There's always next year, right? In fewer than 100 hours, half the league will be packing up lockers, bidding buddies farewell, and fantasizing about what could have been. Or, more optimistically, what might be to come, in only a few months from now. So, before we plunge into the NHL's approaching postseason, let's take a look at the league's playoff outsiders and one precious fantasy tidbit we don't want to forget ahead of next fall.
Also, keep in mind, one of the following teams will most likely have elite prospect Connor Bedard aboard. Which will also affect the respective fantasy values of whoever is fortunate to compete alongside such a generational talent. But we'll have more on that considerable detail - and others - in our post-draft lottery coverage in May.
Anaheim Ducks: I don't imagine there's another member of the Ducks who's looking more forward to 2023-24 than Jamie Drysdale. Suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in late October, it's been a long road, post-surgery, to recovery for the 21-year-old defender. But he's now back to running drills in practice, with months to go before it matters again. While the loss of a year's worth of development is a shame, you can bet Drysdale is going to work his caboose off to get back up to speed all summer. Don't be too surprised if the offensive-defenseman leads Anaheim's blue line in production by this time next year, snatching the current crown from Cam Fowler.
Arizona Coyotes: Drafted fifth overall back in 2018, forward Barrett Hayton is finally ready to make a significant impact. Somewhat of a slow burn since entering the league - a global pandemic didn't help in that regard - the now 22-year-old is finally finding his productive stride at the NHL level. With 18 goals and 20 assists in 48 games, Hayton is third in team scoring since Dec. 29. A future 70-point player in the making, he's a deeper-league fantasy gem to boot.
Buffalo Sabres: Does Buffalo's net now belong to Devon Levi? Probably; at least partially, in sharing the gig with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Veteran Craig Anderson (and his expiring contract) appears done. Eric Comrie proved himself not the answer, even when healthy. Which leaves, for now, Luukkonen and Levi. Tasked with playing six of the Sabres' final seven games, the Northeastern star was competent to excellent, displaying high-end skills - his sense of anticipation is something else - and the best brand of swagger. Backstopping a Buffalo squad palpably on the rise, this 21-year-old definitely deserves a roll of the fantasy dice as a supporting netminder on most rosters.
Calgary Flames: While we anticipate bounce-back campaigns from nearly every prominent fantasy asset not named Tyler Toffoli, up-and-comer Jakob Pelletier is also one to watch, straight out of the Flames' training camp gates. Especially if there's a coaching adjustment in Calgary. Performing as a formidable scoring force in the AHL (two years running), the young forward has been used only part-time, and then altogether sparingly, when offered a shot at the NHL level. That'll change next year.
Chicago Blackhawks: A top-six staple for years to come, forward Lukas Reichel is already making a positive impression - despite seeing limited action in the NHL - scoring seven goals and eight assists through 23 games. Not bad, considering the absence of top-level talent surrounding the 20-year-old. Projected to play full time in 2023-24, the 17th overall draft selection (2020) will near a point/game pace once Chicago bolsters its lineup over the summer, either through the draft and/or free agency. He definitely deserves rostering in deeper dynasty formats already.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Boy oh boy, did the Blue Jackets ever miss Zach Werenski this season (amongst other figures). The Columbus defenseman was just starting to heat up when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in early November. Fortunately, he's already feeling pretty fine, is just entering his prime, and should return to competitive play without a hitch next October. Don't let this year's lengthy absence serve as a fantasy turnoff. Also, keep Kirill Marchenko on your radar, especially if the young forward nails down a top-six role again, as expected. The Jackets will be better next year.
Detroit Red Wings: Let the Marco Kasper era begin? Maybe. Let's first see how the eighth-overall draft pick (2022) recovers from the lower-body injury suffered in his one and only NHL game. On the upside, all involved seem pretty jazzed about what the young Austrian is set to offer the Red Wings' table, beginning in autumn 2023-24. This kid brings a bit of spice to the ice and he can also score. See where Kasper lines up in camp - again, if ready to rock - to start. This club could certainly use more scoring pop up front.
