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Hockey Prospectus 2012-13 is here! Download Sample Chapter - Penguins!

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September 1, 2012
Summer Skate
Central Division

by Robert Vollman and ESPN Insider


Detroit Red Wings

Finishing third in their division for the first time since Sergei Fedorov's rookie season over 20 years ago, one can excuse fans who hold the unfounded fear that the Wings' aging lineup will finally slide out of the postseason.

Though they aren't the division title threat they recently were, the Wings still have superstars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and remain one of the league's most disciplined and possession-oriented teams.

Failing to replace Nicklas Lidstrom, not to mention Brad Stuart, will indeed make it more difficult to remain as competitive while their enviable pool of prospects develop, but not so difficult that they'll be competing for early tee times with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Trending up: D Niklas Kronwall
Last season: 9.9 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 8.3 GVT

Though VUKOTA doesn't agree with us, someone has to step up on Detroit's blue line in the absence of Lidstrom and Stuart, and it will most likely be solid two-way veteran Kronwall.

Posting back-to-back 36- and 37-point seasons on Detroit's second pairing, Kronwall will be promoted to the top slot, earning big minutes in all situations. In his prime Kronwall scored 51 points in 2008-09, the season after Detroit's last Stanley Cup, when he led the postseason with a plus-16.

Unless Detroit lands one of the big names it's rumored to be pursuing, whoever gets those prime first-pairing minutes is going to be in a position for a tremendous season -- the smart money's on Kronwall.

Trending down: D Ian White
Last season: 10.4 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 8.3 GVT

Great defensemen can carry a more mediocre linemate, like the way Jay Bouwmeester carried Chris Butler in Calgary, Alex Pietrangelo carried Carlo Colaiacovo in St. Louis, or the great Lidstrom carried White in Detroit.

A serviceable second-line defenseman for most of his career, a 27-year-old White exploded for 32 points and a plus-23 skating alongside the future Hall of Famer in 2011-12. These great stats were boosted by a 57.7 percent offensive zone start percentage, a tremendous 10.1 percent team on-ice shooting percentage and .923 save percentage when White was on the ice, none of which are likely to re-occur in Lidstom's absence in 2012-13.

Chicago Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks are one of the league's top possession teams, but have suffered back-to-back first-round exits due to some especially atrocious luck. In 2010-11 they lost to the Vancouver Canucks despite outscoring them 22-16, and in 2011-12 they lost to Phoenix despite taking five of the six games to overtime, and dominating the Coyotes with 58.9 percent of all attempted shots in close-game situations, but scoring on fewer than half as many as their opponents.

Not much has changed in Chicago this offseason, and the Blackhawks will continue to rely on their considerable firepower up front and top defensive pairing. The Hawks will hope that overcomes their mediocre special teams, blue-line depth and goaltending. With a little luck, Chicago is a favorite to win the Central Division title for just the second time in 20 years.

Trending up: LW Michael Frolik
Last season: 1.0 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 4.1 GVT

After three seasons consistently scoring 38-45 points and earning a combined plus-8, Frolik's first full season in Chicago ended with just 15 points and a minus-10 -- a drop caused more from lack of opportunity than lack of talent.

The 10th overall selection in 2006, who turned 24 last February, Frolik lost several minutes of ice time per game in Chicago's deep forward lineup, relative to his minutes in Florida. And he was particularly impacted on his power-play opportunities. Used instead in strictly defensive situations alongside Dave Bolland, Frolik killed penalties and played less than a regular shift at even strength, with just a 44.6 percent offensive zone start percentage. Oh, and he endured a terribly unlucky team shooting percentage of 5.6 percent while he was on the ice -- though that team percentage was better than his own mysteriously low 4.3 percent.

While unlikely to bounce all the way back to 40 points (barring trade or injury), expect the young, two-way winger to contribute much more as he enters his prime.

Trending down: D Sheldon Brookbank
Last season: 6.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 3.1 GVT

Paired with the defensive-minded Toni Lydman almost out of desperation in Anaheim last season, Sheldon Brookbank was signed for two years at $1.25M per year to help address the equally desperate lack of blue-line depth in Chicago.

Brookbank, who turns 32 in October, enjoyed his most ice time ever -- scoring 14 points -- and was plus-11 with the Ducks last season, despite just 22 points and plus-6 in his 197 previous NHL games.

Unfortunately his possession statistics were absolutely atrocious, leaving the Ducks at an amazing 12.1 attempted shot disadvantage per 60 minutes relative to their other blue-line options. His counting statistics were saved only by virtue of a lucky .947 save percentage posted by Anaheim goalies while he was on the ice, a situation he most certainly can't expect in Chicago.

St. Louis Blues

Unlike their world-killing start in 2010-11, the Blues got off to a slow start in 2011-12, right up until they replaced coach Davis Payne with Ken Hitchcock. While the team didn't necessarily get any better according to its underlying numbers, it certainly got luckier as its team save percentage rose from .913 to an astonishing .943.

There were no major changes this offseason, just the continued development of a young, do-it-all, possession-driven team, with the exception of exciting rookie additions Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz.

Unless they get hit with the same volume of injuries as 2010-11, or their goaltending luck reverts to Davis Payne levels, the Blues remain a playoff-bound team that may even challenge for the Central Division title.

