Fantasy Hockey season is upon us, so prepare for another season of both unbridled euphoria and bottomless pessimism. It's easy to pick the players that are proven commodities early in the draft, but to win your league you need to be able to identify those lined up to exceed expectations.
Shrewd late-round picks and waiver-wire pickups is what separates the contenders from the bottom-feeders, so here's a list of 10 players that could make the difference. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and some names will already be familiar, but having a few of these in your back pocket come draft day could prove fruitful.
1. Roope Hintz, C, Stars
Only 21 forwards averaged over a point per game (minimum 28 games played) last season, and everybody knew Hintz played hurt, drawing in and out of the lineup but still scoring consistently. It was a breakout campaign for the 24-year-old, but it received little attention because the Stars struggled and missed the playoffs after reaching the Stanley Cup Final the year prior. Most of the Stars' core is in or entering their 30's, and at some point, they'll have to turn the reins over to Hintz and Jason Robertson, who made up two-thirds of their top line with Joe Pavelski.
2. Jared McCann, C, Kraken
Yanni Gourde was slated to be the No. 1 center in the Emerald City, but he's expected to miss the start of the season, paving the way for McCann to take the job. He'll be competing well above his weight class, but he's a skilled center whose point-per-game production has improved in every season so far after putting up a career-high 0.74 points per game with 32 points in 43 contests in 2020-21. Along with his improved play, McCann will also likely play a much bigger role with the Kraken after averaging just 14:41 of ice time over the last three seasons.
3. Drake Batherson, RW, Senators
The trick is to find solid players on teams expected to struggle. In his first full NHL campaign, Batherson was just one of five Senators to play all 56 games and one of four to score at least 15 goals. It was an encouraging sign that his shooting percentage jumped back into double-digits even with more volume, indicating that poor luck was a factor in 2019-20 when he scored just three goals in 23 games. The fourth-round pick may be surrounded by more talented players, but he's got speed on his side and will be given a chance to play on the top line.
4. Eeli Tolvanen, LW/RW, Predators
Tolvanen will likely take on a much bigger role after the Predators traded Viktor Arvidsson to the Kings, giving him a chance to take another step forward after finishing 14th in Calder voting last season. His underlying numbers are ordinary, but the Preds don't have many other options. Mikael Granlund's peak years have come and gone and Luke Kunin has shown little offense through four years in the NHL, leaving Filip Forsberg and Tolvanen as their only legitimate scoring weapons.
5. Conor Garland, RW, Canucks
Garland was excellent on the power play for the Coyotes, averaging 2:51 with the man advantage while finishing fourth in points and third in shots behind only Jakob Chychrun and Phil Kessel. He's a solid addition to a Canucks power play that ranked 25th last season, which may also feature bounce-back seasons from both Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. The slight wrinkle is that the Canucks have a bevy of good forwards with Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller also on the first unit, so there's a chance Garland will be relegated to the second unit instead. Eventually, though, Garland should get looks with the top group while playing with either Pettersson or Horvat at even strength, both of whom are better than any of the centers he's ever had in Arizona.
6. Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW, Blue Jackets
Bjorkstrand has either scored or been on pace to score at least 20 goals in each of the past three seasons, quietly becoming one of the league's most consistent and underrated top-six wingers. He managed to score 44 points in 56 games to lead the team even though they had trouble scoring goals all season, and it's always fantastic if you can get a player with 30-goal potential in the late rounds. The risk of not having a playmaking center means Bjorkstrand may not reach his full potential, but Jakub Voracek and the returning Gustav Nyquist should be able to help offset that void.
7. Jakub Vrana, LW/RW, Red Wings
His point-per-game pace with the Wings was absurd, and it's unlikely he'll be able to replicate that thanks to a sky-high 25.0 shooting percentage. However, with 68 goals over the past three seasons, Vrana is certainly no fluke, and there was little opportunity for him in D.C. with Alex Ovechkin ahead of him on the depth chart. He's scored at a 30-goal pace in the past despite never averaging more than 15 minutes of ice time with the Caps, and after a trade to the Wings where he averaged 17:16, it was no surprise his production increased. Vrana ranks 12th – tied with Steven Stamkos – in points scored per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 over the past three seasons, and he's set to be the top winger for a full season for the first time in his career.
8. Shayne Gostisbehere, D, Coyotes
There were times last season when Gostisbehere, who finished second with 20 points among Flyers defensemen, looked more like his rookie self than he ever did in the past three seasons. It still wasn't enough to convince the Flyers to keep him, so he's gotten a fresh start in Arizona, where there won't be the same kind of expectations. Jakob Chychrun will still run the power play, but Gostisbehere is expected to play a lot of minutes on a blue line that lacks depth. His Fantasy value will depend on how he's used with the man advantage, and it's possible the Coyotes will roll with a two-defenseman No. 1 power play because they lack the requisite depth up front to load four forwards on the top unit.
9. Linus Ullmark, G, Bruins
This will be Ullmark's first big NHL test under pressure. The Swedish League's Goalie of the Year in 2014, Ullmark was actually quite good with a .912 save percentage for the hapless Sabres, but his strong play wasn't rewarded. Over the past three seasons, Ullmark managed to rank 13th in goals saved above average at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick, and now he has a deep defense in front of him on a team with Cup aspirations. Jeremy Swayman may be a threat to take the No. 1 job, but it will be Ullmark's crease to lose.
10. Vitek Vanecek, G, Capitals
The Caps were so keen on Vanecek that they re-acquired him from the Kraken after the expansion draft. We know Ilya Samsonov is talented, but with just 45 games of NHL experience – only eight more than Vanecek – he isn't exactly proven as an NHL starter. This looks like it could be a possible timeshare, and with the Caps still very much in contention for the Cup, there's likely 45-50 wins to be split between the two.