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Winnipeg Jets' Player Projections: The Top-Six Forwards

Rob Vollman once again presents projections for all the Winnipeg Jets using the two most popular statistical methods: VUKOTA and Snepsts. This first piece looks at their top-six forwards.

James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

It was risky enough last year to use statistical analysis to project how many points each of the Winnipeg Jets' would score, but it's an even riskier proposition this year. If we lose the whole season then we'll have no idea how accurate our estimates were, and have less information on which to base our projections next year. Even if the season starts late and they therefore play fewer games, the luck inherent in the shorter season could make our projections way off.

Nevertheless, we're boldly doing it again using our two favourite systems, VUKOTA and Snepsts, both of which have proven more accurate than the intuitive guesses you find in the magazines because they use purely objective systems, based heavily on history.

VUKOTA, which was created by Tom Awad, is featured annually in the Hockey Prospectus books, and is highly regarded for its accuracy (by David Staples of the Edmonton Journal, for example). It also has the advantage of predicting games played.

The Snepsts system -- created by yours truly -- has the advantage of presenting low-water and high-water marks, along with some examples of similar historical players. Unfortunately it doesn't predict games played, so everything is normalized to 82 games.

After carefully studying the results of its first three years of use, the Snepsts system was revamped this off-season. While the basic engine is the same, it now looks at additional factors like shots, power play goals and defensive GVT to get more accurate matches, consequently looks only at post-expansion players, and is therefore dubbed Snepsts67.

Typically we start by looking at the top-six forwards, which you'll find immediately after this preamble; then in two separate parts we look at the defensemen and the secondary forwards. Everything except VUKOTA is normalized to 82 games, and try to ignore the occasional rounding anomaly.

For further study you can find a spreadsheet of all NHL players over on Hockey Abstract, and you can check out the handy Player Usage Charts while you're at it. Finally, check out last year's recap which, for Winnipeg's top-six forwards, concluded that "We were close with our projections of Andrew Ladd, Nik Antropov and Bryan Little, caught Evander Kane only near the high-end of expectations, and completely blew Blake Wheeler and Eric Fehr."

Evander Kane

Evander Kane's first three seasons bare an uncanny resemblance to fellow shot-taking, hard-hitting power forward Corey Perry, though Perry started his career at an age two years older than Kane.

Perry GP G A Pts
2005-06 56 13 12 25
2006-07 82 17 27 44
2007-08 70 29 25 54

Kane GP G A Pts
2009-10 66 14 12 26
2010-11 73 19 24 43
2011-12 74 30 27 57

If the pattern holds up, then Evander Kane could match Perry's 2008-09 total of 32 goals and 72 points. While that's within our possible range of historical results, and he could indeed go as high as 35 goals and 79 points like Mark Messier's era-adjusted youth, the average expectation is actually about 5 goals and 10 points lower.

GP G A Pts
Last Year 74 30 27 57
VUKOTA 76.8 29.7 30.7 60.4
Best 82 35.1 44.2 79.3
Worst 82 18.6 20.6 39.2
Average 82 26.9 34.8 61.7

Of his ten closest comparables, three scored at least 30 goals, and four scored at least 70 points, including three of the four closest historical matches (including Perry). Given that Kane placed at the upper end of expectations last year, and were actually bang on with VUKOTA's projection, there's every reason to hope he can reach those targets.

Should he stay healthy, and should the Jets continue to use him in an offensive-minded capacity against middling opponents -- where he is drawing penalties and starting to do well possession-wise -- Kane's as good a bet as anyone for 30 goals and 70 points (unless his evil half-brother the Undertaker interferes, of course).

Andrew Ladd

Those who read our projections were among the few to realize that last year was hardly a disappointing season from Andrew Ladd, as he met our statistical expectations almost exactly.

In many ways it was a great season for Ladd, who topped 200 shots for the first time, with a mighty 265. As usual he faced top competition in a generally offensive-minded role, and had fantastic possession numbers for the second straight season. Indeed, the fact that the .902 save percentage the Thrashers had with him on the ice in 2010-11 is actually the highest of the past three seasons shows just how talent his typical opponents have been, whether as a Hawk, a Thrasher or a Jet.

Of course, he's used much differently here than in Chicago, where he mostly served on the checking line with Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Kane's cabbie, greatly boosting his ice-time in all three manpower situations. At 26 Ladd is gradually arcing out of his prime, with an even-strength scoring rate that dropped for the third straight season, but he still holds at the top-six level which ought to be enough to compete for 20 goals and 50 points once again – something achieved by four of his ten closest matches.

