Mid-September is usually the time of the year when I post my projections for the Hurricanes players in the upcoming season, but with the lockout now in full effect, it looks inevitable that the NHL season will begin later than the planned October 11th start date. Given that, it may seem pointless to do projections now since no one knows when the season will start or whether or not there will be any NHL season at all. Call me an optimist, but I believe that we will have an NHL season this year and there is never any harm in predicting how the season will go and how certain players will perform. With that being said, the lockout is going to have some factors that will have an impact on how the season goes.
First off, the season is going to be shortened and while you can make the argument that the regular 82-game NHL season is too long, having a season of 40-48 games can lead to some crazy things happening. A good or bad couple of weeks for a team could end up being the difference in them making the playoffs or not. We have also seem some players already sign contracts to play in other leagues and that could affect what kind of season they have once the NHL resumes if they were to suffer an injury while playing overseas. Not having training camp might also put some players a step behind if they choose not to play anywhere during the lockout, so they might have a bit of rink rust coming into the season.
Whenever the season does start, I'm willing to bet that there will be plenty of strange occurrences and we could see some new playoff teams along with a few players having very surprising years offensively. It's hard to predict who those said players will be right now but we should have a better idea of it whenever they announce a start date for the season. Until then, the best we can do is use the data from past seasons to make informed guesses about what kind of offensive production we might see from certain players this year. The raw numbers are obviously going to be off if the season is shortened, but this is exactly why most statisticians look at rates and ratios instead. Those usually give us a better idea of a player's production anyway.
The extended off-season also allows us to put more time into our projections and come up with some more sophisticated methods of predicting the upcoming season. If you remember from last season, I based most of my projections on historical similarities between players, what kind of minutes they were expected to play and how much shooting luck they had in previous seasons. This year, I'll be using a similar method but I will be taking more consideration to factors such as shot rates, shot locations and quality of teammates than I did last season. The scoring chance data I collected from last season along with Greg Sinclair's Super Shot Search will help make these projections as thorough as possible.
However, before I begin my projections, let's take a look at what some other systems are predicting for the Hurricanes this season. A good starting point would be to look at some historical comparisons derived from Rob Vollman of Hockey Abstract*. This system follows a similar method to what I did last year where it goes through years of NHL seasons to find players with similar scoring patterns and uses it as a way to find out what the minimum and maximum expectations are for a certain player. This isn't an absolute, final projection but it serves as a good starting point for prognosticating the upcoming season.
Since there is a lot of data to break down, what I'm going to do is go through the projections piece by piece based on what kind of roles the Carolina Hurricanes players are expected to have in the upcoming season, starting today with the top-six.
*If you want to take a look at Vollman's projections for every player, it is available for free on his web site here.
Before diving into the stats, I'll give you a brief overview of how Vollman's process works. You take one player, look at other players from the post-expansion era who were of a similar age and compare their goals, assists, shots, power-play goals and shots adjusted by era. Once this is done, you then search for players who had similar scoring patterns and a "similarity score" is developed as a result. The lower the similarity score, the more similar this player's season was to the player in question.
Without further ado, let's take a look at what history has in store for the Hurricanes captain, leader and best player; Eric Staal. After a rough start to last season, Staal still managed to finish the year with 70 points despite having his lowest goal total since his rookie year (24). Staal will never touch 100 points again, but he is still a top-level playmaker and a dangerous offensive force, so seeing his production take a tailspin over the next season is unlikely. He is also only 27 years old and has plenty of his good years left in him as players similar to him were able to get the job done when they were his age.
Best: Brad Richards (2009)
Worst: Kent Nilsson (1985)
Staal had a down year shooting percentage wise (9.2 Sh% compared to 11.1 career sh%) and he also scored only seven powerplay goals, which was his lowest total since his rookie season, so my first thought was that we could see a bounce-back year for him there. Judging by some of his comparable players, we could see that happen but it isn't going to be anything extreme unless he turns out like Jason Spezza. His point-total, however, is a different story as his closest matches range from 55 points to 89 points if he plays all 82 games.
The best-case scenario would be Staal having a season like Brad Richards did in 2009 with the Dallas Stars, which isn't too out of the question when you look at the kind of minutes both played. Despite the other additions the Hurricanes made over the off-season, Staal is still going to play the most minutes on the team, play on the first powerplay unit and spend some time killing penalties on top of that. Richards wasn't trusted with PK duties as much, but he played similar minutes for the Stars that year and his career scoring pattern is somewhat similar to Staal's. Like Staal, Richards is known more for his play-making skills and accumulates most of his points from assists. He has also been near a point-per-game player for most of his career, so it isn't too out of the realm to say that Staal could have a season like that. Richards' high assist total has me thinking otherwise, though because while Staal is good enough to boost his linemates shooting percentage, I would be hard-pressed to say that he is going to top 60 assists in a season.