Montreal Canadiens: Remember Juraj Slafkovsky? Last year's No. 1 draft pick? It feels like the just-turned 19-year-old hasn't played in ages and ages. Fact is, he was last seen on the ice Jan. 15, before suffering a season-ending lower-body injury. At least until taking his first healthy twirl this week. Skipping the World Hockey Championship, Slafkovsky is focussed on feeling in tip-top shape for 2023-24, with an eye to winning a position alongside top center Nick Suzuki up front. For good this time. At minimum, keep a close eye on where he likely fits in training camp.
Nashville Predators: The days of Tommy Novak swinging between the AHL Admirals and Predators appear over. Called into top-six action even before Mikael Granlund was shipped out to Pittsburgh, the 25-year-old NHL Sophomore (barely so) erupted for 13 goals and 17 assists in 28 games since Feb. 18. No other Nashville skater neared that level of production down the stretch. Moving forward - and extended to a one-year deal before becoming an UFA in 2024 - Novak is expected to battle for a prominent position down the middle once more. Having Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Matt Duchene, and defenseman Roman Josi back full time, as anticipated, will only bolster the club's production altogether.
Ottawa Senators: Forward Tim Stutzle is a star. Not just a very good player, but an actual star who's having a great time on a scoring line with Ottawa's heart-and-soul, Brady Tkachuk, and a clearly refreshed Claude Giroux. With one to go, Stutzle has 38 goals and 50(!) assists through 77 contests, just three months after turning 21. This young lad has top-10 fantasy forward written all over his unlined face. Don't forget that at next fall's draft.
Philadelphia Flyers: Don't sleep on forwards Owen Tippett and Morgan Frost as blossoming fantasy assets within the Flyers organization. The pair of John Tortorella-favorites are pegged to play significant roles up front, regardless of whether Sean Couturier and/or Cam Atkinson are able to return to previous form (fingers crossed they are). Born three months apart in 1999, Tippett has one year left before becoming a restricted free agent, while Frost is a pending-RFA right now. Combining for nearly 90 points this volatile season, both seem fully poised to go next-level on only months from now.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Perhaps it's time to move on from considering Tristan Jarry a reliable fantasy netminder. Because he isn't. Volatile at best, Jarry is floating a .909 SV% and 2.90 GAA ahead of Thursday's finale. Not the worst numbers, but not what you want from your No. 1 or 2. Consistently fragile too, he fell well short of playing the 55-plus games Pittsburgh would have liked from their go-to. Jarry turns 28 years old at the end of April. He isn't a kid anymore. However the Pens handle his expiring contract, maybe best look elsewhere next fall to fill that make/break position on your own fantasy roster.
San Jose Sharks: After a nine-contest audition last year and this season's brief eight-game taste, William Eklund projects to finally carve himself out a full-time spot in the Sharks' top-six. Drafted seventh overall in 2021, the still-only 20-year-old earned 41 points in 54 games with the Barracuda this campaign. Unless San Jose re-hauls their roster much more dramatically than anticipated this summer, a position alongside Tomas Hertl appears in Eklund's near future. A dynasty pick already, he should serve a fantasy purpose in deeper redraft leagues as well.
St. Louis Blues: Just because Jordan Binnington has a ring doesn't merit him the overwhelming amount of fantasy love too many managers continue to dish out. As of Tuesday, 29 other NHL netminders rank higher than the Blues No. 1 in points accrued in ESPN.com's standard game. Total points. The guy started nearly 60 contests. In steady performance decline since hoisting the Cup in 2019, Binnington doesn't deserve to be your No. 1 or 2, or even 3 in some leagues. Not until he kicks out some tangible evidence of turning matters around. Stop drafting him so high.
Vancouver Canucks: Forward Andrei Kuzmenko hasn't received nearly enough fantasy recognition for his steady production - 38 goals and 33 assists through 79 games - all season long. That won't change much at draft time next fall - name recognition and all that. However, speaking on behalf of us savvier fantasy types, we can't wait to see what the extended 27-year-old does for his NHL encore. Especially if he sticks on a top Canucks' line with Elias Pettersson.
Washington Capitals: Somewhat surprisingly, and rather quietly, center Dylan Strome sits second in team scoring with 66 points through 79 games. Even more impressive is how the new Capital has come on in the past six weeks, earning 11 goals and 15 assists in only 20 contests. If he suits up alongside Alex Ovechkin once more, especially on the power play, the club's top center is due for another underappreciated, but valuable, fantasy showing. Remember, Washington just signed the 26-year-old to a five-year/$25-million extension. They like him.