By Evan Berofsky, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
To get you psyched for the playoffs, here’s another fantasy column analyzing the regular season. Last week, we looked at the NHL’s biggest disappointments. This week, we discuss a few who performed significantly above projections.
(And on the topic of the exciting action covering the next two months, I’ve got the Blackhawks taking the Cup over the Bruins in six. Wait, this isn’t 2013? OK, then it’ll be Nashville beating Boston in seven.)
Some of the following entries may have only produced consistently at a mediocre-at-best rate, while others may never have been highly touted but ended up posting career efforts. And a couple rookies immediately hit their stride, with one set to run away with top honors.
If you drafted a couple of these folks, then you may be smiling after claiming a league championship or some other top prize. And no surprise three of the names shown below belong to a club that has shocked everyone. Many others were considered, but these qualify as the 10 who pleasantly surprised us most.
5. Yanni Gourde, F, Tampa Bay
Gourde didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, as he previously racked up points – a combined 149 in 197 games – at the minor-league level. The 26-year-old earned a two-year contract last June based on notching eight points in 20 appearances with the Bolts and adding 27 points in the AHL playoffs. Management’s trust in Gourde provided him with the incentive to succeed, and he has done so by fitting in perfectly within the potent Tampa attack and finishing third in the league for first-year scorers with 64 points while leading all freshmen with a plus-34. He might be only 5-foot-9, 170, but that hasn’t stopped him from asserting a physical presence (50 PIM, 57 hits). Quite the story, considering Gourde was never drafted and only signed his first pro deal two years after completing his junior career.
4. Sean Couturier, F, Philadelphia
Couturier has generally been regarded a strong two-way player, but he considerably upped one of his ways thanks to a simple preseason line switch. When captain Claude Giroux was moved to the wing to allow Couturier to be bumped up to the first center position, the latter’s value immediately skyrocketed. But how would he handle the added pressure having mainly served no higher than third on the depth chart for six seasons? Quite easily, thank you very much. Couturier never looked out of place and thrived with the extra responsibility, skating the second-most minutes among forwards in 2017-18. The eighth pick from 2011 destroyed his previous peak in points; in fact, the 76 he finished with proved to be more than his last two years combined (73). And if Couturier can continue his solid play into the postseason and beyond, then the $26 million extension Philly gave him in 2015 for six seasons will look like a steal.
3. Mathew Barzal, F, NY Islanders
The Isles may have underperformed on the back line, but there’s plenty of promise up front. Even though he never experienced any scoring issues in juniors (including 79 points in only 41 WHL games last year), Barzal wasn’t expected to excel this quickly in the NHL considering his biggest workload had been 59 games. But there he was, showing up in all 82 while dazzling fans and blinding opponents with his speed and stick work. The shoo-in for the Calder Trophy even topped teammate John Tavares by one point – 85 to 84 – for the team lead. In addition to anchoring the potent second line, Barzal became an instant power-play contributor with five goals and 22 assists on the man advantage. There’s the chance the 20-year-old regresses in Year Two, as opposing Ds adjust and the grueling schedule/injuries set in. But the skills suggest he’ll do just fine in New York, with or without Tavares in town.
2. Connor Hellebuyck, G, Winnipeg
The 2016-17 season was Hellebuyck’s for the taking, but his performance (2.89 goals-against average, .907 save percentage in 56 appearances) never quite matched the hype. And when the Jets signed veteran Steve Mason last summer as insurance, Hellebuyck could’ve done one of two things: complain about the situation or improve his game. The soon-to-be 25-year-old opted for the latter and the hard work paid off tremendously. After he posted a 21-4-5 record with a 2.37 GAA and .923 SV% from October through December, some believed the inexperienced Hellebuyck was in for a letdown. All the Michigander did over the second half was maintain his excellence (23-7-4, 2.35, .924) and double his shutout count to six. The fact his 44 victories broke the all-time single-season record for an American should give Hellebuyck the confidence to lead the Jets to a deep playoff run and/or offer many years of stability between the pipes.
1. William Karlsson, F, Vegas
Surprise! No, seriously, you must’ve already figured out who would fill the top spot. Plucked from Columbus at the Expansion Draft after squeezing out a combined 45 points over two full schedules, Karlsson – along with several of his Golden Knight compatriots – would go on to make people forget everything they knew about first-year franchises. The second of Anaheim’s 2011 second-round selections (the first being John Gibson) went scoreless in his first four outings, but spent the remainder of 2017 striking for 33 points (including 20 goals) in the other 33. His final haul of 43 goals, 35 assists and an NHL-high plus-49 (13 higher than runner-up and teammate Jonathan Marchessault) should be considered among this year’s top achievements, but the Swede’s 23.4 shooting percentage will be remembered as legend. Sure, the Blue Jackets must be kicking themselves for letting Karlsson go for nothing, but no one could’ve honestly predicted his awesome output.
Honorable Mention: Dustin Brown, F, Los Angeles; Erik Haula, F, Vegas; Keith Kinkaid, G, New Jersey; Jonathan Marchessault, F, Vegas; Jeff Petry, D, Montreal