With only seven days left of the NHL regular season and as few as two games remaining for some teams, we turn our attention to the future. This week we present our ridiculously early 2016-17 preseason rankings for fantasy hockey.
Obviously, this is preliminary, with months of trading, drafting, free-agent signing, retirements and injuries to impact this list prior to September. This ranking is meant to give you an early primer on next season in case you aren't in the hunt for a championship this week.
After the usual rising and falling breakdowns, we'll also touch on the early candidates to be impact fantasy rookies next season and a couple of names that could make us regret how we ranked them.
You can also skip all the way to the bottom for a few suggestions that might help if you are still battling for this season.
Forwards rising and falling
Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers (up 41 spots to No. 7): When he was healthy this season, McDavid showed he truly is a generational talent in the NHL. He's guaranteed to finish his rookie campaign as a 19-year-old with at least a point per game. The Oilers still have some work to do building around him, most notably on defense, but the pieces are there so that we are comfortable enough to call McDavid a top-10 fantasy asset next season.
Phil Kessel, W, Pittsburgh Penguins (down 35 spots to No. 46): We are highlighting Kessel to show that he isn't dropping down as much as it looked like he might a month ago. Kessel has picked up his game since Evgeni Malkin was hurt, showcasing that perhaps he just needs to carry the puck a bit more to be the dynamic sniper we are all used to. The Pens, of course, still have Sidney Crosby and Malkin down the middle next season, but it looks safe to consider Kessel a top fantasy winger again now that he's finally found his side with the Penguins. He'll finish with fewer than 30 goals, but only because he will run out of time. His numbers in the month of March prorate to a 30-goal, 82-point full season.
Tomas Hertl, W, San Jose Sharks (up 137 spots to No. 92): Playing at the bottom of the depth chart for the first three months of the season, Hertl will be a quiet asset heading into 2016-17. Since joining Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton regularly on the top line in January, Hertl has put up a 32-goal pace over 43 games.
Tyler Johnson, C, Tampa Bay Lightning (down 118 spots to No. 140): Johnson was a straight-up bust this season (which we did warn about). If he doesn't notch another goal this week, he'll finish with fewer than half his total from last season. There is some potential for a rebound here if Steven Stamkos ends up signing somewhere else, but there is also a chance that even if that happens the Lightning bring in another No. 1 center.
Defensemen rising and falling
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Arizona Coyotes (up 71 spots to No. 19): It was a huge step forward for OEL this season in many ways. Even though he might not match last season's 23 goals, he still scored at least 21 of them from the blue line. He'll also add more than 10 points to his total, almost double his power-play points, show a penchant for a few more penalty minutes and cut his damaging plus/minus to a reasonable level. All of this, by the way, he'll accomplish while missing half a dozen games compared to last season.
Ryan Suter, D, Minnesota Wild (up 155 spots to No. 36): In a way, this was a season for defensemen. We have 10 defensemen currently ranked inside the top 30 on the ESPN Player Rater. There were only six there at the end of the last season. Suter is chief among the risers, showing that his game continues to evolve with a competitive young Wild team. He's already set a new career-high for shots on goal and eclipsed 50 points for the first time in his 11-year NHL career. If he scores another goal this week, he'll set a new career-high there, too.
Goaltender rising and falling
Martin Jones, G, San Jose Sharks (up 51 spots to No. 48): Jones answered any questions about whether he was a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL by posting spectacular numbers in his first campaign as a full-time starter. Fatigue did not enter into the equation (yet) and Jones will finish among the top three goaltenders for wins and top 10 for goals-against average. The Sharks are built to be at least as strong a team next year as they were this year, so Jones looks like a reliable dynasty netminder for fantasy owners.
Next season's young guns
Auston Matthews, C (enters ranks at No. 141): The No. 1 skater for this year's NHL draft and the likely pick by whichever team wins the draft lottery, Matthews will be an impact player in the NHL next season. He honed his skills this campaign by choosing to play professionally in the top Swiss league. Playing among established pro players, Matthews managed 46 points in 36 games as an 18-year-old to finish among the top 10 in the Swiss league for scoring. His age makes it impressive, but note that some of the players with more points in the league included NHL castoffs Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cory Conacher and Robert Nilsson. Still, Matthews will come in with similar fanfare to McDavid, but probably doesn't have as high of a rookie ceiling in the NHL. That could change depending on which team gets him and how he looks in exhibition games.