GP G A Pts
Last Year 82 28 22 50
VUKOTA 75.2 24.5 24.6 49.1
Best 82 36.0 33.0 69.0
Worst 82 12.7 18.4 31.1
Average 82 20.5 27.5 47.9

The closest match is Mike Fisher, another hard-nosed two-way player who worked all manpower situations. This is great news for Ladd if it lands him a huge contract and a hot country music star, but bad news if he matches Fisher's subsequent scoring total of just 13 goals and 32 points.

Fisher GP G A Pts
1999-2006 316 70 74 144
2006-07 68 22 26 48
2007-08 79 23 24 47

Ladd GP G A Pts
2005-10 321 63 86 149
2010-11 81 29 30 59
2011-12 82 28 22 50

Olli Jokinen

Having done analysis for the fine folks over at FlamesNation, the good news is that Olli Jokinen can definitely play the tough minutes, but the bad news is that he doesn't play them particularly well and that his scoring statistics are currently perched on the edge of a cliff.

Check out those Player Usage Charts – Jokinen indeed faced among the toughest competition on the Flames for the second straight season, and was used slightly more defensively than usual, but consequently had that same big white Corsi circle (those mean he's being badly outshot).

Jokinen may have scored between 50-61 points per season and consistently took between 208-236 shots over the past four years in Phoenix, New York and Calgary, but was also a combined -38. He's not getting any younger, and he also doesn't have Curtis Glencross' fluky 23.6% shooting percentage to boost his scoring anymore. He's consistently bad at faceoffs, isn't used to kill penalties, and takes too many of his own, topping 1.0 minor penalties per 60 minutes and taking more than he drew in three of the past four seasons.

In fairness his considerable talent on the power play is highly underrated, is 10 for 26 in the shoot-out over the past four seasons and his consistent even-strength scoring rate of 1.7-1.9 points per 60 minutes would be perfect on a two-way second line alongside Andrew Ladd. Just don't set your expectations much higher than the same 20 goals and 50 points at best, something achieved by roughly half of his closest historical matches.

GP G A Pts
Last Year 82 23 38 61
VUKOTA 70.4 17.6 28.7 46.4
Best 82 25.9 36.2 62.2
Worst 82 6.1 16.4 22.5
Average 82 17.0 30.4 47.4

One of the closest historical matches, for both Jokinen and Blake Wheeler (coming up next), is Steve Rucchin, albeit at much different points of his career (Wheeler turned 26, Jokinen is 33). Rucchin was a two-way centre for the Mighty Ducks back in the late 90s, and once won the ultimate linemate lottery, lining up between Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne in their primes.

Cramming the three together in a table, Jokinen lines up with Rucchin's 20-goal 43-point season and Wheeler the 17-goal, 53-point campaign.

Rucchin GP G A Pts Wheeler GP G A Pts
1994-95 43 6 11 17 2009-10 82 18 20 38
1995-96 64 19 25 44 2010-11 81 18 26 44
1996-97 79 19 48 67 2011-12 80 17 47 64
1997-98 72 17 36 53 Jokinen GP G A Pts
1998-99 69 23 39 62 2007-08 82 34 37 71
1999-00/td> 71 19 38 57 2008-09 76 29 28 57
2000-01 16 3 5 8 2009-10 82 15 35 50
2001-02 38 7 16 23 2010-11 79 17 37 54
2002-03 82 20 38 58 2011-12 82 23 38 61
2003-04 82 20 23 43

Blake Wheeler

Over a full 82 game season the 53 points in 72 games scored by Rucchin works out to another 60 point season for Blake Wheeler. Of his ten closest historical matches only two failed to score 60 points, and four even managed 20 goals.

Wheeler has enjoyed a steady increase in shots all the way up to 208 last season, but a matching drop in shooting percentage leaves him with between 17-21 goals in each of the past four seasons, so at least his goal-scoring projection should be reliable.

GP G A Pts
Last Year 80 17 47 64
VUKOTA 71.2 17.2 33.2 50.4
Best 82 26.8 45.9 72.6
Worst 82 17.2 32.0 49.2
Average 82 21.5 40.3 61.8

Things really came together for Wheeler last season, having enjoyed a consistent rise in even-strength playing time, being relieved of his secondary penalty-killing duties, and having his first decent season on the power play.

Wheeler's even-strength scoring rate has been at least a strong 2.1 points per 60 minutes in three of the past four seasons, during which time he's gone 13 for 31 in the shoot-out. He's also enjoyed a steady rise in hitting rate, and finally got his penalties under control last year, drawing more than he took for the first time.

