Time and time again, fantasy owners who keep tabs on the Stanley Cup Playoffs benefit immensely the following season.
Last season, the early signs of Evgeny Kuznetsov's breakout were evident when he scored a series-winning goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the New York Islanders. Ben Bishop helped the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, and then reaffirmed his elite standing in 2015-16 by finishing as the top-ranked fantasy goalie in standard leagues. Johnny Gaudreau, a Calder Trophy finalist in 2015, scored nine points, five on the power play, in 11 games in the 2015 postseason, and then built off that success with 78 points in 79 games, tied for sixth in the League in scoring.
The fantasy landscape at each position has been significantly altered since mid-April. Some players entered the playoffs as projected breakout, injury bounce-back or sleeper candidates for next season and left with much-improved value. Others were widely known commodities who played their way to even higher ground in the grand scheme of things.
Below are 10 players who warrant much earlier fantasy draft consideration for 2016-17 based on playoff trends and their Yahoo rank at the end of the regular season.
NOTE: End-of-season ranks indicate performance-based results of an 82-game regular season in standard leagues (goals, assists, plus-minus, penalty minutes, power-play points and shots on goal for skaters; wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts for goalies). Players such as Sidney Crosby (fifth overall), Martin Jones (third among goalies) and Brent Burns (second among D) who backed up his elite rank during the playoffs are not included on this list.
Logan Couture, C/LW, San Jose Sharks
2015-16 Yahoo end-of-season rank: 230
The Sharks won 32 of the 52 games Couture played in 2015-16, but his offensive production (36 points) in an injury-plagued season disappointed fantasy owners who drafted him on average with the 26th pick. Couture redeemed himself in the playoffs with an NHL-leading 30 points in 24 games, the most in a single postseason since Danny Briere had 30 for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010. He also tied for the League lead with 11 power-play points in the playoffs and has resurfaced as a dual-eligible asset worth taking in the first two or three rounds of upcoming drafts; he would have been a borderline top-50 forward if not for his breakout postseason. With Couture's first-unit power-play role solidified and Joonas Donskoi's emergence on his wing at even strength, he could crack 70 points for the first time of his NHL career next season.
Jonathan Drouin, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
2015-16 Yahoo end-of-season rank: 779
Drouin's forgettable regular season included a demotion to the American Hockey League and a suspension for not reporting to the Lightning's affiliate. But his late-season push into the postseason with Steven Stamkos sidelined has to be the overriding factor from a fantasy standpoint entering the offseason. Stamkos, who could become an unrestricted free agent July 1, played one playoff game, but the Lightning didn't miss a beat because Drouin finally proved himself at the NHL level. His strong play came on a line separate from Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson too. Only 21, Drouin had goals in his final two regular-season games and followed with 14 points, six on the power play, and 35 shots on goal in 17 playoff games. Drouin likely will be drafted outside the top 100 on average next season but has clear top-50 upside - even if Stamkos leaves.
Video: TBL@PIT, Gm2: Drouin ties the game with perfect shot
Robby Fabbri, C, St. Louis Blues
2015-16 Yahoo end-of-season rank: 422
Fabbri, 20, tied Vladimir Tarasenko for the Blues lead in playoff scoring (15 points in 20 games). The significance of that total is Fabbri was the most productive rookie in a single postseason since Brad Marchand (19 points in 25 games) of the Boston Bruins in 2011; Marchand (0.76) and Fabbri (0.75) had nearly identical points-per-game averages. Fabbri mostly played alongside Paul Stastny and Troy Brouwer in the playoffs but also had a trial alongside Tarasenko late in the Western Conference Final against the Sharks. His chances of returning value as a fantasy sleeper next season are extremely high, considering he likely will be drafted on average outside the top 100 and remain among the top-six forward group for a long-standing elite team.
Nick Bonino, C, Pittsburgh Penguins
2015-16 Yahoo end-of-season rank: 449
Phil Kessel led the Penguins in playoff scoring and became the third player since 2006 with 10 or more goals, 20 or more points, 10 or more PPP and 90 or more SOG. His best production since being traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Penguins came not with Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but rather alongside Nick Bonino in the final month of the regular season and for the entirety of the postseason. Kessel improved his stock from a borderline top-50 finisher to a top-20 asset for next season, but Bonino could be the long-term solution centering Kessel and, thus, suddenly warrants fantasy consideration. Bonino was the 15th most valuable fantasy player in the final month of the regular season and finished tied for third on the Penguins in playoff scoring. That late-season consistency puts Bonino on the fantasy map as a late-round fantasy flier next season, especially if you draft Kessel later in the second round or early in the third.
Colin Wilson, C/LW, Nashville Predators
2015-16 Yahoo end-of-season rank: 549
Wilson was the most consistent point-producer of any player who played more than one playoff round, scoring at least one point in 11 of his 14 games. His success began in a depth-line role and escalated to a wing slot next to Mike Fisher and opposite James Neal on the Predators' second line. Wilson has had back-to-back strong postseasons with an underachieving regular season in between, so he remains a fantasy mystery. That said, he's 26 years old and worth drafting at any time after the 15th round because of his chances of sticking with Neal and/or Ryan Johansen next season. He was a fantasy afterthought a few months ago with a limited peripheral category footprint, but now he has a glimmer of hope to reach 50 points and 200 SOG if healthy next season.
