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Building the All-Improved NHL Team for the 2015-16 Season

Steve MacfarlaneFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2016

Building the All-Improved NHL Team for the 2015-16 Season

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Drawing up the All-Improved NHL Team for the 2015-16 season starts with a single line. The best at each position—based on an upward trend that has skyrocketed, at least by relative standards—is listed, along with nominations for the second and third lines of this fictional squad.

    It's anchored by a pair of goaltenders enjoying their first 50-game seasons.

    We're not looking at veterans having bounce-back seasons or total anomalies expected to fall back to their career averages next season. This list is for the relatively young and still-growing players who have made a dramatic jump forward in their respective developments.

    The All-Improved Team contains a mix of some of the year's top players and some serious up-and-comers.

    Click ahead to see the starting six and their alternates.

Left Wing: Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

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    Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 80 games played, 24 goals, 40 assists, 64 points, 167 shots and four game-winners.

    2015-16 Season: 72 games played, 27 goals, 44 assists, 71 points, 191 shots, six game-winners and three overtime winners.

    Analysis: Johnny Gaudreau had a spectacular rookie season that ended with a nod as a finalist for the Calder Trophy last year. But his leap forward has been dramatic.

    This year, Johnny Hockey has already joined the league's elite playmakers. He's a skating highlight reel who uses his incredible speed and vision to make veteran defenders look like pylons and goaltenders look like they have cement skates. On pace for 80 points, Gaudreau is looking at a 16-point improvement—so much for the sophomore slump.

    Other options: Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins; Mike Hoffman, Ottawa Senators.

Center: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 80 games played, 11 goals, 26 assists, 37 points, plus-10 rating, 127 shots, one game-winner and one overtime winner.

    2015-16 Season: 72 games played, 20 goals, 53 assists, 73 points, plus-28 rating, 158 shots, four game-winners and two overtime winners.

    Analysis: No player in the league has had as significant a jump in production as Evgeny Kuznetsov. And anyone crazy enough to believe he's a product of his environment, playing with Alex Ovechkin, should know he's only played about a quarter of his five-on-five time with Ovechkin on his wing, according to Left Wing Lock.

    From 37 points to what projects to be a low to mid-80s haul, the third-year Russian gets the nod over a couple of solid developing young centers for the starting role. 

    Other choices: Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers; Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers.

Right Wing: Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    2014-15 Season: 57 games played, 14 goals, 15 assists, 29 points, five power-play goals, 10 power-play points, 112 shots and one overtime winner.

    2015-16 Season: 73 games played, 27 goals, 23 assists, 50 points, 10 power-play goals, 20 power-play points, 191 shots and two overtime winners.

    Analysis: Not many players would be thankful to be traded away by the Anaheim Ducks, especially if the landing spot was the New Jersey Devils. But winger Kyle Palmieri must think it's heavenly.

    The 25-year-old has a pretty good shot at doubling his point total from last year and has thrived in a top scoring slot with the Devils. Palmieri's response to his new role has made the Devils look genius for prising him away from California.

    Other choices: Tobias Rieder, Arizona Coyotes; Reilly Smith, Florida Panthers.

Defense: Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose Sharks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2014-15 Season: 70 games played, nine goals, 14 assists, 23 points, 98 shots and plus-12 rating.

    2015-16 Season: 67 games played, eight goals, 31 assists, 39 points, 116 shots and plus-15 rating.

    Analysis: There's no telling what kind of points total Marc-Edouard Vlasic might have been in with a chance of recording had he been healthy all season. Over a full 82-game year, the San Jose Sharks defenseman projects at nearly 50 points—a mark hit by just 11 blueliners last season.

    Vlasic, 28, has never come anywhere near that kind of offensive pace. He's gradually gained notoriety as a stalwart defender and was a member of Canada's 2014 Olympic team. He has proved you can teach an older player new tricks under new coach Pete DeBoer's tutelage.

    Other choices: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes; Mattias Ekholm, Nashville Predators.

Defense: Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo Sabres

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    2014-15 Season: 78 games played, eight goals, 12 assists, 20 points, 121 shots and nine power-play points.

    2015-16 Season: 74 games played, nine goals, 30 assists, 39 points, 186 shots and 20 power-play points.

    Analysis: Rasmus Ristolainen made a nice impression in his first full season a year ago but has long passed those meager-by-comparison totals this term. The 21-year-old Finn is set to crack the 40-point mark for a terrible Buffalo Sabres squad that will likely see only four or five players hit that total.

    He jumped into a top role when Zach Bogosian started the season on the injured list and took full advantage of his ample ice time. He hasn't relinquished his top rearguard title since Bogosian returned in November. Set to more than double his points total from last year, Ristolainen has become an all-situation defender. 

    Other choices: Michael Stone, Arizona Coyotes; TJ Brodie, Calgary Flames.

Goaltender: Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    2014-15 Season: 15 games played, 11 started, 4-5-2 record, 2.25 goals-against average and .906 save percentage.

    2015-16 Season: 60 games played, 60 started, 35-20-4 record, 2.24 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

    Analysis: The San Jose Sharks believed in former Los Angeles Kings backup Martin Jones. It turns out they were right about his potential to be a strong NHL starter, and the move to pick him up through the Boston Bruins in the offseason has worked out well for the Sharks.

    Jones ranks third in league wins (35) and his save percentage (.920) is top 10 among goalies who have played at least 50 games this season. The 26-year-old has helped the Sharks return to the playoff picture. He's big and athletic and has made the most of his chance to prove he belongs.

    Other choice: Petr Mrazek, Detroit Red Wings.

     

    Stats via NHL.com unless otherwise noted.

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