NHL Preview: Top 12 Wild-Card Players of the 2011-2012 NHL Season
With the 2011-12 NHL season now underway, there is no shortage of players we’re expecting big things from. However, there are even more players who we’re not quite sure about.
Perhaps they have been inconsistent so far in their careers or perhaps they’re coming off an unusually good or bad season and therefore we’re skeptical about predicting how they’ll perform this season. Maybe they’ve been injured or haven’t played in a while, or maybe they’re joining a new team and taking on a whole new role that’s giving us that uneasy feeling.
They are known as the wild-card players, and just like my list of wild-card teams that I featured last week, I have selected a group players who I believe to be the most unpredictable of all the NHL players to lace up the skates for the 2011-12 season. Here are the top 12 wild cards in the league right now.
12. Keith Ballard: Vancouver Canucks
In the summer of 2010, the Vancouver Canucks gave up a fair bit in order to acquire Keith Ballard in a trade with the Florida Panthers. They hoped he would be one of their best defensemen and help solidify their depth on the blue line in case of injuries down the stretch.
Ballard never quite fit in with his new team last season and wasn’t consistent enough for head coach Alain Vigneault to trust him when it mattered the most in the Stanley Cup Finals. Now many fans and analysts aren’t sure what to think of him.
With that being said, some people believe that Ballard wasn’t given a fair chance to prove himself last season, and he may bounce back this season with the Canucks. After all, he recorded more than 20 points in each of his first five seasons in the NHL before joining the Canucks and was a reliable defenseman in all of those seasons.
Perhaps Ballard won’t be expected to provide quite as many points with the Canucks as he did on his previous teams, but he could still be an elite shutdown defenseman if given the opportunity to gain his confidence back.
11. Andrei Kostitsyn: Montreal Canadiens
It’s no secret in Montreal that the Kostitsyn brothers have never been favourites of Jacques Martin and the Canadiens coaching staff.
Despite their talent, Andrei and especially Sergei were bounced around on different lines by Martin until Sergei was eventually traded to the Nashville Predators. Not surprisingly, his numbers took off after joining the Preds, which suggests the older and more talented Andrei should be able to do the same if given the opportunity in Montreal.
Unfortunately, with a coach he apparently doesn’t get along with at the helm, we don’t know if Andrei will get that opportunity, and that’s why he is a wild card.
10. Craig Anderson: Ottawa Senators
Once touted as one of the NHL’s best backup goalies while playing for the Florida Panthers, Craig Anderson proved his worth by putting together an outstanding season in 2009-10 with the Colorado Avalanche.
Anderson single-handedly led the Avalanche to the playoffs in 2010 where his outmatched team nearly upset the San Jose Sharks in the first round all thanks to him.
Then he came back down to Earth in a big way the next season before he was traded to the Ottawa Senators, where his stats improved drastically.
In other words, Anderson is inconsistent.
Now, many of you probably don’t think Anderson’s numbers will be very good this season because he plays for Ottawa. However, Anderson took an Avalanche team that everyone thought would be terrible to the playoffs, so why can’t he do it again with the Senators? At the very least, his save percentage might be decent because of all the shots he’ll face this season.
9. Nicklas Backstrom: Washington Capitals
Nicklas with a "C" in his first name was on his way to joining a select group of superstars as one of the best players in the game until his bizarre drop-off in production in 2010-11.
Backstrom went from tallying 69 points in his rookie campaign, to 88 points in his sophomore season, to a whopping 101 points the year after that, to just 65 points last season. With no injury problems to report, how does a budding star go from a rapid rise to the top to a dramatic decline of being just another top-six forward in only one year?
I realize that many of the Capitals' top scorers had a decline in production last season thanks to head coach Bruce Boudreau’s commitment to defence, but none were more glaring than Backstrom's.
The talent is still there for the 23-year-old Swede, but it’s hard to predict if he can get back to being one of the league’s top scorers this season after what happened last season.
8. Jose Theodore: Florida Panthers
If there’s a better word to describe Jose Theodore than wild card, I’d like to hear it.
How do you know what to expect from a guy who won the Hart Trophy as MVP of the entire NHL one year and then became completely irrelevant only a few years later?
Theodore played well for the Minnesota Wild last season even though the only reason he got to play for them in the first place was due to an injury to Josh Harding. Nevertheless, he seems to have turned around his career, and the Florida Panthers have given him an opportunity to be their starter this season.
Your guess is as good as mine in terms of how he’ll perform for the Panthers, but he’s usually a fun goalie to watch regardless of whether he’s epically good or epically bad.
7. James Wisniewski: Columbus Blue Jackets
After years of being simply a solid NHL defenseman, James Wisniewski had a career year in 2010-11 and got paid a lot of money by the Columbus Blue Jackets because of it.