Other forwards who significantly improved their fantasy standing: John Tavares (final 2015-16 rank: 25th), Kucherov (32nd), Kessel (46th), Johnson (198th), Donskoi (424th)
John Carlson, Washington Capitals
2015-16 Yahoo end-of-season rank: 193
Carlson was limited to 56 games in the regular season, missing a large chunk of the second half because of injury, but reminded fantasy owners he's worthy of being considered a top-10 fantasy defenseman this fall. He had 12 points in 12 playoff games, including a six-game point streak to end the postseason, after averaging 0.70 points per game in the regular season, ninth among defensemen. Only Burns had more playoff PPP (10) among D-men than Carlson (eight), and Carlson played in two fewer rounds (12 fewer games). The Capitals' playoff underachievement can be pinned on a number of factors, but Carlson clearly is not a reason they fell short. He should be taken in the first four or five rounds of fantasy drafts next season.
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm4: Carlson roofs goal to even game at 2
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose Sharks
2015-16 Yahoo end-of-season rank: 178
Vlasic contained his opponent's top goal-scorers each round, from Tyler Toffoli to Filip Forsberg to Tarasenko to Crosby. But many will forget he had the most assists of any player in the second round (seven), and followed up his NHL career-best regular season with 12 points in 24 games and a League-best plus-14 rating. Paired with underrated Justin Braun at even strength to complement the Burns-Paul Martin pair, Vlasic was an unsung hero for the Sharks and could exceed 40 points and reach the top-20 fantasy defenseman realm in 2016-17 if he stays healthy; he missed the final three-plus weeks of the regular season because of injury. He is the ideal fourth fantasy defenseman on a standard-league roster and gains value if your league counts blocked shots.
Colton Parayko, St. Louis Blues
2015-16 Yahoo end-of-season rank: 237
Parayko had some growing pains at points in the playoffs but ultimately held his own on the big stage, proving he's a budding star on the blue line for the Blues to feature in all situations moving forward. He played comparable minutes (20:07 per game) to Kevin Shattenkirk (21:03) in 20 playoff games as a rookie and was the more effective two-way defenseman despite being four years younger. If Shattenkirk is traded this offseason, Parayko could be a dark-horse fantasy breakout candidate available after the 12th round in standard drafts. Parayko had 33 points (second among rookie defensemen), a plus-28 rating and averaged more than two SOG per game in the regular season. He had seven playoff points, including an assist in each of the Blues' final two playoff games. He'll go behind Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo in drafts on average but has sneaky value as your fourth or bench defenseman.
Other defensemen who significantly improved their fantasy standing: Pietrangelo (final 2015-16 rank: 225th), Mattias Ekholm (237th), Trevor Daley (393rd), Ryan Pulock (N/A)
Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins
2015-16 Yahoo end-of-season rank: 151
No goalie has more regular-season wins than Marc-Andre Fleury since 2008-09 (281 in 480 games), but a late-season concussion opened the door for Murray, who helped the Penguins win the Cup with the most playoff victories by a rookie goalie (15) since Cam Ward for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. Murray, 22, had a .923 save percentage in 21 playoff games after a .930 in 13 regular-season games (9-2-1). He was 6-0 with a .936 save percentage following a loss in the playoffs, and though it was no secret he had a strong, shot-blocking defense in front of him, he will skyrocket in the fantasy realm. Murray instantly warrants a fantasy pick in the first three rounds of your draft, and many will reach for him even earlier. Fleury, meanwhile, faces uncertainty this offseason despite being a huge component of the Penguins' regular-season success. This is a prime example of how drastically things can change fantasy-wise in a single postseason.
Video: PIT@SJS, Gm3: Murray denies Thornton in overtime
Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders
2015-16 Yahoo end-of-season rank: 133
Greiss, in a similar situation as Murray, proved he's worthy of the Islanders' starting goalie job next season with Jaroslav Halak injured for their two playoff rounds. The Islanders' lack of depth was exploited against the Lightning, and Greiss lost his final four postseason games as a result, but don't let that overshadow the statement he made in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Florida Panthers. He won four of six starts with a .944 save percentage. The Panthers dominated possession for much of the series, averaging a League-high 39.2 shots on goal per game, but Greiss helped the Islanders escape. It remains to be seen how the goalie situation will shake out this offseason, but Islanders general manager Garth Snow said Greiss has proven he can be a No. 1 goalie. Based on what we know, Greiss should be drafted higher than Halak on average and has joined the top-15 fantasy realm at his position.
Other goalies who significantly improved their fantasy standing: Pekka Rinne (93rd), Andrei Vasilevskiy (236th), Jimmy Howard (240th)