Sure, it's the period of experimentation, and no, the points don't count, but this brief spell before it all starts to matter still remains meaningful for invested fantasy managers. In addition to getting a sense of who's "in the best shape of their life", we gain insight into where coaches are leaning in lineup assembly and all-around player usage. At least to start. In that view, here are 10 players - most of them fantasy understudies - who have exceeded my pre-preseason expectations.
Kaapo Kakko, F, New York Rangers: You can smell the breakout even before puck-drop in the first of 82. To start, the not-yet-21-year-old showed marked improvement in his all around game from year one to two, jumping from minus-26 to plus-three. Second, Kakko now stands to benefit from playing under coach Gerard Gallant, who's recognized as one of the game's greatest player-development tutors.
Most importantly, in his third full season, the second-overall draft selection (2019) projects to compete on a scoring unit with Artemi Panarin. At least that's how it's lining up in preseason, in which Kakko has averaged a point/game (before Saturday).
Vladimir Tarasenko, F, St. Louis Blues: While not outwardly jubilant, the power forward doesn't seem at all miserable ahead of his tenth season with the Blues. Happy, even. Remarkable, since the relationship between player and club appeared beyond strained, if not irrevocably broken, not that long ago. Great. Now, paired with Robert Thomas and a rotation of opposing wingers - this is St. Louis - the Blues veteran looks good, reportedly feels good (which is huge) and has three points to show for three preseason contests ahead of Friday evening. Who knows how well the shoulder holds up, but it's in Tarasenko's best interest to put in a productive campaign if he still wants to be traded, or sign another lucrative NHL contract beyond 2023. The 29-year-old's resume suggests he's worth a fantasy flier in any case.
Jakub Voracek, F, Columbus Blue Jackets: Following a decade in Philly, his U-turn to Columbus appears successful in the earliest of stages. Competing on a top line with Patrick Laine - he himself up for a Renaissance after last year's disastrous showing - and imposing two-way center Boone Jenner, Voracek has seven(!) points to show for only three preseason contests, most counting on the power play.
Even though it seems he's been around forever, Voracek is still only 32 years old and has plenty of gas left in the tank. Playing with Laine and Jenner, and under rookie coach Brad Larsen, the former point-plus/game performer could bust through for 80 once again. Fantasy managers best not sleep on this refreshed former prolific commodity.
Jared McCann, F, Seattle Kraken: Someone still needs to score for the otherwise stalwartly constructed Kraken, and McCann appears one leading candidate in that regard. Skating with Jaden Schwartz and Jordan Eberle, Seattle's No. 1 center contributed two goals and three helpers to the trio's 14 total points in four preseason games. More promisingly, McCann is coming off his most productive campaign yet, collecting 32 points in 43 contests with his former Penguins club.
You might recall, a modest contributor with Columbus, William Karlsson erupted for 43 goals and 35 assists as top center with the brand new Golden Knights back in 2017-18. We have no right to feel surprised if the 25-year-old Kraken pivot equals that precedent this time around.
Tyler Johnson, F, Chicago Blackhawks: So much for Kirby Dach centering Chicago's top line, at least straight away. With Dach initially settling on the third unit, the No. 1 gig has apparently fallen to the ex-Lightning forward and so far, so good. For however long the configuration lasts (maybe long), Johnson won't be able to not put up points playing between Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, especially with the man-advantage.
No stranger to scoring, the nine-year vet and two-time Stanley Cup champ has watched his numbers dwindle with a talent-clogged Tampa squad in recent campaigns. Judging how Jeremy Colliton has utilized him this preseason, Johnson should be in for a resurge, paying out significant fantasy dividends.
Owen Tippett, F, Florida Panthers: There appears to be a new top-six forward in Sunrise, and he's barely a sophomore. To start, Jonathan Huberdeau and Sam Bennett can't say enough about their new, young linemate, leaning on terms like "instant chemistry" and "high ceiling" (Bennett: "I love playing with him.") Collecting three goals and two assists in four preseason contests, Tippett is poised to break out in a big way. After averaging 0.87 points per game in the AHL the season previous, the 22-year-old held his own through 45 NHL contests last year with seven goals and 11 helpers in 45 contests. He could serve as an ultra fantasy steal in your draft's later rounds.
Christian Dvorak, F, Montreal Canadiens: Forging quick chemistry with new linemates Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson, the former Coyote has two goals and three assists through three contests ahead of Wednesday's season opener. The trio combined for 13 points altogether, most of them counting with the extra skater. I like this threesome a lot, as a second (1b?) scoring line/power-play unit behind Nick Suzuki, Tyler Toffoli, and rookie Cole Caufield. They not only bring different individual strengths to the ice, but might not have to deal with top shut-down opposing players as much as Suzuki and Co. After five campaigns in the desert, Dvorak is positioned to break out some serious production numbers for the first time in his still young career. Sleeper-city.
Jesse Puljujarvi, F, Edmonton Oilers: We were forewarned the 23-year-old might bust out in his second season of his second tour with the team that drafted him fourth overall in 2016. So far, competing alongside Connor McDavid and Zach Hyman, that's been the case. Four goals and two assists in four games ahead of Saturday's preseason finale, and Puljujarvi projects as ready to go next level after contributing 25 points in 55 contests this past winter/spring. Best of all perhaps, he feels and looks great. This young skater will still be available upon conclusion of many a fantasy draft, even in deeper leagues, and that's ridiculous.
Noah Dobson, D, New York Islanders: Guess who's anchoring the Islanders' top power play out of the gates? (And has four points to show for only two preseason contests ahead of Saturday's final tilt?) He often did last year, so the answer isn't that confounding. But with Nick Leddy gone for Detroit, the role almost undisputedly belongs to the up-and-coming 21-year-old. Plunked next to uber-veteran Zdeno Chara, Dobson should also see an increase in overall minutes. Best of all, there's a good chance this under-radar asset will still be available in the later stages of your fantasy draft.
Jeremy Swayman, G, Boston Bruins: While earning a fraction of Linus Ullmark's $5-million annual salary, Swayman has been the better of Boston's two goalies this preseason. Following staunch performances versus the Capitals and Flyers, the 22-year-old was outstanding in Monday's follow up in Philadelphia, stopping 34 of 36 in a slim 2-1 loss.
Ullmark, meanwhile, wraps up preseason competition with a 3.90 goals-against average and .839 save percentage. This trend keeps up, and Swayman will quickly become Bruce Cassidy's preferred choice in net, regardless of how much the Bruins are paying their projected No. 1. Remember, despite limited experience, Swayman was mostly superb in his 10 games to wrap up 2020-21.
See also: Hampus Lindholm, D, Anaheim Ducks; Mats Zuccarello, F, Minnesota Wild; Robby Fabbri, F, Detroit Red Wings; Casey Mittelstadt, F, Buffalo Sabres; Michael Bunting, F, Toronto Maple Leafs; Corey Perry, F, Tampa Bay Lightning; Dan Vladar, G, Calgary Flames; Braden Holtby, G, Dallas Stars; William Eklund, F, San Jose Sharks