Trending up: C Patrik Berglund
Last season: 5.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 8.2 GVT

Berglund has been slowly evolving into the type of versatile two-way player the Blues love, but he really didn't mesh well with linemate Chris Stewart last season. Berglund's scoring has been up and down in each of his four seasons; having turned 24 this past June, he's definitely positioned for an up in 2011-12.

Because postseason scoring can often be a great indicator of breakout seasons, last season's success is very promising. Berglund finished second to Andy McDonald (another player trending up) with seven points and led the team with a plus-2 in nine playoff contests.

With either improved chemistry with Stewart or better linemates flanking him on the second line this season, Berglund could have a strong campaign.

Trending down: G Brian Elliott
Last season: 27.9 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 2.8 GVT

It was an unbelievable season for Elliott, whose save percentage jumped from .893 to .940 and Quality Start percentage catapulted from 33.3 percent to 77.8 percent.

In fact, it was a season so unbelievable that not even Elliott himself believed it, agreeing to a two-year deal at just $1.8 million per season. Even the 27-year-old knows that while he remains a highly capable goalie, he is in fact just Jaroslav Halak's backup, and his amazing totals had a lot to do with the great (and lucky) Hitchcockian defense in front of him.

Unless there's another rabbit in the hat, Elliott should regress and may even finish 2012-13 halfway closer to the .904 save percentage he posted in last season's playoffs.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Not exactly the poster child of successful rebuilds, Columbus finally cut bait and dealt Rick Nash to the New York Rangers, abandoning the franchise player model for one built around versatile young players like the newly acquired Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Nick Foligno.

GM Scott Howson also redesigned the blue line that plays in front of struggling goalie Steve Mason, acquiring Nikita Nikitin and Jack Johnson midseason, drafting Ryan Murray second overall, and replacing the departed Marc Methot with veteran unrestricted free agent Adrian Aucoin.

While some of these moves certainly have great long-term potential, they're likely not going to keep the Blue Jackets very far out of the basement this coming season.

Trending up: G Sergei Bobrovsky
Last season: minus-6.8 GVT | VUKOTA projection: minus-0.7

Acquired from Philadelphia for three draft picks, Bobrovsky had the fifth-best save percentage in the league when relieving the starting goalie (.933). Now backing up Steve Mason in Columbus, Bobrovsky, who turns 24 in September, has the potential to take over the starting job.

While 2011-12 was perceived as a disappointing season for Bobrovsky, his .916 even-strength save percentage was actually better than Jonas Hiller and Marc-Andre Fleury, the latter of whom just barely edged out Bobrovsky's .923 even-strength save percentage the year before. In fact, his 65.4 percent Quality Start percentage in 2010-11 was fourth in the league among No. 1 goalies.

Even if he can't wrestle the top spot away from Mason, Bobrovsky is still a young, underrated goalie who will take advantage of his final entry-level contract season to return to capable form.

Trending down: LW Vinny Prospal
Last season: 7.1 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 6.3 GVT

Vinny Prospal, the Bret Saberhagen of hockey, has point totals that have gone up and down every year of his career, and he's due for a down.

Prospal will also be playing without star linemate Nash and it is doubtful whether a 37-year-old on a team of developing prospects will continue to get assigned over 50 percent of power play opportunities, and the most favorable offensive-zone tilt the team can manage.

In Nash's absence someone in Columbus is going to step forward and exceed scoring expectations, but it won't be Prospal.

Nashville Predators

With career seasons from virtually every member of the team, the Nashville Predators rode extremely fortunate shooting percentages to advance out of the first round for the second straight season, leading those who don't follow the team closely to assume they were a team on the rise.

Unfortunately things were trending down in Nashville in way you don't need advanced statistics to determine. Playing most of their games in their own zone and/or without the puck, it is only a matter of time before the Predators cool off, potentially out of the playoff picture altogether.

The departure of top-line defenseman Ryan Suter, along with the usual annual evacuation of secondary talent, is only going to speed their decline, no matter how hard superstars Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne continue to fight it.

Trending up: D Ryan Ellis
Last season: 3.2 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 3.7

It stands to reason that whoever wins the Shea Weber linemate sweepstakes is going to have a great season, and in certain situations the 21-year-old Ellis has the edge.

Used very carefully last year, the offensive-minded rookie had the highest even-strength scoring rate among Preds defensemen, drew four times as many penalties as he took, and had the best possession numbers on the team -- over 20 attempted shots per 60 minutes better than Roman Josi.

Since Ryan Suter played 75 percent of the team's power plays, there is a lot of opportunities for a talented puck-moving youngster like Ryan Ellis to score, especially alongside a superstar like Weber.

Trending down: C Mike Fisher
Last season: 10.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 6.2 GVT

Acquiring a solid two-way veteran who can carry the tough minutes wasn't necessarily a bad move, even at the cost of first- and third-round draft selections, but extending Mike Fisher's pricey $4.2M contract for two more years is risky.

Even in a season where a super-lucky 11.7 percent team shooting percentage and .929 save percentage when he was on the ice helped boost him to a plus-11, and within two points of his single-season scoring high, he still just barely earned that princely sum.

Having turned 32 this June, age will doubtlessly catch up to Fisher, sending his GVT and counting statistics downward to match his weak underlying possession-based numbers.

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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