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

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September 15, 2012
Summer Skate
Northeast Division

by Matthew Coller and ESPN Insider


Boston Bruins

There were few bigger surprises in the postseason than the Bruins losing to the Washington Capitals in seven games. Boston brings back many members of a super talented club that dominated on offense, defense and puck possession in 2011-12. The Bruins have a budding superstar in Tyler Seguin, the best two-way player in hockey in Patrice Bergeron, and the best defenseman in Zdeno Chara.

One player they won't be bringing back, however, is Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Tim Thomas, who is taking the season off. Now, the reins go into the hands of trusty backup Tuukka Rask, who, with an incredibly talented group in front of him, has a chance for a Vezina of his own.

Trending up: G Tuukka Rask
Last season: 9.9 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 6.1

For Rask, you have to look a little deeper into the VUKOTA projection. His previous seasons were spent entirely as a backup, but the exit of Thomas will push him into the No. 1 slot, making the Finnish netminder a candidate to be trending up. Based on a 58-game season, Rask's GVT is 12.2.

In 102 career games, Rask's save percentage is a well-above-average .926 and, when he took over for a struggling Thomas in 2009-10, Rask posted a .931 save percentage and went 22-12-5 in 45 games. The only question is whether he can handle the increased workload, but a dominant puck possession team with the best defenseman in the game (Chara) in front of him should make for an easy transition.

Trending down: F Chris Kelly
Last season: 12.7 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 6.2 GVT

The veteran center had a career year in 2011-12, scoring five more goals than his previous high, which he set with 15 in 2009-10. Unsurprisingly, Kelly also had his highest career shooting percentage at 16.4 percent, which will be a difficult number to repeat considering his career number is 11.4 percent. The former third-round pick also benefited from several of his linemates and Bruins defensemen posting career years, including linemate Rich Peverley, who set a career high in points and assists per game.

Kelly can still be an effective third liner, but, statistically speaking, good luck tends to fade in the long run. Expect his scoring touch to drift back toward 10 goals in 2012-13.

Buffalo Sabres

Sometimes the whole doesn't always equal the sum of the parts. In Buffalo's case, the parts added up to the Sabres being one of the most talented teams in the NHL last season, but for the third time in five years, they missed the playoffs.

After they fell well short of expectations in 2011-12, general manager Darcy Regier took aim at finding better roster balance by dealing Derek Roy for Steve Ott. Questions still remain about whether coach Lindy Ruff can get the most out of the parts he's been given, but adding toughness seems to fit his sensibilities. If he learned from his mistakes last season, we'll see major changes in strategy and a few underachievers return to form.

Trending up: D Christian Ehrhoff
Last season: 5.5 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 7.6

An 18-point scoring drop from the German defenseman's previous season in Vancouver in large part was due to a change in system that asked Ehrhoff to play on the defensive side of the ice more often, as well as playing with inferior offensive talent on the power play. In 2010-11, the 29-year-old posted 28 points on the man-advantage for the Canucks, but scored only 11 for the Sabres last year.

An adjustment to Ruff's system and improved chemistry during a 5-on-4 should bump Ehrhoff's stats up, though until the Sabres find an elite power-play forward, he won't see assist numbers like the ones that helped him earn a 10-year contract.

Trending down: D Jordan Leopold
Last season: 7.2 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 6.7 GVT

Playing time was up for grabs last season for anyone who could stay healthy on a Sabres defense that saw Ehrhoff play only 66 games and No. 1 defenseman Tyler Myers miss 27 contests. Leopold, who played 79, was one of the lucky few to play nearly a full season, and the 32-year-old benefited with 10 goals, nine at even strength.

This year, however, even if the Sabres catch the injury bug, prospect defenseman Brayden McNabb likely will be asked to fill the void rather than the aging one-way player Leopold.

Toronto Maple Leafs

After a solid first half, the Leafs went on a brutal slide down the stretch to finish 13th in the Eastern Conference. A lack of scoring and puck possession skill outside of the top line and horrible goaltending eventually caught up with them.

At least one of those shortcomings should be resolved this year. Secondary scoring will undoubtedly improve with the addition of ex-Flyer James van Riemsdyk as well as several NHL-ready prospects who were a part of last year's AHL runner-up Toronto Marlies club. The Marlies featured young forwards Nazem Kadri, Carter Ashton and Joe Colborne, who are all top-six talents and each could make an impact this season.

The goaltending issue, however, has inexplicably not been addressed. The reality is, with their lack of focus on possession and mediocre top-four defensive talent, the Leafs need an elite goaltender and, at the moment, they aren't close to having one.