The player with the highest similarity score on this list is the Tampa Bay Lightning's captain Vinny Lecavalier, who was once an elite offensive talent but he has seen his numbers take a turn downward once he reached his late-20's. His numbers have still been very good, though if you go by point-per-game rates as Lecavalier has battled injuries the last couple of years. Extrapolate his 2010-11 season to 82 games and his numbers aren't too far off from what you would expect from Staal. However, the one main difference between Staal and Lecavalier is that the latter does not shoot the puck that often and I think that will play a role into what kind of year he ends up having.
When you average out all of the comparable players, you get a scoring line of roughly 27/43/70 over 82 games and that sounds pretty realistic for Staal. It's about what he had last year, after all. Overall, Staal's historical comparables see him scoring between 55 & 89 points in an 82 game season next year. That's a pretty vague prediction but like I said earlier, this system is meant to set the minimum and maximum expectations on the year and not make an exact prediction.
Let's move onto his younger brother now.
Best: Dave Taylor (1979)
Worst: Brian Smolinski (1997)
Jordan Staal is coming off his best offensive season in the NHL and is still very young, but even I think the Dave Taylor projection is a bit too optimistic. Taylor already had a 91-point season under his belt before that year and it was his second year in the NHL. Staal has been in the league for much longer and I don't think his offensive ceiling is that high right now. I'll be the first one to eat a plate of crow if I'm wrong, but Staal having 94 points next season just seems unrealistic even if he is playing on the first line. Some of Staal's other historical comparables also have some great things projected for him if you look at the numbers for Roenick, Shutt, Frolov and Middleton.
This is the part where I should remind you that these projections are meant to set the barometer for next year rather than predict it and the high numbers for Staal here are his projected ceiling, so that doesn't mean he will have an 80-90 point season, it just means that it is possible based on players similar to him. Jeff Freisen's 1998 season with the San Jose Sharks is Staal's closest match this year and he would have a career year if he were to play the entire season and put up those kind of numbers. Friesen's career is similar to Staal's in the sense that he entered the league as an 18 year old, quickly established himself as a 40-point player and continued to improve as he got older. Staal has gone in a similar direction but injuries have kept him from eclipsing the 50 point mark the last couple of seasons. Will that change this year? If he is as good as advertised and gets solid ice time then I don't see why not.
The range here is pretty big for Staal since his best-case scenario is a 94 point season and his low-point is 44 points over the course of 82 games. It's more likely that Staal is somewhere in the middle and he has somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-65 points. The average projected scoring line of 30/39/69 over 82 games seems a bit high but hey, you never know what will happen.
Best: Jason Arnott (2000)
Worst: Blair McDonald (1981)
What more can be said about Alexander Semin that hasn't already been discussed? He's scored at a near-elite rate at even strength for the last few years of his career but he's a "bad teammate" so apparently that doesn't matter. He's also capable of driving possession at a high level but he's also "the ultimate coach killer" or whatever the MSM is saying about him these days. All the Hurricanes should know about Semin is that he is a legit top-six winger and the main reason they signed him was to get someone to create more offense and put the puck in the back of the net, something he is well accomplished at.
According to Semin's historical similarities, he isn't projected to have a huge outbreak in goals this year as the high mark for him is only 30-31. I'm sure that the Hurricanes will be fine if they get that kind of production out of him (no one on the team scored 30 goals last season) but I was expecting Semin to have a higher projected goal total since he has always been more of a scorer than a play-maker. He's been shooting the puck less than normal and playing fewer minutes in recent seasons, so that might play a factor into him not being projected to score as much but I think that could change if he stays on the first line in Carolina.
As far as his similar players go, the best case scenario has him putting up 80-81 points and the low point for him would be 30-31 points. Oddly enough, the average of his similar players is almost the exact same scoring line he had last season and while Semin having 50-55 points next season wouldn't surprise me, I would expect more of them to come from goals than assists. His most similar match, however, has bigger things projected for him as Martin Havlat's 2008 season ended up being the most similar to Semin.
