As has become tradition here at ESPN.com before we bid a fond farewell to another NHL regular season, our fantasy hockey experts Sean Allen and Victoria Matiash put their heads together to hand out a few "precious" pieces of fantasy hardware. Here we will acknowledge the game-changers, the roster-breakers, the cause-for-head-shakers, and the future fantasy stars after what has been, as always, an altogether eventful few months of lively competition.
And so, the envelopes please...
Fantasy hockey MVP
Sean Allen: Nikita Kucherov, W, Tampa Bay Lightning: All hail the king! I know that MVP selections in fantasy hockey are supposed to incorporate value in relative terms to draft position. So, while claiming Kucherov required a top-three overall pick back in September, he absolutely paid off that value -- and then some. Kucherov finished first among players on the ESPN Player Rater, which gives a tangible value to a player's fantasy contribution. His total on the Player Rater was strong enough that you would have needed to add Max Pacioretty's value to that of Nathan MacKinnon in order to match Kucherov. Oh, did I mention that MacKinnon was the second-best forward on the Player Rater? The first player to hit 128 points since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr both did it back in 1995-96 will come back next season with virtually the same supporting cast. There are some bumps ahead for Tampa Bay, with more than half of the defense hitting free agency and Brayden Point due a massive raise, but a large part of the core is signed through next season, when Kucherov will still be in his prime at 26.
Victoria Matiash: Kucherov: I have no option but to agree with Sean. My reigning fantasy MVP (2017-18) wholly deserves to sport his crown for a second-straight year. Points rule in conventional fantasy competition -- full stop. The Tampa Bay winger collected a dozen more points than anyone else -- including 41 goals -- and did so in consistent fashion throughout a full 82-game campaign. What more do you want?
Sleeper of the year
Matiash: Zach Parise, LW, Minnesota Wild: Anybody familiar with my hockey writing is undoubtedly aware of my bold appreciation for the otherwise underappreciated Wild scorer. After relentlessly harping on Parise's unrecognized fantasy potential following his recovery last winter, and again through a spring and summer's worth of preview material, I inspired one ESPN.com editor to (sarcastically) wonder whether I might draft the veteran forward myself. Of course I did. He rewarded me with 61 points, including 28 goals, through 74 games. If not for a late-season knee issue, he likely would have scored 30. That's not bad for a latter-round selection, otherwise widely available in the majority of leagues well into the season.
Allen: Mika Zibanejad, C, New York Rangers: We mused before the season in our breakout picks about whether or not Zibanejad had another yet-to-be-revealed gear in his game. While it sometimes felt like Zibanejad has been around forever -- and this was indeed his eighth season in the NHL -- the Rangers center still hasn't turned 26. His ice time on a rebuilding Rangers team jumped by almost three minutes to over 20 mpg and the counting stats climbed with his responsibility. Zibanejad turned in 30 goals (previous high 27), 44 assists (30) and 74 points (51). He was ranked outside the top 150 and drafted outside the top 200 on average, but returned value as a top-50 skater.
Matiash: Wayne Simmonds, LW, Nashville Predators: Ending up somewhere near 30 goals with another 20 or so assists to accompany an anticipated healthy pile of penalty minutes hadn't felt like too much to ask, yet the power forward fell well short by barely scraping together 30 points from a rather full slate of 79 games. What's worse was the month-long promise of a fresh and productive start once Simmonds was shipped out of Philadelphia to a legit contender, where we thought he might flirt with his 0.74 points/game pace of not that long ago. As it happened, the 30-year-old scored just one goal and two assists in 17 contests after joining the Predators at the deadline.
Allen: Patrik Laine, W, Winnipeg Jets: This was a big step back for Laine in a season that was set up for success. His career totals for goals: 36 as a rookie, 44 as a sophomore, 30 this season. Points? 64, 70, 50. What about plus/minus? plus-7, plus-8, minus-24. My personal theory regarding Laine's struggles blames the decision by coach Paul Maurice to keep him buried on Winnipeg's second line. Don't get me wrong: It was the right decision for the team as a whole, but Laine is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a second-line winger in the NHL. This guy is already set to be a rock star first-line sniper and he's not getting to show that skill set. It's got to be frustrating. Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, as a duo at even strength, played 521 minutes with Kyle Connor, 392 minutes with Nikolaj Ehlers and just 196 minutes with Laine. For the record, they scored 2.65 goals-per-60 minutes with Connor, 3.06 with Ehlers and 3.35 with Laine. I'm still "all in" on Laine for the future, but this season hurt.
Fantasy rookie of the year
Matiash: Elias Pettersson, C, Vancouver Canucks: Remember last spring's round of mild fretting about whether or not Pettersson might take one last seasonal turn with the Växjö Lakers of the SHL? Fast-forward several months and the 20-year-old is (probably) now mulling over what cake to serve at his Calder-winning celebration after collecting 28 goals and 38 assists in only 71 games. Brady Tkachuk, this season's silver medalist in rookie scoring, amassed 45 points (also in 71 games). So, outside of the fantasy crease, there was Pettersson and then there was everyone else.
Allen: Jordan Binnington, G, St. Louis Blues: While Pettersson sustained value over a longer stretch of the season, when Binnington was called upon for the Blues, he blew the doors off. "Winnington" arrived in the right place at the right time for a Blues club looking to pull itself out of the doldrums after escaping the Mike Yeo era. Although not even the top goaltender on the Blues' AHL affiliate to start the season -- that was Ville Husso -- Binnington played himself into prime position to get a shot in the NHL when Jake Allen's struggles dragged on. His first start of the season came on Jan. 7 and it was a shutout. He went 24-5-1 after that, providing a sub-2.00 GAA. He won leagues for fantasy managers who took a chance on him, which is a pretty impressive feat for a mid-season rookie. Allen is under contract for two more seasons at a starter's salary and Binnington is an arbitration-eligible restricted free-agent, so there is some off-ice business to attend to before assessing his value for next season.
