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NHL Predictions: Forecasting Hockey's 2011-12 Statistical Leaders

James ConleyContributor IIIJuly 15, 2011

NHL Predictions: Forecasting Hockey's 2011-12 Statistical Leaders

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    This one's for you fantasy owners.

    Last season, Tim Thomas ran away from the field with historical numbers and the hardware to back them up, earning Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophies in addition to the Stanley Cup.

    Steven Stamkos and Daniel Sedin emerged from the scoring pack after Sidney Crosby went down with a concussion, but Corey Perry's late-season surge helped him earn the Rocket Richard and Hart Trophies.

    Vancouver slayed the President's Trophy race and the New York Islanders racked up the penalty minutes.

    Some statistical races ended up with surprise finishes—others, not so much.

    Let's have a guess at next year's projected leaders.

    All stats courtesy NHL.com.

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Best Record

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    Vancouver lost few major pieces in free agency and managed to re-sign or attain a good group of core players.

    They'll also continue to play in the worst division in hockey. Edmonton, Colorado and Calgary improved only marginally through free agency, if at all.

    With 30 free wins on the table in the Northwest Division alone, there's no reason that Vancouver shouldn't walk to their second consecutive President's Trophy win.

Most Points

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    Assuming Crosby is healthy and playing at one hundred percent, there is little to suggest he can't pick up right where David Steckel had him leave off in January.

    Crosby totaled 66 points in 41 games for a 1.61 points per game average, by far the highest of any player in the league (second was Daniel Sedin with 1.27 points per game). He was leading the league in goals and total points at the time of his injury, and was still considered the Hart Trophy favorite for nearly a month after his injury.

    All the Penguins need to do is stay healthy. If Crosby can overcome his concussion symptoms and avoid new ones, he'll find himself in a great position to score. Chris Kunitz was on pace to score 30 goals and record a career-high in points before he and Sid were lost for extended periods of time, and James Neal is a winger the likes of which Crosby has never had for any length of time.

    If the Pens can remove the elusive wrench from the gears of their power play, it will only better his chances at crushing the scoring race in 2011-12.

Most Goals

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    Corey Perry tore through the stretch run of the 2010-11 season, finishing with 50 goals to ensure the league had at least one 50-goal scorer in every post-lockout season while securing his first Rocket Richard victory.

    The surge also helped to push the Ducks into the last home-ice seed in the very competitive Western Conference and played a large part in earning Perry's first Hart Trophy, awarded to the NHL regular season MVP.

    Perry plays on what has to be considered the best line in hockey. Ryan Getzlaf is a franchise center and Bobby Ryan a franchise winger, selected second overall in 2005 behind Sidney Crosby.

    With some of the best even-strength firepower to work with and a power play unit that rotates Lubomir Visnovsky, Cam Fowler and Teemu Selanne, Perry won't have to carry the load alone—rather, he'll have the cavalry to help him pad his own numbers.

    San Jose and Los Angeles provide tough divisional defense, but the Phoenix Coyotes and Dallas Stars became much softer with free agency. The Pacific Division should do little to stop Perry from approaching the 50-goal mark next season, or better.

Most Assists

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    Kris Letang finished 31st among all skaters last season with 42 assists, but was much closer to the top of that race before a tidal wave of injuries robbed Pittsburgh of its best finishers.

    Letang has become a mainstay on the back end of Pittsburgh's power play and seems to have passed Brooks Orpik and become Pittsburgh's No. 1 defenseman.

    Letang improved his defensive game remarkably last season, but has always had the tools to excel offensively. Penguins fans have seen flashes of those tools, but Letang has never been as consistently explosive in the offensive zone as he is capable of.

    Again, the key is health. If Pittsburgh stays healthy, they will be scoring goals by the bucketload. James Neal is a huge addition to the top-two lines, Evgeni Malkin is reportedly pathologically committed to returning to his Conn Smythe form and Crosby, fingers crossed, will resume his place as the game's most dynamic offensive threat.

    If the power play improves and Pittsburgh's big finishers remain healthy, Letang will be there to find them.

Best Plus/Minus

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    Zdeno Chara led the NHL with a plus-33 rating last season.

    He was joined by fellow Bruins Adam McQuaid (plus-30), Nathan Horton (plus-29), Milan Lucic (plus-28), Brad Marchand (plus-25), David Krejci (plus-23), Andrew Ference (plus-22) and Patrice Bergeron (plus-20) in the top 30 plus-minus players of 2010-11.

    Chara will likely repeat as the plus-minus leader, and the reasons were laid to bare in Boston's four wins of the Cup Finals:

    —Chara does not allow shots.
    —When Chara allows shots, Tim Thomas does not allow goals.
    —The few goals against the Bruins are leveraged by an offense that has found its scoring touch.

    Zdeno Chara was a finalist for the Norris Trophy this season and by all rights could have won it. He is the most imposing physical force in hockey, and his last line of defense just enjoyed the finest statistical goaltending season since save percentage became an official stat.

    Chara and the Bruins seem set to enjoy similar success in 2011-12.

