As the NHL regular season comes to a close, it's appropriate to marvel at how fantasy league champions were crowned after a six-month roller-coaster ride.
Besides avoiding the unpredictable injury bug, championship teams generally draft well in early rounds. But the fantasy playoffs always boil down to depth and consistency, and that's where late-round and waiver-wire gems put teams over the top.
The unpredictable nature of fantasy hockey makes steals like Nyquist, Varlamov and Niskanen all the more rewarding. (Photo: Getty Images)
Average draft position in standard Yahoo leagues provides a strong indication of the fantasy expectations surrounding a particular player coming into the season. When comparing ADPs with year-end ownership, it's clear which players have been the biggest fantasy "steals."
Here are the forwards, defensemen and goalies who exceeded expectations this season based on Yahoo ADP and ownership:
* Players who met the following criteria (based on standard Yahoo drafts, ownership and games played) were eligible:
- Forward: 150th pick or later; owned in at least 65 percent of leagues; 60-plus games played
- Defenseman: 130th pick or later; owned in at least 55 percent of leagues; 60-plus games played
- Goalie: 100th pick or later; owned in at least 40 percent of leagues; 30-plus games played
* Because there are no prior full-season statistics or expectations for rookies to exceed, first-year standouts (i.e. Nathan MacKinnon, Ondrej Palat, Torey Krug) were excluded from this list.
Alexander Steen (C/LW, St. Louis Blues)
Yahoo ADP: 159.7
Left Wing - STL
GOALS: 33 | ASST: 29 | PTS: 62
SOG: 207 | +/-: 18
Ownership: 88 percent
Steen took the fantasy world by storm with 20 goals in his first 24 games this season, becoming the second-fastest in Blues history to reach that single-season mark (Brett Hull, 20 games in 1990-91). He ended up missing 11 games from late December to early January, and another three in April due to injury, but still had six multi-goal games (T-7th in NHL), and career-highs in goals (33), game-winners (nine, T-2nd) and points (62) in 66 games. He's the 33rd-ranked player by Yahoo, the highest among forwards on this list of steals.
Bryan Little (C/RW, Winnipeg Jets)
Ownership: 80 percent
Center - WPG
GOALS: 23 | ASST: 40 | PTS: 63
SOG: 167 | +/-: 7
The Jets will miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs again, but Little has taken off as a top-notch distributor thanks largely to his frequent linemates Andrew Ladd
and Blake Wheeler
. He's one of 34 players League-wide with 40-plus assists this season and the Little-Ladd point pair (34 team goals where each has recorded a point) is tied for 11th-best. Little hasn't missed a game all year and eclipsed 60 points for the first time of his career to go along with reliable power-play point (15), penalty minute (58) and shot (167) production.
Jaromir Jagr (RW, New Jersey Devils)
Ownership: 77 percent
One of the most acclaimed NHL players of all-time, Jagr didn't exactly have fantasy owners lining up for his services this past fall. The 42-year-old's draft stock drastically slipped after the worst postseason of his career (no goals, 10 assists in 22 games), but he went on to prove doubters wrong in 2013-14 with his most productive NHL season since 2007-08. Jagr, now ranked 35th overall in Yahoo leagues, led New Jersey by a sizable margin in points (64), rating (plus-15) and shots (223). From the looks of it, he still has another year or two left in the tank.
Ryan Johansen, (C/RW, Columbus Blue Jackets)
ADP: N/A (undrafted)
Center - CBJ
GOALS: 32 | ASST: 28 | PTS: 60
SOG: 228 | +/-: 2
Ownership: 71 percent
High expectations surrounded Johansen when the Blue Jackets took him with the fourth pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, but his first two NHL seasons (33 points in 107 games) had fans wondering if and when his breakout season would come. Johansen answered that question with a slam-dunk campaign that will have him near the top of keeper-league lists for years to come. At 21, he has exploded for 32 goals (T-12th in NHL), 60 points (17 on power play), 228 shots and 113 hits to help Columbus make the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. My spin on Nov. 18 when Johansen was 11 percent owned ended up being right on the money.
