As we enter September, the scheduled start of the NHL season is just about a month away. If there is no lockout, hockey isn't very far away.
Here is a look at 50 NHL players who should improve the most in 2012-13. "Improvement" is a difficult thing to quantify or measure. Sure, you can look at statistics, but there are other ways to become a better player that are not as easily reflected in goals, assists or points, and playing better defense or adding extra strength or hockey sense will be taken into consideration as part of this article.
Keep in mind that rookies are excluded from this list. If a player is eligible for the Calder Trophy or has never played in the NHL before, they cannot be considered "improved" since they haven't played enough to measure the improvement.
Let me know if you feel there is someone I missed. Keep in mind the guidelines described above and have fun with this list.
Wolski joins the Washington Capitals this season, which means the talented but inconsistent forward has the potential to play on a line with some very high-powered offensive players.
Last year, Wolski split the season between the Rangers and Panthers and managed only four goals and 12 points in 31 games.
Few scouts question Wolski's talents and abilities, but his effort and results have been sporadic. This may be one of his last chances to stick with an NHL team and with the talent surrounding him on the Caps' roster, look for Wolski to improve on his 2011-12 numbers if he can remain healthy.
Hecht has yet to sign with any team and remains an unrestricted free agent. The 35-year-old native of Mannheim, Germany, has struggled with concussion issues in recent seasons so his health remains a question mark.
Last year, Hecht played in only 22 games and scored just four goals and eight points. In his last full season (2009-10), he scored 21 goals and 42 points.
While I wouldn't expect a return to quite those levels, 15 goals and 30-35 points are not unreasonable to expect from a healthy Hecht.
Rene Bourque joined the Canadiens in a midseason trade and he fizzled in Montreal. After scoring 27 goals in back-to-back seasons with the Flames, Bourque tallied just five goals and eight points in 38 games for the Habs.
The bad news for Bourque is he injured himself during offseason training and will be out until at least December 1st after undergoing abdominal surgery.
Once he returns, however, Bourque is just too talented to score at a 10 goal-per-season pace. Figure the 6'2", 213-pound Bourque to come closer to a 20-25 goal pace once he returns to action.
No, I'm not expecting a sudden offensive outburst from Leafs center Tim Connolly, but the veteran center should be more productive than 13 goals and 36 points, which is all he managed this past season.
The former first-round pick of the Islanders had 48 assists just two seasons ago. While it will be tough to return to those heights, 40-45 points is a reasonable goal for Connolly in the coming season. He has topped the 40 points mark for four straight years prior to last season despite missing time with injuries.
Roy was putting up steady if not spectacular numbers as the Sabres' first-line center before injuries caused him to miss more than half of the 2010-11 season.
Last year, Roy didn't rebound to the same level he was playing at before the injury, scoring just 17 goals and 44 points in 80 games after averaging just short of a point-per-game in the recent past.
This season, he will get a new start as he joins the Dallas Stars. That means Roy should be playing with proven offensive performers like Ray Whitney, Jaromir Jagr, Loui Eriksson or Michael Ryder.
Look for Roy to get top-six minutes and some power-play time as well.
A concussion limited Horton to just 46 games last season and as a result, he scored just 17 goals and 32 points, both the lowest since his rookie campaign.
When healthy, Horton is capable of scoring 25-30 goals easily, especially on a well-balanced offensive team like the Bruins.
Expect 55-60 points from Horton if he plays 75 or more games, although recovery from a concussion can be a tricky thing.
Brad Boyes scored 80 goals combined in 2007-08 and 2008-09 but he hasn't been the same player since.
Last year playing for Buffalo, Boyes had just eight goals and 23 points in 65 games, well below what both he and the Sabres had hoped for.
In an attempt to revive his career, Boyes signed a one-year deal with the New York Islanders. If all goes according to plan, Boyes will be playing on one of the top forward lines and get some power play time as well.
While line combinations haven't been determined yet, it is possible that Boyes plays on a line with John Tavares and Matt Moulson, which certainly helped revive the career of P.A. Parenteau.
Look for Boyes to increase his production from last year. How high his production gets will be determined by who he plays with, how healthy he is and whether or not he can take advantage of this opportunity.
Richards joined the Rangers last season after being the most highly sought after free agent of 2011. The former Dallas Stars center had a decent regular season on Broadway, scoring 25 goals and totaling 66 points before adding 15 points in 20 postseason games.