Penalty Minutes

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    Last season, the New York Islanders were the most penalized team in hockey, and Zenon Konopka led all Islanders brutes in penalty minutes with 307—nearly 100 more PIM than Chris Neil, who finished second in the league with 210.

    Konopka was acquired by the Ottawa Senators this summer, a team with no backlog of skilled forwards threatening to rob Konopka of his spot in the starting 12.

    The forward played all 82 games last season with the Islanders. He's also a faceoff specialist, having finished fourth among all skaters with a 57.7 faceoff win percentage (among those with a large enough sample size to qualify for the statistic, courtesy NHL.com).

    Konopka will start nearly every game if healthy. In addition to racking up the faceoff wins, he will be certain to collect his fair share of PIM.

Goaltender Wins

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    The New York Rangers rely on Henrik Lundqvist like no team in hockey relies on their starting goaltender. Lundqvist has been an absolute workhorse in New York since coming to prominence after the lockout, and is always near the top of the league in starts and victories.

    Lundqvist finished tied for third with 36 victories last season, two fewer than league leader Roberto Luongo. He was forced to carry New York through the stretch run after backup Martin Biron was injured during practice and was unavailable through the late stages of the regular season.

    Lundqvist will likely get 65-plus starts again this season, though the Rangers may not prefer it. Offensive help has arrived in New York in the form of Brad Richards, but the Rangers face a murderer's row of talent in their division with the Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils. They'll continue to rely on Lundqvist.

    If the Rangers can make hay against the East's lesser competitors, Lundqvist will be at or near the top of the goalie wins column once again.

Save Percentage

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    Pekka Rinne hit the scene in a big way last year, earning his first Vezina nomination and falling just short of winning it, only thanks to Tim Thomas' career year.

    The 6'5" netminder helped backstop Nashville to the fifth seed in the Western Conference playoffs last season and took them to the second round for the first time in franchise history.

    Rinne has the help of the best defensive pairing in hockey in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but Nashville has lost valuable pieces otherwise. Shane O'Brien and Cody Franson are gone, and new add Brett Lebda didn't exactly run the show in Toronto.

    Nashville doesn't score many goals and relies on its defense and goaltending for wins. Whether or not the Predators ever spend the money to get above the salary floor and add another bona fide defenseman, Rinne will still have plenty of shots coming his way.

    His .930 save percentage of a year ago might just increase. It was only .008 points off Thomas' mark for the league's best.

Goals Against Average

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    Boston has one of the best defensive units in hockey, perhaps the single toughest defenseman to play against, and Tim Thomas showed last year he can be the most dominant goaltender in the game.

    Strong defenses limit shots and great goaltenders eat up the ones that get past their blueliners. The Bruins have one of hockey's best defenses and perhaps its greatest goaltender.

    In short, they are set up to stifle goals again in 2011-12.

    Boston lost only Tomas Kaberle, no defensive stalwart himself, from last year's Stanley Cup corps. GM Pete Chiarelli replaced Kaberle with Joe Corvo. In all other parts, the league's second-best defense in terms of goals against gets all its pieces back.

    If Thomas stays healthy, there's nothing to suggest he won't finish with the best GAA in the NHL for the second straight year.

Team Power Play

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    I had the chance to see the Sharks play the Penguins last February at CONSOL Energy Center. While the Penguins were in the midst of losing a player per game to injuries, they still maintained the league's best penalty kill.

    Watching the Sharks, one thing stood out above all else—their power play unit was fierce.

    Perhaps watching Pittsburgh's impotent power play for two years has soured me on what a good one should look like, but the Sharks' unit was absolutely dominant.

    While San Jose may have lost two offensive talents in Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley, Martin Havlat is a nasty offensive talent and has the chance to excel in an environment full of offense.

    Havlat, too, is only the tip of the San Jose iceberg. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Ryan Clowe all have the tools to make the unit click.

    The club finished second to the Canucks last year in power play success (24.3 percent to 23.5 percent). Unless Havlat manages to underachieve like Heatley did in 2010-11, the unit can very well finish tops in the NHL.

Team Penalty Kill

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    For the first time in franchise history, the Penguins led the league in penalty killing percentage in 2010-11 with a success rate of 86.1 percent.

    Dan Bylsma's demand for relentless skating coupled with assistant coach Tony Granato's penalty killing structures gave Pittsburgh the kind of penalty kill that teams didn't want to face.

    The unit didn't even have its best forward, Jordan Staal, until the halfway mark of the season, and lost one its best killing forwards in Matt Cooke for the end of the regular season and all of the Tampa series.

    The unit lost nothing when Max Talbot departed for Philadelphia. The Penguins have plenty of energy guys to handle the job, including Staal, Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy and shot-blocker extraordinaire Craig Adams.

    Pittsburgh can also roll pairings of Brooks Orpik-Kris Letang and Paul Martin-Zbynek Michalek on the PK. The last line of defense also happens to be one of the top five or ten goaltenders in the game.

    All this is key when your team nearly leads the league in PIM, as the Penguins did last season with 1,388 PIM, second only to the Islanders.

    Pittsburgh's relentlessness isn't going to change as long as Bylsma is running the show. Assuming good health, the unit should have the chance to better its mark of 86.1 percent this season.

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