Considering that Havlat was in his late 20's at the time, was a very high-scoring player in the past and played on a Chicago team where he wasn't the main offensive player, I can see why this is the case. Semin and Havlat are different in the sense that the latter has a very sketchy injury history but one area where they are similar is that they both did most of their damage at even strength and the Hurricanes need more of that this season. So while a 70+ point season from Semin would be fantastic, getting 20-30 goals from him is more reasonable and ultimately more likely.
Best: Anze Kopitar (2009)
Worst: Steve Yzerman (1985)
When a player has a 30 goal season before he turns 20 years old, you know big things are expected for him in the future and that is the case here with Jeff Skinner. There are plenty of great names that come up when you look at Skinner's comparable players and the one that may stick out the most is Steve Zyerman and how his 1985 season is the worst case scenario here. Yzerman had two 85+ point campaigns in his first two seasons in the NHL before having a down year the following season, so I don't think we have to worry about Skinner suffering that kind of drop off unless he gets injured again.
His most similar match, however, is Brian Propp's 1981 season, which was his third year in the NHL and his "breakout" campaign where he tallied 44 goals and 91 points. You can see that total goes down a bit when you adjust it for the era, but judging from that and some of the other names on this list, it seems that history is suggesting that Skinner could have a big year if everything goes right. Considering how much of Skinner's rookie season was driven by a high shooting percentage and how it crashed down to Earth the next season, I'm not sure what to expect but Skinner is still young and shoots the puck more often than anyone else on the team so he will get his opportunities.
With the range for Skinner being 46-78 points over 82 games, it appears that Skinner is due for a step up from last season whether it is due to simple shooting regression or him becoming a better overall player. The average has him projected to finish with a similar scoring line to his rookie season, only with fewer goals and more assists. I'm inclined to believe that if he can stay healthy, but I think Skinner will probably finish in the ballpark of 40-60 points on the year.
Best: Mike Donnelly (1994)
Worst: Darren McCarty (2000)
Here's where things get less optimistic. Ruutu is only two years removed a 57-point season, so I'm sure some people will be perplexed that the high-point for him next year is set at only 45-points. He is 29 years old, so it's expected for his production to decline but I don't think he is going to see his numbers take a nose-dive anytime soon. With that being said, he had only 34 points in 72 games last season, and his 57-point season was helped by a high on-ice shooting percentage so these numbers may not look that ridiculous if you take that into consideration.
Ruutu has a lot of players who have a pretty "high" similarity score to him, and they range from 24-39 points, so that somewhat narrows down to what these projections see for Ruutu in the upcoming season. Age might be the biggest concern for Ruutu with these projections but I think ice-time may end up being the larger issue here because between him, the Staal brothers, Jokinen, Skinner, Semin, LaRose, Tlusty and some younger players, the Canes have a lot of guys who will be competing for top-six minutes and time on the powerplay. Ruutu should probably get those minutes over Tlusty and LaRose but he isn't going to play as much as he did last season due to the additions of Jordan Staal & Alex Semin, which is going to have an effect on his overall point total.
That being said, I would still take the over for him on his average projection. 15 goals/35 points just seems too low for a player like Ruutu.
Best: Cliff Ronning (1995)
Worst: Blake Dunlop (1983)
Jokinen's days of scoring 30 goals might be over but history suggests that he could have his fourth consecutive 40+ point season if he stays healthy for the entire year. I'm still not sure what to expect with Jokinen this year since it's unknown what position he will be playing this year and who his linemates will be but one thing we do know about him is that he is a pass-first player and has been for years. Therefore, it's very likely that the majority of his points will come from assists and he will have somewhat of a low goal total (unless he an Eric Staal can strike gold again).
It's worth noting that Jokinen had some poor shooting luck last season compared to the rest of his career (10.4 sh% vs. 13.2 career sh%), so we could see his goal total rebound and at 29, he probably has another few good years left in him. Before last season, Jokinen produced at a top-six rate at even strength and while I don't think he will produce at that high of a level again, I do believe that he can see his overall production take a step forward from last year. He is also in a similar situation to Ruutu where he could be battling for top-line minutes, especially if he ends up playing center and I don't think he will get close to 40 points if he ends up centering the third line but we'll have to see how that goes.
If Jokinen stays in the top-six and remains healthy, then I think a 40-50 point season is in the realm of possibility for him. He's been able to consistently give the Hurricanes that kind of production the last few years and will be in his late 20's for most of the season. There is no reason for him to see his scoring completely tail off.
Tomorrow, we will look at the historical projections for the Hurricanes other forwards and I'll have my detailed projections for these players done within the upcoming weeks.