Richards' scoring totals were higher in his final two years with the Stars. When you take into account the fact that he is no longer adjusting to life with the Rangers and that he will have Rick Nash on his roster in addition to Marian Gaborik (who should be back by December), the Blueshirts should expect at least 75 points from Richards this season.
The San Jose Sharks were expecting a lot more from Martin Havlat than they got last season, although injuries were a large part of the problem. The former Wild and Senators winger scored just seven goals and 27 points in 39 games for San Jose. He missed significant time due to a "lower body injury."
If Havlat returns to his past levels of production, the Sharks should expect at least 20 goals and 55 points from the native of the Czech Republic, who is still in the prime of his career at the age of 31.
When you add the fact that Havlat should be playing with some talented players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe, his prospects for improvement get even better..
A lot was expected of Zach Bogosian when the Atlanta Thrashers made him the third overall selection in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
The Massena, New York, native has shown steady improvement since becoming a full-time NHL player, but has yet to join the league's elite level defensemen.
While this may not be the year Bogosian takes a huge leap forward, expect the improvement to continue for the Jets defenseman, who is still just 22 despite the fact that this will be his fifth NHL season.
Last year, Bogosian had five goals and 30 points in 65 games. Expect at least 35-40 points from him this season if he plays in at least 75 games.
The equation for Ward's improvement is a fairly simple one:
1) Ward remains the unquestioned starting goalie for the Hurricanes.
2) The Hurricanes should be an improved club this year with the signing of Alexander Semin and the addition of Jordan Staal to the lineup.
Expect better numbers from Ward as a result.
Adam Larsson is another of the up and coming young defensemen in the league.
The Swedish teenager scored two goals and 18 points in 65 games as a rookie for New Jersey last season.
This year, Larsson will turn 20 and should continue his development as a steady NHL player. Expect at least 25 points from him this season if he plays close to all 82 games.
Backstrom missed 40 games last year due to a concussion and was off to his usual solid statistical start before being put on the shelf.
Alexander Ovechkin, Backstrom's usual linemate, clearly was affected by Backstrom's absence and also had a sub-par campaign.
If he plays a full season, expect a big improvement from Backstrom over last year's 14 goals and 44 points, probably a jump to at least 65-70 points.
Ryan Malone is another player who has a problem staying healthy. Last year, he missed 14 games due to an assortment of injuries and he hasn't played in more than 70 games in a season since 2007-08.
If he's healthy, Malone should top the 20-goal mark and add at least 35 assists. Playing on a team with a lot of explosive offensive talent should keep Malone away from opposing teams' best defensive players.
But first, the Pittsburgh native needs to stay on the ice long enough to accumulate those points.
David Booth had scored more than 20 goals the last three seasons he has been healthy, including a career-high 31 goals with the Panthers back in 2008-09.
That was the player the Canucks hoped they were getting when they acquired Booth in a trade from Florida early last season, but it never quite clicked for Booth in BC. In 56 games with Vancouver, Booth scored just 16 goals and 29 points.
Expect Booth to get plenty of time on the second forward line and second power-play unit, which means he will be playing with players like Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler (when healthy).
Unless he is allergic to Vancouver, Booth should again be a 25-goal, 60-point scorer again.
Andy McDonald missed significant time last season due to a concussion and later missed six more games due to a bruised shoulder. In the end, the former Ducks star played in only 25 games, but he still averaged nearly a point-per-game with 22 and then added five goals and 10 points in nine playoff games for St. Louis.
If he's healthy, McDonald will be a top-six forward and provide veteran leadership for a young and hardworking Blues team.
If he stays healthy, expect a season with anywhere between 55 and 60 points for McDonald in 2012-13.
Sean Courturier was just 19 years old last season, but still came through with a very solid rookie season, scoring 13 goals and 27 points.
As the 6'4" Phoenix native matures physically and gains experience, he should put up better numbers at the NHL level.
Expect an improvement to the 35-point level this year with the potential for an even bigger jump as his ice time increases the following season.
Anisimov should get additional ice time after being traded to Columbus as part of the Rick Nash deal this summer.
If Anisimov can take advantage of the additional opportunities, he can improve on last year's numbers: 16 goals and 36 points.
The raw offensive ability is there, now it's just a question of Anisimov working hard enough to cash in the chances he should get with the Blue Jackets.
Injuries slowed down Morrow, who slipped from 33 goals in 2010-11 to just 11 goals and 26 points in 57 games in 2011-12.
Morrow is 32 and should still have some good hockey left in him. If he stays healthy this year, a 20-25 goal, 55-60 point season would not be a surprise.