All in all it was a solid year for Wheels, who may put too much trust in Joey Jeremiah, but whose possession-based numbers finally blossomed after years of offensive-minded minutes against roughly second line competition.

Kyle Wellwood

Kyle Wellwood's single-season, $1.6M contract got an enthusiastic 83.6% approval in a recent survey of top statistical analysts over at ESPN, and why wouldn't it? His ability to draw penalties while taking only ten of his own in the last four seasons combined, along with his strong face-off percentage and shoot-out abilities (9 for 24 in that span) practically earns the dough right there.

Wellwood is a very, very specific type of player. He doesn't throw hits, take shots, block shots, kill penalties, drive the play, nor handle assignments in the defensive zone or against top opponents. Just to show how safe his playing conditions are, previous to this season his on-ice save percentage was .935, .952 and .972, consequently earning a personal goals-against average between 0.65 and 1.79. Just as Ladd is playing against great shooters, Wellwood's up against the type of players who dump and chase even on breakways.

Wellwood is used simply for offense. Though he previously appeared to be a consistent 26-point man, his even-strength scoring rate has been steadily increasing for years before it finally broke out last year, thanks in part to some power play time.

GP G A Pts
Last Year 77 18 29 47
VUKOTA 64.3 13.4 22.6 36.0
Best 82 22.8 32.3 55.1
Worst 82 8.6 14.9 23.4
Average 82 17.3 23.7 40.9

Like several of Winnipeg's top forwards, Wellwood's target is 20 goals and 50 points, the former of which half his historical matches accomplished, but the latter just three out of ten.

Bryan Little

Among Winnipeg's top-six forwards Bryan Little has been used in a slightly more defensive-minded capacity and against higher level opponents, where he has matched up quite well for the second straight season.

Little has good discipline, always drawing more penalties than he takes, is 7 for 26 in the shoot-out over the past four seasons, has been a solid power play option and has even been used as a secondary penalty killer for the second straight season. The only real knocks against Little are his weakness in the faceoff circle (though he almost broke even last year), and that his even-strength scoring rate just barely qualifies him for the top six.

GP G A Pts
Last Year 74 24 22 46
VUKOTA 70.8 19.6 24.0 43.7
Best 82 36.6 37.5 74.1
Worst 82 9.0 14.2 23.1
Average 82 18.5 28.7 47.2

Though there's a wide spread in possible results, three out of the closest ten matches scored at least 20 goals, with another right behind, four of them scored at least 50 points, and the second-worst result was 38 points. The closest match was Don Lever, whose era-adjusted scoring totals are quite similar to Little's at the same age (Little's turning 25 next month).

Lever GP G A Pts
1972-75 236 58.3 68.4 126.7
1975-76 80 19.5 32.7 52.2
1976-77 80 21.6 25.3 46.9

Little GP G A Pts
2007-10 207 50 51 101
2010-11 76 18 30 48
2011-12 74 24 22 46

Though Lever's career would last 14 more seasons, the 40.8 points he scored in 1977-78 would be his highest for quite some time. The same could be true for Little if someone bumps him out of the top six.

Nik Antropov

Known primarily for his (now-fading) offensive talents, especially on the power play where he has scored at least 4.3 points per 60 minutes in each of the past four seasons, Nik Antropov has begun to finally add on some defensive responsibilities too.

Used as a secondary option on the penalty kill, and facing above-average competition after years of usage against secondary opponents at best, Antropov is successfully adjusting to the type of role that ought to extend his career several more seasons.

According to his closest historical matches, Antropov is looking at roughly half a point per game.

GP G A Pts
Last Year 69 15 20 35
VUKOTA 61.6 11.8 17.9 29.7
Best 82 34.2 33.5 67.7
Worst 82 7.9 13.3 21.2
Average 82 16.8 25.0 41.7

His closest historical match could be Yvon Lambert, another tall guy (for his time) with a high shooting percentage on relatively few shots. Though Antropov isn't a winger like Lambert, perhaps his terrible faceoff percentage suggests that he ought to be. The two lined up quite well when Lambert was two years his junior (Antropov's 32).

Lambert GP G A Pts
1971-79 599 165.7 203.3 369.0
1979-80 77 15.9 25.5 41.4
1980-81 73 15.2 23.2 38.5

Antropov GP G A Pts
1999-2010 603 156 215 371
2010-11 76 16 25 41
2011-12 69 15 20 35

Lambert played for three more seasons at roughly the same level, earning only a point or two more than our average projection above.

Next Time

That's it for the top-six forwards. Coming up next we will take a look at the defensemen before concluding with a look at the remaining forwards.