series since four years before young defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson was born, and fight their way to the conference finals.

Since then, the Coyotes have lost aging stars Ray Whitney, Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsival -- and quite probably Shane Doan and Daymond Langkow, too. General manager Don Maloney shrewdly picked up Zbynek Michalek to play with their lone star (Ekman-Larsson), otherwise replacing the departed veterans with the ragtag likes of Steve Sullivan, David Moss and Nick Johnson.

Where does all of this leave Phoenix? A bad team that must be running short on miracles by now.

Trending up: C/LW Antoine Vermette
Last season: 1.6 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 4.0 GVT

Veteran Vermette is an established, two-way, possession-based success, even when he struggled in Columbus. Unfortunately, a career-low 7.4 shooting percentage left him with just 37 points -- the fewest since his sophomore season, and a career low minus-13.

Acquired by Phoenix for third-string goalie Curtis McElhinney and some picks, Vermette led the Coyotes with 10 points in 16 postseason games, which is usually a strong indicator of a bounce-back season the following year.

Potentially playing alongside Moss, another player who could be trending up, Vermette's offensive statistics should improve as his shooting percentage rises back to his career level of 12.3 percent, and if the goaltending behind him stops more than the .905 he endured in Columbus.

Trending down: RW Radim Vrbata
Last season: 16.5 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 8.9 GVT

One of the secrets to Phoenix's success last year was the amazing chemistry Vrbata found with Whitney, propelling the former to far-and-away career highs of 35 goals, 62 points and a plus-24.

Unfortunately, Vrbata will be without Whitney this season, and Vrbata's career high 15.1 shooting percentage is bound to drop back to his career average of 8.6 percent.

A great predictor of a statistical regression is the PDO, which is the sum of the team's shooting and save percentage when the player is on the ice. Normally, it's about 1,000, but Vrbata's was a lucky 1,038, thanks to the team scoring on 9.4 percent of its shots and Smith stopping an amazing .945 behind him.

This slide, which already began in the postseason when Vrbata scored just five points in 16 games and finished second-to-last on the team with a minus-3, likely will pull his contributions back down to his established 20-goal, 40-plus-point level.

A version of this story originally appeared at 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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Top 10 Prospects (08/17)
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Premium Article Summer Skate (09/26)
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Summer Skate (08/25)
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Top 10 Prospects (08/20)

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2012-09-25 - Howe and Why: Best Consensus Summer Signings
2012-09-01 - Summer Skate: Central Division
2012-08-25 - Summer Skate: Northwest Division
2012-08-18 - Summer Skate: Pacific Division
2012-07-11 - Howe and Why: Wild, Bolts Are Big FA Winners
2012-06-26 - Howe and Why: Quality Starts, 2011-12
2012-06-20 - Plugging Holes: Northwest Division

2012-09-08 - Summer Skate: Southeast Division
2012-09-01 - Summer Skate: Central Division
2012-08-25 - Summer Skate: Northwest Division
2012-08-18 - Summer Skate: Pacific Division
2011-09-26 - Premium Article Summer Skate: Northwest Division
2011-09-19 - Summer Skate: Pacific Division
2011-09-12 - Summer Skate: Central Division