William Nylander, C, Toronto Maple Leafs (enters ranks at No. 151): With a leg up on the other rookies next season thanks to an extended cup of coffee to end this season, Nylander will more than likely take over the top centerman job for the Leafs next season (pending the decision of a certain free-agent named Steven Stamkos). That could be a plum position on this improving, Mike Babcock-coached squad. Fellow rookie Mitch Marner will be the mix for scoring, and the return of established top winger James van Riemsdyk will make a big difference for the Leafs. Ultimately, the performance of the Leafs rookies next season depends on how big of a fish the team can land in free agency.
Patrik Laine, W (enters ranks at No. 248): We are giving a slight edge to Laine over fellow countryman Jesse Puljujarvi, as Laine finished this season in the Finnish elite league with better numbers. The bottom line is that depending on where these two end up going at the draft -- likely top five for both -- they could be in a position to have solid rookie campaigns.
Mikko Rantanen, W, Colorado Avalanche (not ranked): Another Finn on the radar will be Rantanen, who may have played a smaller role than his countrymen listed above at the World Juniors, but is a step closer to the NHL. Rantanen is on track to finish the AHL season among the top 10 in scoring and as the top rookie scorer. He also made a few appearances with the Avalanche to whet his appetite for the NHL next season. Not to mention, Rantanen is a natural winger coming into a team with some elite centerman in Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene, offering even more opportunities for an impact rookie to win a spot that matters.
Dylan Strome, C, Arizona Coyotes (not ranked): Don't let his older brother Ryan Strome's lack of impact at the NHL level dissuade you from having a look at Strome next season. Strome will join the budding core of the Coyotes franchise and could conceivably win a scoring-line role out of the gate.
Ivan Provorov, D, Philadelphia Flyers (not ranked): If Shayne Gostisbehere sneaks away with the Calder Trophy this season, Provorov gives the Flyers a dark-horse chance to go back-to-back with defensemen winning the rookie of the year award. Provorov is arguably NHL ready now after two dominating campaigns in the WHL.
Most likely to burn us on rankings
Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche (down 30 spots to No. 74): After giving him a pass for a sophomore slump last season, MacKinnon disappointed in his third NHL campaign this year. Although better than last year, he finished shy of his stellar rookie season in goals, assists, points and -- if he doesn't come back from a knee injury this week -- power-play points. He's still only 20 and has time to step up into the dominating role that he projects, but we suggest a soft approach to MacKinnon for your fantasy draft next season. Of course, MacKinnon could very easily make us eat those words, as he has the talent to be among the top-25 fantasy skaters.
Antoine Roussel, W, Dallas Stars (not ranked): We still won't rank Roussel for the top-250 fantasy players next season, but it's notable that he's finished among them for two consecutive seasons. Overall, players who earn their keep on penalty minutes fluctuate a little too much to project them as top assets. But Roussel is a strong candidate to buck that trend
Still playing for this season
Matt Murray, G, Pittsburgh Penguins: We don't have a specific timetable for Marc-Andre Fleury and his current concussion, but Murray was lights out on the weekend in his stead. The Pens could easily choose to play it safe and bridge the gap to the playoffs with Murray tending twine for the final three games this week, none of which are back to back.
Trevor van Riemsdyk, D, Chicago Blackhawks: Brent Seabrook ascends to the first chair with Duncan Keith suspended for the remainder of the season, but van Riemsdyk steps into Seabrook's role as second banana. Only Seabrook played more power-play minutes for the Blackhawks as they downed the Boston Bruins on Sunday.
Jonathan Drouin, W, Tampa Bay Lightning: The loss of Steven Stamkos for at least a month is devastating for Stamkos, the Lightning and fantasy owners. It would be the Hail Mary of Hail Marys, but Drouin has been biding his time in the AHL since his dispute with Bolts' management earlier this season when he was sent down. The fact remains that Drouin is talented, has scored nine goals in his past 10 AHL games and is the only option the Lightning have to find a new top-six skater to replace Stamkos. Drouin missed Sunday's AHL game with a lower-body injury, but if it's not serious, he could be up and playing with the Lightning soon.
Anders Lee, C/W, New York Islanders: He has positional flexibility, five games remaining in the regular season and has scored 33 percent of his team's goals in the past three games -- both of them on the power play. Only Kyle Okposo played more minutes on the man advantage than Lee as the Islanders were embarrassed by the Penguins on Saturday. The kicker here is that if you get him now, Lee can still give you five games this week.
Updated top 250 rankings
Here are the top 250 rankings of forwards, defensemen and goalies, including position ranks.
Note: Sean Allen's top 250 players are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN standard leagues. ESPN standard stats include goals, assists, power-play points, shots on goal, plus/minus, penalty minutes and average time on ice for skaters, and wins, goals-against average and save percentage for goalies.