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Fantasy Hockey: Most surprising players of the 2020-21 NHL season

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By Evan Berofsky, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

The 2021 NHL regular season. What a ride. 

The ups, the downs, the constant refreshing to see how many more of your players weren't scheduled to skate that night. 

But hey, it's been fun. And the playoffs should be even better.

Let's look at a few who pleasantly surprised us in terms of fantasy performance. Some may have already been known, but they still did significantly better than expected. We'll also evaluate whether they will maintain their success next season.

FORWARDS

Jason Robertson, DAL

Of all the featured forwards, Robertson proved to be the only no-brainer. The 2017 second-rounder didn't start 2021 well following a preseason injury and a stint on the taxi squad. It wasn't until early February when Robertson got it going with a five-game scoring streak. After a move up the depth chart, the rookie managed 16 points in March and increased that to 18 in April.

Can He Keep It Going?

Sixteen goals and 26 assists in 47 games seem like a tough achievement to replicate, though Robertson has excelled at the junior and minor levels and is well-positioned within the Stars' lineup. He offers way too much talent to be fazed by the so-called sophomore jinx and will be motivated in the final year of his entry-level contract (though could be re-upped this offseason).

Joe Pavelski, DAL

Staying in Big D, we take a look at the league leader in power-play goals. That's right, Pavelski's 13 tops superstars Connor McDavid (nine), Leon Draisaitl (11), and Auston Matthews (10). While that's only one category, the 36-year-old has also produced an impressive 45 points, 127 shots, 347 faceoff wins, and a plus-20.

Can He Keep It Going?

2021-22 will mark Pavelski's 16th pro season and is projected to stay on the upswing based on the most recent numbers and a superb end to the Stars' most recent Cup run (minus the Cup, of course). Tyler Seguin might slightly eat into Pavelski's performance, but there's no worry about the latter retaining a prime role.

Carter Verhaeghe, FLA

After posting 13 points in Tampa Bay during his first full NHL campaign, Verhaeghe made the move across the state and instantly became a fan favorite with four goals and two assists from his first four appearances. In 42 games, he's racked up 35 points and 107 shots mainly on a line with Aleksander Barkov. Verhaeghe has missed the last 12 but should return at least in time for the playoffs.

Can He Keep It Going?

The Panthers made the signing of the summer by inking Verhaeghe to a two-year, $2 million deal. It may be hard to recommend someone for another solid season if they toiled in the minors the previous four years, though Verhaeghe should be able to build upon his progress thanks to his talent and hard work. In any case, be sure to monitor him during the postseason.

Andrew Copp, WPG

Copp accumulated 26 points in 2019-20 and blew that out of the water with 37 this season. He's also discovered his touch on the man-advantage, notching six PPGs and six PPAs. If those attacking stats weren't enough, Copp's fantasy resume has also been boosted by 100 shots, 64 hits, and 39 blocks.

Can He Keep It Going?

Copp has paid his dues with the Jets over six years, yet his current offensive haul looks to be an anomaly when compared to past efforts. Even though he'll be an RFA this summer, Winnipeg will likely retain him. To properly answer the question, we'll need to know where he'll be next season and what role he'll be provided.

Winnipeg Jets center Andrew Copp (9)
Andrew Copp repeating his 2020-21 success next season is up for debate. (AP Photo/Peter Power)

Chandler Stephenson, VGK

Maybe it's not surprising Stephenson compiled 12 goals and 20 assists considering he regularly centered Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty and also produced 22 points in 41 games last season after the trade from Washington. Still, one would've expected the highly touted Cody Glass to be the other pivot besides William Karlsson in Vegas's top-six by now.

Can He Keep It Going?

With Glass doing well in the AHL and 2019 prize Peyton Krebs recently earning his first taste of the bigs, it seems as though Stephenson's cushy job is set to expire by next year. However, things may remain the same if neither prospect can live up to their promise.

(Honorable mention: Roope Hintz, DAL; Tyler Toffoli, MON; Vincent Trocheck, CAR; Yegor Sharangovich, NJ; Josh Norris, OTT)

DEFENSEMEN

Jakob Chychrun, ARI

Kudos to those who were patient with Chychrun, as it would've been easy to deal him last season in a dynasty league for immediate offense (and no, I'm not bitter about it). The 16th pick from 2016 came out on fire and has hardly let up with 38 points, including 12 PPPs, 165 shots (an average of three per game), 84 blocks, and 58 hits.

Can He Keep It Going?

Some believed Oliver Ekman-Larsson would continue to operate as the Coyotes' lead blueliner, but that claim didn't stand a chance as a result of Chychrun's inspired play. Never mind future fantasy stud — he's already there.

Darnell Nurse, EDM

It took Nurse a couple of years in the NHL to get his offense going and this season has seen him hit new heights. The 16 goals — only one behind Chychrun for the league lead among defenders — and 17 assists combined with 141 shots, 112 hits, 94 blocks, and a plus-30 make him a complete performer.

Can He Keep It Going?

As Nurse was already finding the scoresheet before — albeit, at a lower rate — there's no doubt he can maintain that level. There's a chance Oscar Klefbom may reclaim a lead role upon his projected return next season, though Nurse should continue to earn top ice time and opportunities.

MacKenzie Weegar, FLA

On the topic of career campaigns, Weegar is sure having one, with 34 points. The Ottawa native has also managed 98 shots, 43 PIM, 113 hits, and 80 blocks to go along with a plus-25 while averaging 22:11 per night.

Can He Keep It Going?

One could be skeptical of Weegar as he combined for 41 points the previous three seasons or because 15 of his 34 this year have come since Aaron Ekblad went down. At the same time, he's been skating major minutes throughout. So even if Weegar can't manufacture the same type of production, he'll at least succeed in other areas.

(Honorable mention: Adam Fox, NYR; Jeff Petry, MON; Nick Leddy, NYI)

GOALTENDERS

Alex Nedeljkovic, CAR

Entering play Wednesday, Nedeljkovic led NHL netminders with a 1.89 GAA and .932 save percentage. He struggled to find his way on the Canes' lineup since 2016, but an early injury to Petr Mrazek created an opening.

Can He Keep It Going?

It's not as if Nedejkovic has been shining in limited attempts since he's started 22 times and logged a 15-4-3 record. With the older Mrazek and James Reimer UFAs and Nedeljkovic an RFA at season's end, expect the new "kid" to be retained and get the chance to hold down the No. 1 job.

Cam Talbot, MIN

With Kaapo Kahkonen dominating and Talbot underachieving the first couple of months, it looked as though the young Finn would take over the lead role. However, the veteran has since turned it around, going 14-3-4 with a 2.45 GAA and .923 save percentage while Kahkonen has only appeared seven times with a 3.73/.888 line.

Can He Keep It Going?

Talbot is signed for two more years and Kahkonen is under contract for one. The former is 33 while the latter is 24. That probably means Talbot will wind down his career in Minnesota and pass the torch to the next generation — whether that be Kahkonen or someone else. And thanks to some exciting talent at the other end of the ice, either goalie should be able to thrive.

(Honorable mention: Juuse Saros, NSH; Jack Campbell, TOR)