Michael Grabner scored 34 goals as a rookie and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy. Last year, the sophomore slump hit the Austrian speedster and he scored just 20 goals and 32 points, a 20-point drop from his stellar rookie campaign.
Grabner still needs to work on his finishing skills. His speed earns him a few breakaway chances per game and if he could cash in on more of them, his goal totals could exceed his rookie year.
Expect him to have at least 25-30 goals this coming season and a point total of at least 45-50.
Eric Staal got off to a horribly slow start last season and his team slumped along with him. As Staal picked up his game, the Hurricanes improved their play and made a late (but ultimately futile) run for the playoffs.
This year, Staal will have even more talent around him with his brother Jordan and potential sniper Alexander Semin joining the Carolina lineup. If he plays to his usual level and you add the new teammates—who should give Staal a little more room to roam—and the 'Canes should have another cog in their offense this season.
When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, Patrick Kane had a career year: 30 goals and 88 points.
Kane's numbers have fallen in each season since, last year he scored just 23 goals and 66 points.
Chicago has plenty of talent around Kane and he will still get a lot of ice time.
There have been questions about Kane's dedication to the game, but the Buffalo native is still just 23 and should bounce back, even if it's not quite as high as 88 points.
The Finnish goalie stands to gain from the influx of talent the Wild added on July 4th, when they signed both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise as free agents.
The result should be less pressure on Backstrom and a higher win total for the Wild's starting netminder, who too often had to be nearly perfect in order to earn a victory.
The Winnipeg Jets are building from within and Evander Kane is arguably the centerpiece of that rebuilding program.
Last season, Kane totaled 30 goals and 57 points in his third NHL season. Kane is still just 21 and the arrow is pointing up for his future production.
The Jets feel they have a star in the making in Kane, and so far, he has done nothing to shake their faith.
Expect more improvement from Kane in year four.
Anze Kopitar was the Kings' most consistent forward last season during their run to the franchise's first ever Stanley Cup. Despite their postseason success, the Kings offense struggled through most of the regular season and didn't really click until after the trade deadline.
Kopitar still had a successful year, scoring 25 goals and 76 points, but if the Kings offense improves from 29th overall in the league to somewhere in the middle of the pack, expect Kopitar to also show better numbers next season.
The NHL's best Slovenian is just 25 and should be entering his most productive years. Look for improvement from Kopitar in 2012-13.
Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler is still just 20 and will be starting his third NHL season this fall. With the trade of Lubomir Visnovsky to the Islanders, expect Fowler to assume an even bigger role in the coming season, most likely as Anaheim's No. 1 defenseman.
Fowler had five goals and 29 points last year, but as a rookie, he scored 10 goals and 40 points. Expect him to at least approach those numbers if not exceed them this year if he stays healthy.
Pietrangelo is one of the up and coming young defensemen in the NHL and is a part of a Blues team that is also on its way up.
The King City, Ontario, native will be just 22 when the season gets underway (assuming there is no lockout) and his development should continue in his third full NHL season.
Last year, Pietrangelo scored 12 goals and 51 points. He will continue to get first-pair minutes and plenty of power-play time, so look for a 55-60 point season from the Blues' top blueliner.
Many NHL scouts question P.K. Subban's maturity, but few doubt he has the talent to be a successful NHL defenseman.
They also say defensemen take longer to develop than forwards and the time for Subban to take the next step is likely now.
The dreaded sophomore slump didn't hurt Subban much: he dropped from 38 points as a rookie to 36 last year. Expect at least 40 points this year on his way to even higher totals in the next few seasons.
Dany Heatley is another enigma in the NHL, an immensely talented young man who has stumbled at times during his career.
Last year, his first in Minnesota, Heatley scored 24 goals and had just 53 points, his lowest point total since 2003-04.
There are a few reasons the 31-year-old Wild winger should bounce back. First, the low total was just out of character for Heatley, who still should be in his prime. The additions of Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and a return to health of Mikko Koivu should also take some pressure off Heatley and give him more chances to find the back of the net.
Expect a big bounce back from Heatley as the talent around him improves and the pressure on him is reduced.
Drew Doughty struggled early last season with the weight of the new long-term, big-money contract he signed just prior to the season opener. The entire Kings offense struggled for most of the season, finishing 29th in the league in scoring.
Both Doughty and the Kings found their form in the playoffs and those of us who watched the Stanley Cup playoffs saw what Doughty was capable of on the ice.