Fantasy defenseman of the year
Allen: Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames: If you consider "draft capital invested" versus "fantasy value returned" this season, Giordano is the runaway winner as best defenseman. Actually, wait. He's just plain the best defenseman, regardless of draft capital. Giordano paced the ESPN Player Rater for blue-liners with 74 points, a plus-39 rating and 221 shots on goal. It absolutely came out of nowhere -- at least, this level of success did. For some perspective, Giordano had the 18th-most points by a 32-year-old defenseman back in 2015-16 but, with mostly the same offensive crew in front of him the past two seasons, he didn't reach 40 points. This season, at age 35, he had the third-best season by a 35-year-old defenseman in NHL history, trailing only Ray Bourque and Nicklas Lidstrom. Those are not players anyone has ever mentioned in the same breath as Giordano before. I don't think I'm completely out on Giordano for next season because the situation is still ideal, but I'm not banking on a repeat performance. I had him as D10 on my way-too-early rankings, after Roman Josi and ahead of Torey Krug.
Matiash: Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks: I feel we're taking the 34-year-old for granted at this stage. Fifteen seasons in, Burns busts through the 80-point barrier for the first time in his NHL career with 83 points -- nine better than the league's second-most productive defenseman (Giordano). He ranks No. 1 in shots on net (300), No. 4 in power-play points (28) from the blue line, and No. 7 overall in average time-on-ice (25:06). Oh, and Burns hasn't missed a regular-season game in more than five years. He'll be my top fantasy defenseman in conventional leagues next season, without question.
Fantasy goalie of the year
Allen: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning: Actually, I'm a little torn on this. I want to give Vasilevskiy the overall nod, but also give honors to Ben Bishop in head-to-head leagues. While Vasilevskiy started more games and was more consistently on the ice, accruing more wins (which is better in rotisserie formats), he flat out collapsed in the head-to-head playoffs and probably cost some teams the championship in that cruel, fickle world. Bishop, on the other hand, was "keyed in" during the month of March and, despite some missed games down the stretch, still did enough overall for his fantasy teams to be competitive. However, on the whole, Bishop missed too much time for rotisserie owners to stay competitive in wins, unless they had the right partner in net.
Matiash: Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars I'll stick with Bishop, partly because he was the nicer surprise. Vasilevskiy was also pretty fabulous in 2017-18, through an even greater number of appearances, while Bishop actually won more games (and lost fewer) this campaign, despite seeing less action, all the while rocking a league-leading .934 save percentage and equally glorious 1.98 GAA. You simply got more bang for your fantasy buck here.
Waiver-wire streamer of the year
Matiash: Carter Hart, G, Philadelphia Flyers: If you needed goaltending help through winter's darkest days, either due to injury or plain poor play by others, this young netminder was likely available as a valuable substitute. I guarantee more than a few fantasy managers eventually emerged victorious by season's end, in both rotisserie and H2H leagues, in part because they, ahem, took a flyer on Hart before others opened their eyes. He was hardly flawless as a couple of fractured outings leading up to the trade deadline were particularly ugly. However, he also won a bunch of games -- eight straight at one point -- while maintaining a more-than respectable overall save percentage, peaking at .931 through January. He's still a "baby" by professional goalie standards, but this 20-year-old should offer your roster more than a part-time jolt as early as next season.
Allen: Alexander Edler, D, Vancouver Canucks: Edler was in and out of the lineup with injuries this season, missing a total of 26 games. Yet, when he was healthy, he was a glowing addition to your fantasy lineup. He finished 13th in goals-per-game and 19th in points-per-game among defensemen. His injury absences, combined with his reduced totals in recent seasons, meant he was always available on the wire when you needed him.
Dynasty stash of the year
Allen: Sebastian Aho, C, Carolina Hurricanes: The still-21-year-old Aho took a massive leap forward this season, adding an average of more than two minutes to his ice time, scoring better than a point-per-game and finishing strong in all the main fantasy categories. To think he's still so young -- and on a team surrounded by similar young talent and such good vibes! Aho is in for a big raise as an unrestricted free-agent this offseason and the future remains bright. His 21-year-old season is in the same kind of output range that we saw from Patrick Kane and John Tavares when they were that age, which should say a lot about Aho's dynasty potential as the catalyst for a Hurricanes squad that is only going to get better.
Matiash: Alex DeBrincat, RW/LW, Chicago Blackhawks: In only his second season, the diminutive winger scored 41 goals and 35 assists. Forty-one goals! Why aren't we giving that number more attention? He also tallied 24 power-play points, rifled 220 shots on net, and averaged nearly 18 minutes of ice-time. Don't be giving Patrick Kane all the credit here -- DeBrincat also produced at a solid clip when not skating with Chicago's leading scorer. If anything, chemistry he formed with Arizona export Dylan Strome proved to be most promising, and the two youngsters face one more year before becoming restricted free agents. Like Aho in Carolina, DeBrincat has yet to celebrate his 22nd birthday. The long look ahead appears to be bright for both the Blackhawks and dynasty managers lucky enough to already have this star-to-be in the fold.