Five Sleepers for 2012-13: The NHL’s Western Conference

There are few assets as valuable in the NHL as the player on an entry level contract (ELC) playing significant minutes. Having a player on the roster with a cap hit below or close to $1 million creates a lot of flexibility for general managers when it comes to trades and signings. Look no further than some of the most recent Stanley Cup winners. In 2009, the Penguins had Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin on rookie deals. In 2010, Chicago’s two best forwards, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, were still signed to their ELCs.

In the first part of this two part series, I will take a look at five young players in the Western Conference currently signed to very affordable contracts. Thanks to significant offseason changes, all five of these players could provide huge value to their respective clubs in 2012-13.

Cam Atkinson – RW, Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets are a team without an identity right now, thanks to the Rick Nash trade. However, they do possess several very good young players (and one would hope so after their struggles as a franchise since coming in to the league), and Atkinson may be the very best. Columbus also has highly-touted center Ryan Johansen on the roster, and a slew of young talent on the back end – most notably Ryan Murray, David Savard, and John Moore.

Two things make Atkinson stand out. One, he had a very solid debut last season for the Blue Jackets (seven goals in 27 games). He scored an impressive 29 goals in only 51 games with Springfield of the AHL as well. Simply put, he proved he was ready for the professional game. And two, he plays a position (right wing) that is wide open on the Columbus depth chart. Atkinson could very likely find himself on the top offensive unit this fall. The question as to who his linemates will be is still wide open, as Columbus has a glut of second and third line forwards.

For more information on some of the advanced statistics I am going to use today, here are some links to check out.

Understanding Relative Corsi and Quality of Competition.

The Effect of Zone Starts on Production.

Among Columbus forwards in 2011-12, Atkinson faced the second toughest competition after Nash (although Atkinson only played 27 games). Most impressive from that is his Relative Corsi rating, which measures puck possession with relation to the rest of the team. Although Atkinson saw extremely tough minutes, the Blue Jackets still carried the play whenever he was on the ice.

In fact, Atkinson was one of only three positive possession forwards on Columbus last year, along with Vinny Prospal and Mark Letestu.

Cody Eakin – C, Dallas Stars


Eakin comes to Dallas from Washington in the Mike Ribeiro trade. He made a name for himself with the Kootenay Ice of the WHL due to his high level of skill and unmatched work ethic (he has garnered comparisons to Zach Parise, and they are not off base). Eakin projects as a very good number two or three center in a few years. For now, he has the inside track on the third line in Dallas, and perhaps even the second line to start the season, depending on how long Derek Roy is on the shelf rehabilitating his shoulder injury.

Dallas represents a world of opportunity for Eakin. He was buried in Washington behind a number of players, and wouldn’t have played significant minutes with the Capitals for a few years.

Is Eakin ready to make the jump to the second or third line of an NHL team in a full-time basis? The Capitals gave him a role typical of a rookie forward last year – he didn’t play tough minutes, and his defensive responsibilities were minimal. Dallas has to make sure they don’t throw him to the wolves – their depth up the middle is quite thin after Jamie Benn and Roy. The opportunity is there for Eakin, and it is up to him to seize it.

Roman Josi – D, Nashville Predators

Speaking of opportunities, Josi has a tremendous one with Ryan Suter having left Nashville for Minnesota. Josi is the logical choice to replace Suter on the top pairing, for a few reasons.

1)    He plays on the left side

2)    Weber’s defensive abilities will cover some of Josi’s mistakes

3)    Josi plays a lot like Suter (great skater, two-way defenseman)

Josi probably has more offensive upside than Suter, without the steady defensive presence. He isn’t a household name like Ryan Ellis, but he is the best young defenseman in the Nashville organization. He had some stretches of good play last season, but he also struggled with the size and skill of NHL forwards. If he can shore up his weaknesses, he could find himself playing significant minutes alongside the best defenseman in the league. If that isn’t a recipe for success, I don’t know what is.

Weber and Suter obviously faced the toughest competition (by far) on the Nashville back end. Josi was sheltered a bit in this regard, but not to the degree that the other young defensemen like Ellis and Jonathan Blum were.

Perhaps Josi was in over his head as a rookie, as his Corsi Relative was the lowest among all Predators defensemen. Per 60 minutes of ice time for Josi, Nashville’s opposition directed over 11 more shots on goal than the Predators were able to. Playing with Weber will surely lead to an improvement in Josi’s possession numbers.

Another explanation for his poor possession numbers – Josi had the lowest ratio of offensive zone starts.

Josi barely played with Weber last season, but that is sure to change in 2012-13.

Frequency Strength Line Combination
17.60% EV 75 GILL,HAL – 59 JOSI,ROMAN

Brendan Smith – D, Brenden Smith

Since turning pro a few years ago, Smith has been developing, and developing, and developing down in Grand Rapids for the Detroit AHL affiliate. Had he been a member of another NHL organization, he would likely be an NHL regular by now. The Wings will get rewarded for their patience this fall, as they both want and need Smith to be ready to step in and play a top-four role. Nicklas Lidstrom has retired, and Brad Stuart was traded to San Jose.

Smith starred at Wisconson playing under Mike Eaves. The Badgers have been producing NHL defensemen like mad in recent years. In addition to Smith, they have churned out the likes of Ryan McDonagh, Justin Schultz, Jake Gardiner, and Cody Goloubef. Smith has the potential to be the best of all of them. He’s a throwback defenseman like former Wing Chris Chelios –  mobile, feisty, skilled, and physical. He loves to throw his weight around, as is evidenced by this (illegal) hit below:

Young defensemen typically don’t step in to the NHL and make a difference at both ends of the ice, but Smith is ready to do more than just get his feet wet with the Wings in 2012-13.

Mikkel Boedker – LW, Phoenix Coyotes

The Coyotes are a team in flux right now with the mess surrounding their ownership situation (although it appears a breakthrough has been made and Greg Jamieson is on his way to finally purchasing the club), but to the Phoenix players, these off-ice distractions are nothing new. Boedker, once a prized prospect drafted out of the OHL, finally had his coming out party at the NHL level. He scored consecutive overtime winners in Phoenix’s first round triumph over the favored Chicago Blackhawks.

Boedker’s speed and skating ability have been evident since his first game with Phoenix, but he has struggled to make an offensive impact on a consistent basis. He has earned the trust of Dave Tippett with his solid play in his own zone and ability to play within the Coyotes system, one of the strictest in the league. He’s earned the opportunity for increased offensive responsibilities, and could become the most productive Phoenix forward in the near future.

Boedker’s most frequent linemates last season were Doan and Langkow – he spent just under 20 percent of his shifts with them. Perhaps more regular linemates would help Boedker’s offensive game out:

Frequency Strength Line Combination

The Coyotes look very similar up front compared to the past few years – a slew of solid two-way forwards, including Antoine Vermette, Martin Hanzal, Radim Vrbata, and David Moss. Vrbata is the go-to scorer on the team, but they don’t have any pure offensive weapons behind him. Boedker has the talent and pedigree to be that guy. The question is – how soon?

All advanced statistics are courtesy of Behind the Net

All line combinations are courtesy of DobberHockey’s Frozen Pool

The final installment of this series will take a look at five young talents ready to emerge in the Eastern Conference.