Last year he had 10 goals and 36 points, but just two seasons earlier, he had 16 goals and 59 points, both career highs.
Expect numbers somewhere in the 50-55 point range for Doughty this season, but at 21, he's still capable of taking his game to an even higher level as he gains experience and maturity.
There are a few reasons to expect a better year from Brandon Dubinsky in 2012-13 than what he did last season.
Perhaps the biggest is that Dubinsky couldn't get much worse than falling from 54 points to just 34. The second reason is that Dubinsky will now find himself on one of his team's two scoring lines now that he has been traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The extra ice time and extra power-play opportunities should mean more points.
Expect at least 45 points from Dubinsky this year and maybe more if he finds a linemate that clicks with him.
Ellis barely qualified for this list after playing 32 games for Nashville last year, which makes him ineligible for the Calder Trophy this year.
The 21-year-old Ellis scored three goals and 11 points for the Predators last year, but look for him to end up with at least 25 points this season.
With Ryan Suter gone, Ellis will probably get the chance to take over many of his minutes, especially on the power play. The Preds expect big things from Ellis and hope he is ready to take a giant step forward this season.
Koivu should be back as the first-line center of the Wild and should be in for a much more productive season than the 12-goal, 44-point campaign he had last year.
First, Koivu should be healthy. He only appeared in 55 games last year, the lowest total of his NHL career. The addition of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will also likely help a setup man like Koivu accumulate more assists.
I would expect at least 65 points from Koivu and possibly many more if he stays healthy this season.
Most scouts feel it's just a matter of time before Edmonton's Taylor Hall shows why the Oilers made him the first overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
He has improved in each of his first two NHL seasons, scoring 27 goals and 53 points in just 61 games last season.
If Hall plays a full season, expect his numbers to continue to rise as he gains strength, experience and is surrounded by yet more talented young players including this year's top choice, Nail Yakupov.
Carolina's Jeff Skinner scored 31 goals and 63 points as a rookie two years ago, but slumped to just 20 goals and 44 points last year.
First, the 20-year-old Toronto native missed 18 games last season and the Hurricanes struggled to score goals as a team.
With a return to health and the additions of Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin to the Carolina lineup, expect Skinner's numbers this season to be closer to his rookie campaign than to last year's effort.
Matt Duchene was banged up last year and only played in 58 games. As a result, his goal total fell from 27 to 14 and his point total dropped from 67 to just 28.
Expect the Haliburton, Ontario, native to bounce back in his fourth NHL season and put up numbers much closer to his 2010-11 stats.
It's hard to believe Duchene is still just 21 and has his best hockey ahead of him.
Will Rick Nash be reborn on Broadway or will the pressure of playing games that count in a more traditional hockey market cause the veteran winger to struggle?
It is more likely that Nash will improve on last year's 30-goal, 59-point campaign. The upgrade of talent around him will be huge. The Rangers will have Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, young Chris Kreider and Ryan Callahan there to help set up Nash, a much more talented crew than he ever had in Columbus.
Expect 35 goals and 70 points from Nash as a minimum if he stays healthy, even in John Tortorella's defense-first system.
Adam Henrique had a successful rookie season, scoring 16 goals and 51 points.
In the playoffs, the Brantford, Ontario, native proved to be a clutch performer and scored three game-winning goals as the Devils advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
Expect Henrique to get more chances on the power play and top-six minutes after the departure of Zach Parise. It's safe to predict 20 goals and 60 points from him in year two of his NHL career.
Gabriel Landeskog has already made a strong first impression on the NHL, scoring 22 goals and 52 points while winning the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.
Landeskog inspired so much confidence in the Avalanche organization that he was named captain at the tender age of 19, making him the youngest player ever to earn the "C" badge on an NHL team.
Expect at least 25 goals and 60 points from the Swedish winger in year two, especially considering the young and maturing talent around him in Denver.
This will be the first year that Jordan Staal is completely out of the shadow of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as he moves on to Carolina this season.
Now, instead of playing a primarily defensive role as a third-line center, Staal will play on the second line and see increased ice time and chances with the man advantage.
That should mean better stats for Staal, who scored a respectable 25 goals and 50 points in 62 games last season. Expect 30 goals and 65 points if Staal can stay healthy this year.
Getzlaf slumped last season, scoring just 11 goals and 57 points. His point totals dropped by 21 over the previous year despite the fact that he played in all 82 games.
The point total was the lowest since 2006-07 for the Ducks' big center, who is still just 28 and in the prime of his career.
