Fantasy hockey season has drawn to a close. You either woke up with joy on Monday to find you had claimed yet another championship or with the sorrow knowing someone else claimed the title this season.
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While those who are winners get a chance to drink in the moment, the majority of fantasy hockey players didn’t win. After all, most leagues have 10 to 12 teams and there can only be one winner. No, don’t allow yourself to hear any of that “second place is still pretty good” mumbo jumbo. It’s time to focus on winning your league next season, and that focus starts now.
These are my annual “way too early” fantasy hockey rankings. The name says it all, as these rankings are lacking the knowledge of how the Stanley Cup playoffs played out, how the NHL draft went down, what happened in free agency and — the big one this season — how the expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights unfolded. There will be some major trading this offseason, too, as teams look to get their expansion draft protection lists under control.
For a comparative ranking we are using the top 250 rankings from July 2016, which better reflects total season movement for the players over a calendar year, as prepare for the 2017-18 season.
Forwards rising and falling
Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers (up six spots to No. 1): There’s a debate between Sidney Crosby and McDavid in the No. 1 position, and McDavid made a clear case for his reign to begin with the final three and a half weeks of the season. At just 20 years old, McDavid capped off his first Art Ross Trophy campaign (note the use of the word “first”) with 22 points in the season’s final 12 games to bring the Oilers into the postseason and reach the 100-point level on the final day. Crosby will be only 30, so it’s not like he’s into decline mode yet, but he’s no longer on the upswing, either. McDavid looks to have cemented himself as the no-brainer No. 1 for at least one season, if not more.
Alex Ovechkin, LW, Washington Capitals (down five spots to No. 6): We are starting to get these “poor” seasons from Ovechkin on occasion, and it’s a real concern. When on his game, his propensity for shots on goal, power-play points and goals make him the No. 1 fantasy player in the NHL. While he has saved previous “poor” campaigns with late heroics, Ovechkin quietly closed this season with an underwhelming 23 points in 31 games, including an un-Ovechkin like nine goals from Feb. 1 to the end of the season. Finishing with 33 goals is a far cry from the 50-plus he’s scored in the previous three seasons. The good news is that he’s done this before and bounced back to elite levels. The other positive takeaway is that even with only 33 goals and 69 points, Ovechkin still finished as the 10th-best skater on the ESPN Player Rater (14th player overall). Even in a “poor” campaign, Ovechkin is still first-round material.
Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning (up two spots to No. 9): Injuries continue to derail the occasional Stamkos campaign, but it’s tough to call him injury-prone, as most of his ailments are major incidents. Then again, if these major incidents keep happening to the same player, we can say there is a trend developing. Stamkos collected 20 points in the 17 games he played before a knee injury shut him down for the remainder of the season, in November. He was almost ready to return for the season’s final stretch, so there are zero concerns about him being 100 percent for the 2017-18 campaign.
Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs (up 70 spots to No. 26): While Matthews’ ridiculous rookie campaign placed him only 42nd on the ESPN Player Rater to finish the season, there are plenty of reasons to expect him to finish much higher next season. Not the least among the reasons for that is that he turned in 40 goals and 29 assists on a balanced Maple Leafs attack at the age 18. The most intriguing part of it is the “balanced attack” aspect. While Matthews had a plum spot on the top power-play unit, the Leafs deployed their three even-strength scoring lines fairly evenly, all things considered. How balanced was the attack? Matthews led all Leafs forwards in ice time per game with 17:38, but ranked 90th in the NHL among forwards. McDavid, for example, played almost four minutes more per game than Matthews. If coach Mike Babcock is willing to turn Matthews loose at an even higher rate next season, this rookie campaign for the ages could well be just a glimpse of his potential.
Jack Eichel, C, Buffalo Sabres (up 37 spots to No. 29): Don’t forget that Eichel’s totals include 21 missed games at the start of the season due to a high-ankle sprain suffered in the preseason. His totals on a per-game basis have him right up there with the elite of the NHL. Eichel caught fire on Dec. 27 and stayed that way for the bulk of the season, finishing with 49 points in the final 48 games of the season. Between Dec. 27 and the end of the campaign, only seven players had more points overall, and only two had more power-play points.
Defensemen rising and falling
Dougie Hamilton, D, Calgary Flames (up 114 spots to No. 64): I still like Mark Giordano to bounce back next season and have, very cautiously, still ranked him ahead of Hamilton. But Hamilton may make me regret the thought. Hamilton was one of only nine defensemen to finish with 50 or more points this season, achieving exactly that number and finishing fifth among defensemen for shots on goal. If Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan play to their potential for a full season, Hamilton should push for even higher heights.