Kyle Okposo (RW, New York Islanders)
Ownership: 66 percent
Owners who took a late-round flyer on Okposo in the hope that he'd build off a strong playoff and receive the splash effect from John Tavares got their wish -- and then some. Despite the game of musical chairs at left wing with the Matt Moulson and Thomas Vanek trades, Okposo found his groove with Tavares (30 team goals as point pair). He remained productive in Tavares' absence due to injury (10 points in 12 games) and, despite a late-season injury of his own, went from being barely fantasy relevant to the top 20 of the NHL scoring list. Only Sidney Crosby (30), Claude Giroux (24), Phil Kessel (24) and Corey Perry (23) have more multi-point games than Okposo (21).
Gustav Nyquist (C/RW, Detroit Red Wings)
ADP: N/A (undrafted)
Right Wing - DET
GOALS: 28 | ASST: 20 | PTS: 48
SOG: 148 | +/-: 14
Ownership: 65 percent
Nyquist, despite flashes of brilliance last postseason, began this season with Grand Rapids (AHL) before making his season debut on Nov. 21. He scored two goals in that game and never looked back. Nyquist almost single-handedly extended the Red Wings' playoff streak despite long-term injuries to elite forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg among others. Nyquist has the most goals in the NHL since Jan. 20 (23 in 32 games) and is the prime example of how waiver-wire pickups can win fantasy leagues.
James Wisniewski (D, Columbus Blue Jackets)
Ownership: 79 percent
After career-highs in points (51) and power-play points (29) in 2010-11, Wisniewski signed a long-term deal with the Blue Jackets but was mired by injury issues up until this season (78 games out of a possible 130 over past two seasons). Wisniewski has stayed healthy and is set to tie a career-high in games played (75) this season. He's third among defensemen with 27 power-play points and has at least a point in 39 of 73 games. Only Erik Karlsson (50), Duncan Keith (46), Alex Pietrangelo (42) and Dustin Byfuglien (41) have more such games at the position. Wisniewski is also one of three defensemen (P.K. Subban, Byfuglien) with 50-plus points and 60-plus PIMs.
Matt Niskanen (D, Pittsburgh Penguins)
Defense - PIT
GOALS: 10 | ASST: 35 | PTS: 45
SOG: 160 | +/-: 31
Ownership: 79 percent
Niskanen emerged as an efficient blue-line replacement for the Penguins while Kris Letang and Paul Martin were sidelined. He has taken advantage of the opportunity to log the most total and power-play ice time among Penguins defensemen and has made it translate on the score sheet (10 goals, 45 points). He is tied for eighth in rating (plus-31) and is the only defenseman in the League to be on the ice for 100-plus team goals (105) and fewer than 50 goals against (46) this season. When you consider he has added 100-plus hits, 150-plus shots on goal and 50-plus PIMs, Niskanen has proved to be the biggest category-coverage steal at his position.
Jay Bouwmeester (D, St. Louis Blues)
Ownership: 77 percent
Owners knew the Blues would have Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk as their primary offensive weapons on their blue line, so Bouwmeester was a late-round selection at best in leagues that take rating and blocked shots into account. But the 30-year-old has given his owners much more than expected playing alongside Pietrangelo at even strength. He has 33 assists, 11 power-play points and 149 shots on goal en route to gaining high shallow-league ownership. He has also not disappointed in terms of rating (plus-27). His hidden value should serve as a reminder that defensemen on elite teams can be fantasy difference makers even if they don't anchor their team's top power-play unit.
Mark Giordano (D, Calgary Flames)
Defense - CGY
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 32 | PTS: 46
SOG: 174 | +/-: 13
Ownership: 68 percent
Giordano was named Flames captain in September and it's no coincidence that we have seen that leadership role get his career back on track. After combining for 42 points in 108 games over the past two seasons, Giordano responded with 46 points in 62 games this season. He missed time due to injury, but as NHL.com correspondent Brian Metzer points out in his final rankings, his points-per-game average didn't waver. He also managed a plus-13 rating on the second-worst team in the Western Conference to go along with 63 PIMs and 174 shots on goal (14th among defensemen).