Trending up: F James van Riemsdyk
Last season: 4.3 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 6.1

After signing a contract through 2017-18, the Flyers dealt JVR to the Leafs where the 23-year-old winger is sure to take a step forward after an injury-slowed 2011-12. While he didn't score at quite the rate the Flyers had expected, van Riemsdyk's lack of output was partly due to some bad luck combined with being pushed down the depth chart.

The winger will benefit from a promotion on his new club, with a chance to become Toronto's No. 1 center, where he would undoubtedly see a boost in scoring. Even a second-line role being teamed with some of the aforementioned up-and-coming talent would be an upgrade from his time with the Flyers. There's also a good chance he'll see increased power-play time and, in turn, score more points.

Trending down: F Tim Connolly
Last season: 6.0 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 4.7 GVT

At one time, the former Islander and Sabre was a point-per-game center who was strong both offensively and defensively. However, injuries and age have taken their toll on Connolly's explosiveness and playmaking ability. After seeing a decline in points per game each of the past four seasons, there's little to suggest the 31-year-old will bounce back to the same player who scored 65 points in 2009-10. It's possible he can still add some skill to the lineup, that is, when he is actually in the lineup. Sadly, the reality is that Connolly is merely taking up a spot that a younger skill player could be filling.

Montreal Canadiens

After a complete overhaul of the Habs' front office and the hiring of Marc Bergevin as new general manager, the hope is that there's nowhere else to go but up. But a series of bad choices by the past regime has left the cupboard bare outside of an excellent goaltender and a middle-of-the-pack top line.

Things aren't exactly looking good down the road, either. It will take years for the Habs to clear themselves of ugly contracts. Scott Gomez's $7.35 million cap hit until 2013-14, Brian Gionta's $5 million hit for the next two years, Tomas Kaberle's $4.25 million and Rene Bourque's $3.3 million until 2015-16 have the club pretty well handcuffed. But there's at least one young bright spot for the Habs.

Trending up: F Max Pacioretty
Last season: 10.5 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 12.2

If there's any good news to speak of, it's that Pacioretty is a budding star. In his first full season, he led the Habs in 5-on-5 scoring with 2.68 points per 60 minutes and posted solid possession numbers while often taking on opponents' best forwards. Only entering his age-24 season, the former first-round pick by the Canadiens is likely to see growth in his game, especially in power-play scoring, where he suffered from some bad luck (and bad teammates) last season.

Trending down: D Josh Gorges
Last season: 6.0 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 4.7 GVT

Montreal's top stay-at-home defenseman had a very strong 2011-12, logging the second-most ice time on the team and setting his highest point total with 14 since 2008-09. While Gorges has plenty to offer on the defensive side, it will be difficult for this one-way player to repeat his offensive performance. Also, if the Habs finally get Andrei Markov back after three years of injuries, Gorges will see his total ice time as well as his hits and blocked shots take a hit.

Ottawa Senators

While most preseason projections had the Sens toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference, several unforeseen offensive explosions, including 78 points in 81 games from defenseman Erik Karlsson, combined with a resurgent season by star center Jason Spezza, led Ottawa's fourth-ranked scoring offense to second place in the Northeast.

The problem, of course, was that the Sens ranked 24th in goals allowed. To that end, they made a deal to bring in a reliable defenseman in Marc Methot. Still, don't be surprised if Ottawa still struggles defensively and slips back from its high scoring total and in the standings.

Trending up: F Colin Greening
Last season: 3.7 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 6.6

While the physical center had somewhat of a breakout season in 2011-12, scoring 17 goals and 20 assists and registering 189 hits in 82 games, there's a good chance more is on the way for the 26-year-old. The former seventh-round pick posted solid possession numbers with a decent 1.57 even-strength points per 60 minutes.

If he continues to spend time on a line with Spezza and Milan Michalek as he did last season, Greening should see his scoring rates continue to rise, all the while acting as a physical presence who can create space for Spezza and Michalek.-- Coller

Trending down: F Daniel Alfredsson
Last season: 16.0 GVT | VUKOTA projection: 6.4 GVT

After a quality swan-song season in which Alfredsson scored 59 points in 75 games, many figured he would call it a Hall of Fame career. Instead, he'll give it one more go this season. While he is still a quality setup man, the Sens legend can hold off Father Time for only so long as he turns 40 in December. His points-per-game numbers have been fading from 1.27 PPG in 2008-09 to 0.79 last season, and that includes his highest shooting percentage since 2007-08.

Despite a likely trail-off in production, he has the puck possession skills and veteran presence to still add quality depth to Ottawa's roster, just not as much as he did last season.

A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Matthew by clicking here or click here to see Matthew's other articles.

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<< Previous Article
Top 10 Prospects (09/13)
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Summer Skate (09/08)
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Summer Skate (09/22)
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Top 10 Prospects (09/17)

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