Wisniewski’s 51 points last season were great, but the fact that he put up those numbers in a contract year and didn’t produce nearly as many points in previous seasons should make us wary of what he’ll do in the future.
Another reason Wisniewski is a wild card is because of his unpredictable temper. He’s already been suspended for the first eight games of the regular season for a late hit in the preseason, and he has a history of doing some inappropriate things on the ice.
Wisniewski may duplicate his numbers from last season, but until he proves that he’s more than a one-year wonder and can stay in the lineup consistently, he’ll always be a wild card.
6. Ville Leino: Buffalo Sabres
You can call Ville Leino the James Wisniewski of the forwards, minus the temper.
Leino is the same age as Wisniewski and had done next to nothing in the NHL when it came to scoring until last season. That’s when he turned a wonderful 2010 playoffs for the Philadelphia Flyers into a very good 2010-11 season, recording 53 points.
He then did the same thing as Wisniewski over the summer. He became a free agent and decided to sign a big contract elsewhere. The team that is taking a chance on him is the Buffalo Sabres.
It seemed as though Leino was just getting the hang of being an offensive threat with the Flyers and now he has to build chemistry with a new team in Buffalo. Combine this adjustment with his inconsistent point totals to date and he’s unpredictable at best.
5. Joffrey Lupul: Toronto Maple Leafs
Ranging from his numerous trades, to his injury problems, to his ups and downs on the score sheet, Joffrey Lupul’s career has certainly been quite the roller coaster to date.
If you took Lupul as a late-round pick in your hockey pool, you are certainly a gambler.
From his 53 points in 05-06, to his 28 points in 06-07, to his 46 points in 56 games in 07-08, Lupul has been all over the map with both his point production and the cities he’s played in. The one positive that comes with playing for his latest team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, is that he’ll probably be given plenty of minutes both at even strength and on the power play because of their lack of depth at the forward position.
4. Roberto Luongo: Vancouver Canucks
If you watched all seven games of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, you know how unpredictable Roberto Luongo can be. He can be one of the best goalies in the world at times and he generally has played that way throughout his career.
However, his multiple collapses, along with his propensity for letting in weak and bizarre goals, can’t be ignored and has to be a cause for concern for the Canucks moving forward this season.
Think of it this way. As good as Luongo is, the last time he ended a season with a horrible performance, his next season was his worst as a pro. Considering he ended this past season with two straight poor performances, it might be a sign of things to come this season. Then again, he could also shrug history aside and play like the goaltender we know he’s capable of being.
3. Alexander Semin: Washington Capitals
Much like Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin is a talented sniper from the Washington Capitals whose point production dropped off dramatically last season.
Semin’s inconsistencies go beyond just that one season, though, as he’s had plenty of spikes in his year-to-year scoring chart. He might be a perfect description of a wild card because not only has his point production gone up and down throughout his career, but he’s also had his share of injuries, and he sometimes appears to be unmotivated on the ice despite his incredible talent. If you don’t believe me, just ask his former teammate Matt Bradley.
One reason Semin might play better this season is because he will become an unrestricted free agent next summer. So if the prospect of winning the Stanley Cup can’t motivate him, perhaps a boat load of money from another team will.
2. Marco Sturm: Vancouver Canucks
Past injuries are often a cause for uncertainty and scepticism about the performance of athletes, especially when they get into their 30s. This is the case for Marco Sturm with the Vancouver Canucks this season.
Sturm has had two knee surgeries in the past three years and played only 35 games on two teams last season, recording just 16 points in the process.
However, he’s also scored 20 or more goals in a season seven times in his NHL career, the most recent coming just two years ago. It’s because of this reason that the Canucks signed Sturm to a $2.5 million contract for the 2011-12 season.
Another reason Sturm is a wild card is because we really don’t know what kind of role he will assume during 2011-12 in Vancouver. He’s starting the season on the second line because of the injuries to Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler, but we don’t know if that will last once those two return to the lineup. In fact, we really have no idea if he will be more than a fourth-line grinder on a completely healthy Canucks team.
1. Jaromir Jagr: Philadelphia Flyers
It’s literally anyone’s guess how a 39-year-old former MVP who hasn’t played in the NHL for more than three years will do this season.
We know that Jaromir Jagr has all the talent in the world and it’s not as if he’s been sitting at home doing nothing for the last three years. He’s played very well in the KHL, but that doesn’t mean he will necessarily have the same impact with the Philadelphia Flyers.
First of all, we don’t know what line he’ll be playing on and how many minutes he’ll play, although it’s safe to say he’ll see some power-play time. Secondly, it’s difficult to predict how he’ll adjust to not only playing with a new team, but also to playing in an entirely new league.
Certainly the talent is there, but there are so many unknowns with Jagr that it’s nearly impossible to try and gauge how much production the Flyers will get out of him. This is why he is the wild card of all wild cards in 2011-12.
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This article also appears on Bottom Line Hockey