The most surprising fantasy hockey players of 2022-23

By Jan Levine, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

This week's article is the second of three columns where we look at this season's biggest disappointments and surprises and then take an early look at next season's potential first-round picks.

This week, we cover the surprises, which will include players who far exceeded their draft position and/or earned way more than their cost to acquire.

Dylan Strome, C, WAS

Strome posted a career-high 22 goals and 48 points in 69 games for the Blackhawks a season ago, but he was just scratching the surface. Chicago surprisingly did not qualify him, so Strome inked a one-year, $3.5 million contract with the Capitals in unrestricted free agency. Strome has ably filled the role of first-line center for the Capitals with Nicklas Backstrom sidelined, posting 18 goals and 57 points in 73 outings this season, including 19 power-play points. He parlayed this fine season into a five-year, $25 million contract extension with Washington in February.

Dylan Cozens, C, BUF

For all the rightful attention and praise directed toward Tage Thompson, the explosion by Cozens may have been even more impressive. An NHL first-round pick (seventh overall) in 2019, Cozens took a step forward with 38 points last year, but that was just the beginning. Cozens has posted 28 goals and 33 helpers in 72 games and, almost as impressive, has gone from a minus-19 to minus-one rating. Buffalo may finish just shy of a playoff berth but the future is bright in upstate New York thanks to Cozens, Thompson and others.

Jamie Benn, LW, DAL

I think we all kept waiting for the bottom to drop out on Benn or for him to turn back into a pumpkin, but neither happened. Benn just kept producing and producing and producing. He took a step forward last season, going from 35 to 46 points, but I'm unsure if anyone could have seen this explosion happening. Through 74 games, Benn has potted 31 goals while adding 40 assists, topping the 70-point mark for the first time since 2017-18. Benn's turn-back-the-clock performance has Dallas in a playoff spot while also battling for first place in the Central Division.

Gabriel Vilardi, RW, LA

Vilardi looked like a bust his first three seasons in the NHL after being selected 11th overall in 2017. He struggled to stay healthy, and when in the lineup, he didn't produce. In 25 games with Los Angeles last season, he posted just five goals and two assists after seemingly taking a step forward with 23 points in 54 2020-21 games. Vilardi did miss nearly a month with an upper-body injury and is currently dealing with a similar ailment, but in 63 contests, he posted 23 goals and 18 helpers, regaining his status as one of LA's fine young skaters.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, LW, EDM

Yes, it's odd to include an 11-year veteran and 2011 first-overall pick in this column, but that shows just how special RNH's season has been. Nugent-Hopkins, skating on Edmonton's second line, has posted 35 tallies, 61 helpers, 183 shots on net and a plus-7 rating through 75 appearances this season, far exceeding his prior career-high of 69 points posted in 2018-19. He'll need four points over the Oilers' last seven games to reach the century mark for the first time.

Erik Karlsson, D, SJ

This was probably the easiest add to this column. To evidence just how special this year has been, Karlsson tallied 97 points in the prior three seasons; this season, he already has hit the 90-point mark. This has been the first 90-point season of EK65's career (22 goals, 69 helpers). Karlsson is the NHL's third-best assist man this season, behind only Connor McDavid (78) and Nikita Kucherov (74). In addition (and further evidence of his dominance this season) Karlsson is 21 points ahead of the second-highest-scoring defender (Josh Morrissey, 69 points).

Miro Heiskanen, D, DAL

Expectations were high for Heiskanen when he was drafted third overall in 2017, but especially this season, with John Klingberg moving on to Anaheim. Heiskanen has more than delivered. He took a step forward with 36 points last season, but he was just getting started. Freed from sharing the spotlight, Heiskanen has posted 62 points in 71 outings while adding 197 shots on goal, a plus-7 rating and 88 blocked shots. His fine campaign should garner significant Norris Trophy buzz even with Karlsson's ridiculous production.

Linus Ullmark G, BOS

When Boston gave Ullmark a four-year, $20 million deal in the summer of 2021 for him to presumably serve as the team's top option in goal, eyebrows were raised. He rewarded that faith last season while splitting time with Jeremy Swayman, playing exactly half of Boston's 82 regular season games and posting a 26-10-2 record, 2.45 goals-against average (GAA) and .917 save percentage (SV%). But Ullmark was just getting started. The likely Vezina Trophy winner, Ullmark is a staggering 36-6-1 with a 1.90 GAA and .937 SV%.

Filip Gustavsson, G, MIN

Gustavsson saw action in 18 games for the Senators a season ago, managing a 5-12-1 record, 3.55 GAA and .892 save percentage. He was flipped to Minnesota in July in exchange for veteran goaltender Cam Talbot. That move was all that Gustavsson needed to take his new career to the next level. He has paired with Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Wild upper-tier goaltending, posting a 19-9-5 record with a 2.01 GAA and .932 SV%. He may just be a placeholder until Jesper Wallstedt is ready, but he has earned the starts he has received.

Others include Jared McCann, Wyatt Johnston, Kirby Dach, Tim Stutzle, Morgan Frost, Tyler Toffoli, Alex Tuch, Kaapo Kakko, Owen Tippett, Jordan Eberle, Jeff Skinner, Matias Maccelli, Andrei Kuzmenko, Brandon Hagel, Eeli Tolvanen (since moving to Seattle). Zach Hyman, Hampus Lindholm, Adam Larsson, Josh Morrissey, Rasmus Dahlin, Dougie Hamilton, Ilya Samsonov, Martin Jones (first half of the season), Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley.

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