Ryan McDonagh (D, New York Rangers)
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 29 | PTS: 43
SOG: 177 | +/-: 11
Ownership: 57 percent
The fact that McDonagh was drafted behind former Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto on average in Yahoo leagues tells you how far he's come since his team's coaching change. Earning a featured power-play role under coach Alain Vigneault, McDonagh went from the 72nd defensemen on average drafts to the 22nd-most valuable League-wide according to Yahoo's rankings. Among the 21 defensemen with 40-plus points this season, McDonagh, Keith and Giordano are the only three with 170-plus shots on goal and a rating of plus-10 or better. McDonagh is a top-tier defenseman to stay, so remember to keep him on your radar in drafts next season.
Semyon Varlamov (G, Colorado Avalanche)
Ownership: 89 percent
Goalie - COL
GAA: 2.41 | SVP: 0.927
Varlamov had the most losses (21) in the NHL last season for a team that finished last in the West, but has turned the corner under the tutelage of Patrick Roy
and Francois Allaire. Varlamov leads the League with 41 wins, breaking Roy's single-season franchise record (40). The Avs' defense has improved drastically from 2012-13 on both ends, but Varlamov has still faced the NHL's most shots by far (2,013). His .927 save percentage (T-3rd in NHL with Anton Khudobin
) has been the foundation of his team's remarkable turnaround. Only Toronto Maple Leafs
goalie Jonathan Bernier
(10) has more 40-save efforts this season than Varlamov (7).
Ben Bishop (G, Tampa Bay Lightning)
Ownership: 89 percent
Bishop's rise was slightly more predictable than Varlamov considering the offensive talent in front of him, but he was still a long shot to finish a top-five fantasy goalie. Bishop has kept the team on track through the Steven Stamkos injury and the Martin St. Louis trade by allowing one goal 17 times this season to go along with five shutouts (T-3rd in each category). He has a .950 save percentage or better in 23 of his 63 outings (T-2nd in NHL) and is tied for fourth with a .932 mark at even strength (min. 50 games). While the Lightning have seen their young talent capture the headlines, their rise from a lottery team to a playoff team should be traced to Bishop's stability.
Steve Mason (G, Philadelphia Flyers)
Goalie - PHI
GAA: 2.51 | SVP: 0.917
Ownership: 74 percent
Ask any fantasy owner out there. No one was touching a Flyers goalie until one of their draft's final rounds after seeing Ilya Bryzgalov flame out during his two-year tenure with the team. Mason's career went south ever since winning the Calder Trophy in 2008-2009, but his rebirth in Philly has helped the Flyers rebound from a slow start to reach the playoffs. What had the looks of a timeshare tandem in October turned into Mason winning 33 games (T-6th in NHL) with four shutouts (T-9th). If you predicted him joining the top-15 fantasy goalie realm prior to the season, please play a lottery ticket for me.
Josh Harding (G, Minnesota Wild)
Ownership: 50 percent
Harding hasn't played a game since Dec. 31 because of complications with multiple sclerosis, but deserves a place on this list after putting forth the most impressive, inspiring goalie performance over the first three months of 2013-14. His 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage still lead the NHL and his even-strength save percentage (.940) is second-best behind Rask among goalies with a minimum of 25 appearances. His 18-7-3 record had the Wild thinking playoffs right from the start despite Niklas Backstrom's injury, and that momentum has helped the team prevail in his own absence. Harding is practicing with the team again and we wish him the best as he continues to battle through his condition.
Anton Khudobin (G, Carolina Hurricanes)
Goalie - CAR
GAA: 2.23 | SVP: 0.927
Ownership: 40 percent
After backing up Rask in Boston last season, Khudobin signed a low-profile offseason contract with the Hurricanes. Khudobin was strong out of the gate in October and looked poised to challenge Cam Ward for the starting job, but then was sidelined by injury. Since returning on Jan. 2, he has made 32 appearances compared to 10 by Ward. The 27-year-old has allowed three goals or fewer in 33 of 35 games and signed a two-year extension with the team in March. He has kept the Hurricanes competitive despite their suspect defense and fueled fantasy teams during playoff pushes. All signs point to Khudobin having a leg up on his veteran teammate entering next season.