Fantasy or Fiction: Top 5 Fantasy Surprises of 2011-12

Updated: February 27, 2012 at 8:24 am by Dan Berlin

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the key to winning your pool isn’t necessarily tied to you having the best player in the league, the highest quality keepers or even the most consistent goaltending – it’s often about making shrewd selections late in the draft and acquiring a few key pieces off the waiver wire that turn into bonafide fantasy contributors. That’s how you win.

Now that we sit at the three-quarter mark of this season, we can honestly now separate the pretenders from contenders when it comes to who emerged as a legitimate impact fantasy player this season. Here’s a look at the “Top 5” difference-makers who likely fell under the radar on draft day and are now stealing the show.

In his first full season as a member of the Blue and White, the now-healthy Lupul has exceeded all expectations by blossoming as a scorer. A member of Toronto’s dynamic duo alongside Phil Kessel, Lupul currently sits eighth in league scoring (62 Pts) and is on pace for 80-plus points this season. His previous career-best was 53 back in 2005-06. Leafs’ GM Brian Burke may take a ton of criticism for his team’s current goaltending situation, but acquiring the 28-year-old Lupul (along with young defensive stud Jake Gardiner) from Anaheim for Francois Beauchemin goes down as one of the biggest heists in franchise history.

Hartnell’s always been a solid fantasy option, based on the fact that he’s well-rounded and extremely durable; he’s always good for 20+ goals, 100+ PIMs, and a decent sprinkling of PPG and GWG mixed in for good measure. That was, until this year, where he finds himself ranked THIRD overall in Yahoo! Fantasy rankings. Hartnell’s exploded onto the scene in 2011-12 with his best all-around season to date, on pace to set career-highs in goals and points – by a considerable margin over his previous best 30 goal, 30 assist season in 2008-09. He’s a big reason why Philadelphia is amongst the top powerplay units in the league (they rank 5th), as Hartnell leads all NHLers with 14 PPG (Hartnell undeniably owes much of his success this season to Claude Giroux; truly one of the league’s best and someone who quite obviously has made everyone around him markedly better, especially his red-headed linemate).

Brought in by the Blues this past offseason to provide them with an experienced backup to Jaroslav Halak, Elliott has come out of nowhere to become the No. 1 option in St. Louis while posting All-Star calibre numbers this year. Coming off a horrible season split between Ottawa and Colorado in 2010-11, Elliott currently finds himself the third-highest ranked fantasy goalie (10th according to Yahoo!), and is leading the NHL with a sparkling 1.65 GAA. He also sits second in save percentage (.937) and shutouts (6). A good return for the Blues, or any Fantasy GM quick enough to pluck him off the waiver wire this year (BTW, he’s only making $600,000 this year!).

Vrbata is living proof that 30 is the new 20 down in the desert. The 30-year-old, Czech-native has surprised everyone with a career year so far, already tallying 30 goals (through 61 games) for Phoenix, good for a tie for fourth-best in the NHL. But it’s his clutch goal scoring, which includes a whopping 10 GWG (T-1 in NHL with Detroit’s Johan Franzen), that’s helped the surprising Coyotes become firmly entrenched as the seventh-seed in the Western Conference right now.

There were many – including myself – who left Pacioretty for dead after the gruesome hit he absorbed at the hands of Zdeno Chara on March 14 of last season. Now, just one year later, the 4th-year winger is proving all his doubters wrong by coming back stronger than ever, one of the lone bright spots on the cellar-dwelling Habs. Pacioretty is currently one of only 18 players in the league to amass 25 goals, and he’s even been picking up steam of late, scoring 14 of those since the New Year.

Honourable mention: Kris Versteeg (FLA), P.A. Parenteau (NYI), Mike Smith (PHX), Ray Whitney (PHX), Olli Jokinen (CGY), Craig Anderson (OTT), Daniel Alfredsson (OTT), David Clarkson (NJD).

Next week I’ll take a look at the five biggest busts from this year’s fantasy season. Let the Martin Havlat bashing begin!

You can follow Dan following Fantasy Hockey on Twitter @Dan_Berlin

Brian Elliott, Joffrey Lup, Max Pacioretty, NHL, Radim Vrbata, Scott Hartnell, Yahoo Fantasy Hockey