Last season was a prime example of why monitoring preseason roster activity can pay huge dividends in fantasy hockey.
I identified five under-the-radar preseason standouts last October based on factors including line combinations, elevated roles and production. Three of them proved to be top-100 fantasy players.
Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning latched on with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat and went on to post 65 points, a plus-38 (T-1st in NHL) and 191 shots on goal. He finished 21st among all fantasy assets. Not far behind was Filip Forsberg, 35th in Yahoo leagues, with only the third rookie season of 60-plus points, a plus-15 or better and 230-plus shots on goal (SOG) in the expansion era. Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kings finished 93rd, catapulted by a hot start alongside Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson.
Considering that piece proved to be one of the most valuable of our offseason fantasy draft package, here are five readily available players to watch with the 2015-16 regular season only days away. Whether it's on the waiver wire or in late rounds of your upcoming draft, these players are worth rostering in standard leagues.
Jonathan Drouin, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Yahoo ownership: 44 percent
Drouin's development has been a huge topic of discussion in each of the past three offseasons since he was taken third by the Lightning in the 2013 NHL Draft, but this could finally be the season he earns that coveted spot next to Steven Stamkos on the top line. Stamkos is in a contract year and Drouin has looked terrific by his side this preseason, with four goals, four assists (T-3rd League-wide in points), one power-play goal, a plus-4 and 13 SOG in six games -- including a highlight-reel goal in the Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Johnstown, Pa. The 20-year-old didn't produce much outside of the assists category (28 in 70 games) in mostly a depth role as a rookie, but you can throw away any negative energy surrounding his early performance if he sticks with Stamkos on a full-time basis. His Yahoo ADP (171.8) is insanely low considering his expanded role in these preseason games, so reach for Drouin beginning in the 13th round.
Sergei Plotnikov, LW, Pittsburgh Penguins
Yahoo ownership: 16 percent
The 25-year-old forward signed with the Penguins on July 1 after previously playing in the Kontinental Hockey League. Many thought it would be tough for Plotnikov to crack the Pittsburgh lineup, let alone its loaded top six, but he was slotted next to fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin and right wing Patric Hornqvist for much of the preseason and has never looked back. Malkin, a perennial top-10 fantasy asset, and Plotnikov have become friends off the ice and gained chemistry on it, which bodes extremely well for their collective value in 2015-16. Plotnikov finished with one goal, two assists and a plus-4 in five preseason games, but the endearing possession and physical elements (cc: hits-league owners) of his game have fantasy owners licking their chops. If Drouin goes in early rounds of your draft, scoop up Plotnikov a few rounds later (ADP: 170.1).
Bo Horvat, C, Vancouver Canucks
Yahoo ownership: 5 percent
Horvat had two noteworthy stretches in the second half for the Canucks last season, with 10 points in 13 games from Jan. 30-Feb. 22 and five points in seven games from March 7-21. With Nick Bonino out of the picture, he's the best candidate to play No. 2 center for Vancouver, who employs top-flight forwards Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Radim Vrbata surrounded by tons of question marks. Horvat, 20, was dynamic this preseason with four goals (T-3rd), one coming on the power play, with one assist, a plus-4 and 14 SOG in five games playing mostly alongside fellow prospect Jake Virtanen. It remains to be seen if the pieces around him will include Vrbata or simply some youngsters with a lot to prove, but Horvat is a deep sleeper who could have sneaky value off the waiver wire if he carries over his strong preseason when the real games begin.
Ryan Murray, D, Columbus Blue Jackets
Yahoo ownership: 3 percent
Murray finished the preseason with three assists, a plus-4 and seven SOG in four games -- and, most importantly, no injuries. He's getting back into the swing of things and has even seen some time with four forwards on the Blue Jackets' top power-play unit -- one that should be strong in 2015-16 with Ryan Johansen, Brandon Saad and Co. Jack Johnson and David Savard, Murray's preseason defense pair, should also see power-play time this season, but Murray is a fantasy wild card that could emerge as the first-unit defenseman over time. Just the fact he's healthy and playing for an underrated team justifies taking him as a late-round sleeper or waiver-wire add if you're thin on defense.
Teemu Pulkkinen, LW/RW, Detroit Red Wings
Yahoo ownership: 4 percent
The preseason has seen a ton of Red Wings prospects impress, from Andreas Athanasiou to Anthony Mantha to Dylan Larkin to Pulkkinen. But Pulkkinen, who played 31 games with Detroit last season, is the leading candidate to emerge with fantasy production this season. Injuries up front have led to sleeper value in each of the past two seasons with Gustav Nyquist in 2013-14 and Tomas Tatar last season, and Pulkkinen converted on three of his seven SOG (1 PPG) with two assists this preseason, reconnecting with his former American Hockey League coach (Jeff Blashill). He's dual eligible in Yahoo leagues and could be a top-six forward for Detroit whether or not injuries mount again.
Others worth monitoring after preseason: Charlie Coyle (C/RW, MIN), Tomas Hertl (C/LW, SJS), Matt Irwin (D, BOS), Sam Reinhart (C, BUF), Anton Lander (C/LW/RW, EDM)