John Carlson, D, Washington Capitals (down 54 spots to No. 98): While we don’t know if the Capitals will try to retain the services of Kevin Shattenkirk going forward, let’s not overlook the fact that Carlson had a disappointing campaign long before Shattenkirk rolled into town at the trade deadline. He only missed 10 games due to injury, yet finished with fewer points than he did while missing 26 games in 2015-16. And after Shattenkirk settled in, Carlson only had six points in 16 games between March 1 and the end of the season.
Goaltenders rising and falling
Sergei Bobrovsky, G, Columbus Blue Jackets (up 64 spots to No. 14): Shaking off a couple of disappointing campaigns, Bobrovsky returned to elite form in 2016-17 thanks in no small part to the growth of the team in front of him. The defensive group went from shaky to rock solid in a matter of one season, as Seth Jones rounded into form and Zach Werenski exploded onto the scene. Bobrovsky had the league’s best goals-against average (2.06) and save percentage (.931), while only trailing the win leaders by one (41). It’s not like this Blue Jackets team is a one-and-done squad, returning with a full complement and more next season.
Cam Talbot, G, Edmonton Oilers (up 152 spots to No. 33): There were two questions coming into the 2016-17 season for Talbot: Can the Oilers win now? And can they do so with respectable goals-against numbers? Turns out the answer to both questions was a resounding “yes.” Talbot tied for the league lead in victories (42), while finishing in the top 10 for ratios among goaltenders that started at least 40 percent of their team’s games. The Oilers are only going to get better during the next couple of seasons, and Talbot has made a strong argument to be the club’s starting netminder for the foreseeable future.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Tampa Bay Lightning (up 128 spots to No. 87): There were some serious hiccups in Vasilevskiy’s first full season in the NHL, starting during his time replacing the injured Ben Bishop, and then after Bishop was dealt at the deadline. The Lightning weren’t supposed to make a push for the playoffs — given that they lost Stamkos, and were a seller at the deadline — but they went 14-5-2 down the stretch due in no small part to Vasilevskiy’s steady presence in the crease. With Stamkos back, and both Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman established as stars at their position, the Lightning have the pieces to be a contender with Vasilevskiy between the pipes.
Cory Schneider, G, New Jersey Devils (down 85 spots to No. 124): It takes a pretty good track record to get the benefit of the doubt after turning in a season like the season Schneider just had. But he has a track record about as good as any goaltender in the NHL, so we have to step back and consider the big picture moving forward; while he takes a big dive in the overall rankings, he’s ranked as the No. 17, or a second starter in standard-sized leagues. The Devils are clearly in a rebuilding mode, debuting several rookies and deploying a less-than-ideal crop of defensemen all season. Even with this disastrous 20-win season included, Schneider still ranks among the top 10 goaltenders for save percentage during the past four seasons combined. There were some strange splits this season that suggest the Devils can right the ship by tinkering, not the least of which was the fact that New Jersey had the worst penalty kill in the NHL at home, but fourth-best on the road. A few adjustments, improvements and growth to the roster should put the Devils in better position to win next season.
The NHL has become a young man’s league, and in order to win your fantasy hockey league, you’ll need to know the next big names. Here’s a handful of names to consider for this upcoming season:
Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Edmonton Oilers (up 49 spots to No. 193): The Oilers quickly banished Puljujarvi to the farm team this season, but it wasn’t entirely due to his contributions nor did he stay there due to his lack of success. Puljujarvi was in the AHL most of the season because he could be. That’s it. The Oilers simply didn’t need him at the NHL level because the club was just fine without him. Left to toil in the AHL, Puljujarvi totalled 27 points in 36 games and should be primed for a top-six role with the Oilers next season.
Kyle Connor, LW, Winnipeg Jets (enters at No. 211): Like Puljujarvi, Connor made the NHL to start the season, but when the Jets realized there was no space for him on a scoring line, he was sent to the AHL. In his rookie pro campaign, Connor managed 42 points in 50 games and also looks ready for a scoring-line role in the NHL next season.
Clayton Keller, C, Arizona Coyotes (enters at No. 227): I’ve also got Jakob Chychrun and Dylan Strome ranked in at the bottom of the top 250, anticipating some steps forward for the rebuilding Coyotes in the 2017-18 season. You can lump in Christian Dvorak with this group, and there is still reason to have some hope for Anthony Duclair, too. The Coyotes have to figure out where everyone will play next season, but don’t be surprised to see them just a season or two behind the Leafs when it comes to turning the ship around.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, C, Columbus Blue Jackets (enters at No. 250): Alexander Wennberg was a revelation at center this season and made the Blue Jackets look brilliant for letting Dubois have another season of junior hockey development. He’ll be ready for the show this time though, and Dubois might not take long to supplant Wennberg as the top centerman for the club.
Top 250 rankings
Note: Sean Allen’s top 250 players are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues. ESPN standard stats include goals, assists, power-play points, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice for skaters, and wins, goals-against average and save percentage for goalies.