There is no reason to believe Getzlaf won't bounce back closer to his recent averages of 20 goals and 75-80 points if he stays healthy for a full season.
John Tavares has improved his point totals in each of his first three seasons in the NHL and there's little reason to think he's done improving.
Tavares will turn 22 later this month. He is a real competitor and works hard each offseason on the areas of his game that he wants to improve, like strength and his skating. By late last season, he was scoring goals and making plays that he just could not make in his rookie year.
This should be the year Tavares cracks the 35-goal, 85-point barrier; maybe even higher than that. His overall game will continue to improve as well and he will further establish himself as the leader of the Islanders franchise on and off the ice.
"The Great Eight" was not so great this past year, he was merely very good. Ovechkin's point totals dropped from 85 to 65 even though he scored six more goals.
Some have questioned Ovechkin's dedication to hockey, saying he was too busy leading a "rock star life," but a competitor like Ovechkin won't stay "down" for long.
Getting Nicklas Backstrom back for a full year will certainly help Ovie, as should new Caps coach Adam Oates, who should be more offensive minded than his predecessor.
Expect Ovechkin to score 40 goals and 85 points this season and perhaps even more than that if he's properly motivated. I expect the Russian superstar to answer the challenge this year.
Cody Hodgson was a big acquisition for the Sabres last year at the trade deadline. The former Canucks prospect is considered a future offensive point producer.
In Vancouver, Hodgson was buried on the third line because of the team's depth. He should be a top-six forward on the Sabres, however, and get a lot more chances on the power play and in key situations.
Expect the 22-year-old Toronto native to improve significantly on last season's 19 goals and 41 points.
While the Canucks have not traded Roberto Luongo yet, they have all but turned the starting job over to Cory Schneider for the coming season.
Schneider took over for Luongo in the playoffs last year and became a fan favorite. He has been more consistent than Luongo over the past few seasons, which helped earn him the promotion to starter.
The Canucks have won back-to-back President's Trophies and should be contenders again this year, which means that Schneider's wins should improve significantly.
Schneider played in 33 games last year, he should roughly double that in 2012-13.
Injuries limited Zajac to just 15 regular-season games, but during the playoffs, the veteran center returned and played a vital role on New Jersey's first line as they marched all the way to the Stanley Cup final.
Zajac had seven goals and 14 points in 24 postseason games last year. If he's healthy for a full season, the 27-year-old Winnipeg native is capable of scoring at least 20 goals and 55 points, a big upgrade over last year's numbers.
If he remains on the Devils' top line, Zajac will likely be playing with sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, which should get him plenty of assists.
Like Cory Schneider, Rask is taking over the starting job on a contending hockey team that should win a lot of games.
Rask has been Tim Thomas' backup the past two seasons in Boston, but since Thomas announced he was taking a year off, the Bruins will turn to the 25-year-old native of Finland who started for them in 2009-10.
Rask has been a consistent performer for the Bruins and should put up similar numbers to last year as far as goal against average and save percentage are concerned. The big increase for Rask will be in games played and of course in the wins column.
Seguin got a lot more ice time in his sophomore season and the results showed: he compiled 29 goals and 67 points last year after managing just 11 goals and 22 points as a rookie.
Seguin was the second overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft and he should continue to develop into one of the game's elite offensive players.
Expect the Brampton, Ontario, native to continue to improve his numbers as he gains strength, experience and physical maturity. Thirty-five goals and 85 points are not out of reach for Seguin if everything falls into place this year.
"The Nuge" had a very good start to his NHL career, scoring 18 goals and 52 points in just 62 games as a rookie. Had he not missed 20 games due to an assortment of injuries, it is likely Nugent-Hopkins would have won the Calder Trophy.
With the addition of Nail Yakupov, the Oilers are now loaded with young talent up front which should give Nugent-Hopkins plenty of opportunities to improve his point totals in his second year.
Look for the 19-year-old Burnaby, BC, native to improve to a point-a-game pace this season with better things yet to come later in his career.
I know this won't be popular outside of Pittsburgh, but just do the math and you'll see why Sidney Crosby is at the top of this list.
Last season, "Sid the Kid" played in just 22 games last season and scored 37 points. Over the course of a full season, that would translate to nearly 138 points.
Do I actually expect Crosby to play 82 games? No. He's been too banged up in recent years and post-concussion syndrome is a tricky thing.
But if Crosby plays 70 or more games, he should surpass the 120-point mark and that is enough to get him at the top of this list.