With few exceptions, the vast majority of top-tier players are established and well-known to the common fantasy owner. While these players are integral components of a championship team, under-the-radar options with high potential -- better known as sleepers -- can pay huge dividends in fantasy leagues as well.
Whether drafted or added off waivers, these players typically are undervalued on draft day but ultimately can become major fantasy commodities by season's end. Sleepers are extremely unpredictable every season, but the bottom line is these players end up outperforming everyone’s expectations, regardless of their age, team or position.
This week, NHL.com fantasy insiders Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff take in-depth looks at underrated players who should be on your fantasy team's radar entering drafts. Each expert will provide 10 sleeper picks with corresponding stat projections (in order of preference), along with five additional candidates for fantasy owners to keep an eye on.
MATT CUBETA'S 2013-14 FANTASY HOCKEY SLEEPERS
The key with Booth is health -- for both him and his potential linemate, Ryan Kesler. He's currently recovering from an ankle injury and is hopeful to be ready for the start of the season, but in two seasons with the Canucks, he's missed 62 games. When he is on the ice, Booth hasn't been productive (17 goals, 32 points and a minus-2 rating). However, Booth has a bunch of good things going for him: his age, his history and his potential second-line role under new coach John Tortorella. Because he's entering his eighth NHL season, people tend to think he's already on the decline, but fortunately, Booth came into the NHL as a 20-year-old and is still in the middle of his prime. While his stats with the Canucks haven't been what many were hoping for, Booth did score more than 22 goals in three seasons with the Panthers and isn't shy about putting the puck on net -- in those same three seasons in Florida, he registered at least 228 shots on goal in each of them. Lastly, Booth is expected to line up on the team's second line with Kesler, and if they can find some American magic, they could form a lethal unit -- with Kesler's ability to bang in the corners and go to the net, and Booth's ability to get shots to the net, good things could be in store for the duo. Many fantasy drafters will ignore Booth, but you shouldn't be one of them -- look to select him with one of your final picks.
Projection: 24 G, 25 A, plus-2, 34 PIMs, 9 PPP, 221 SOG
Perron, 25, has had a few productive seasons in the NHL, but coming off a quiet 2012-13 (10 goals, 15 assists), I expect his first season with the Oilers to be his best. Perron's ability to provide decent value in every fantasy category is what I like most about him. Averaging out his six-year career and extrapolating those numbers to an 82-game season, this is what Perron would look like: 20 goals, 48 points, 12 power-play points, plus-11, 56 penalty minutes and 114 shots on goal. That's an extremely useful fantasy forward. The move to Edmonton should also increase Perron's value as he goes from a defensive-minded team to a squad that has so much talent offensively. Expect Perron to line up on the team's second line with Nail Yakupov (more to come on him) and Sam Gagner, and look for the former Blues forward to put together a tremendous season.
Projection: 24 G, 31 A, plus-3, 44 PIMs, 11 PPP, 168 SOG
McDonagh finished 221st among all fantasy players in Yahoo leagues last year, right behind Justin Schultz and ahead of Dennis Seidenberg among fellow defensemen. That's not exactly the most useful fantasy player. Expect a big difference in what will be McDonagh's third full NHL season with the Rangers. In his first full season in New York, McDonagh surprised many by recording seven goals, 32 points and an outstanding plus-25. Despite the breakthrough season, he was ignored by many on draft day last year (159th average draft pick and selected in 67 percent of Yahoo leagues). He went on to put up better per game numbers (.40 points-per-game) and his plus-13 rating showed his defensive game is among the NHL's best. This year, he should not be ignored come draft day. McDonagh has never received much power-play ice time in the past (averaged just 0:38 per game last year), but I believe Alain Vigneault will use him significantly more in 2013-14. His offensive game is quickly developing and he could very well turn out to be the most valuable fantasy blueliner on the Rangers. A 40-plus point season with a great plus/minus and more power play production is certainly realistic.
Projection: 8 G, 31 A, plus-17, 38 PIMs, 8 PPP, 139 SOG
A stat line of two goals and 20 points isn't appealing to anyone, and understandably so. That's what Dubinsky finished with for the Blue Jackets in 2012-13. But when you look a little closer and realize he appeared in 29 games and that his peripheral stats (76 PIMs, plus-2, 7 PPP and 50 SOG) are extremely helpful, you can quickly see that Dubinsky is a player you should target late in fantasy drafts. The main piece that Columbus brought in from the Rick Nash trade to New York, Dubinsky has taken a leadership role on a young squad and could be in line for a big season. He's all but a lock to eclipse 100 penalty minutes for the fourth time in his career, he'll continue to see ample power play time (2:24 per game last year), his defensive awareness makes him a good candidate to finish with a solid plus/minus on an improving Blue Jackets squad, and while he might not score a ton of goals, 50-plus points would certainly make up for that. His dual-position eligibility (C, LW) in Yahoo! leagues provides good flexibility for fantasy owners is a nice bonus as well.
Projection: 19 G, 36 A, plus-5, 104 PIMs, 16 PPP, 181 SOG
Pirri has played in seven NHL games during his young career and has two assists. This is obviously not appealing. But what is appealing is how he's performed in the AHL and where he could fit in with the Blackhawks in 2013-14. During the past two seasons with the Rockford IceHogs, Pirri has 45 goals, 131 points, a plus-20 and 108 penalty minutes in 142 regular-season games. But the biggest factor for his fantasy value will be if he can win the No. 2 center job behind Jonathan Toews. If he does, he'll likely be centering a line with Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa on his wings, and that could be huge for the 22-year-old. Pirri might not have a lot of NHL experience, but his potential is worth scooping up late in any fantasy draft.
Projection: 17 G, 33 A, plus-6, 56 PIMs, 10 PPP, 199 SOG
You're probably asking yourself, "How can Yakupov be a sleeper?" Because he will provide more value than where he will be selected on draft day -- by a lot. And that's what a sleeper is -- any player who exceeds the general expectations placed upon them before the season begins. Many of you probably expect Yakupov to be picked in either the fifth or sixth round, but he should be going as early as the third round, and that makes him a sleeper. Yakupov, 19, quietly tied Jonathan Huberdeau for the NHL lead among rookies with 31 points last season and his 17 goals led all rookies. This was all accomplished despite receiving just 14:33 of ice time per game -- expect this number to go up to around 17-18 minutes per game. After starting his NHL career slowly, Yakupov erupted in April with 11 goals and 15 points in 14 games to go along with a plus-7. Yakupov should see more power-play time going forward (2:28 per game last season) and playing on the second line with Sam Gagner and newcomer David Perron means Yakupov will certainly build off his successful rookie season. There's a reason he was the No. 1 pick in the 2012 Draft, and we're all about to find out why.
Projection: 33 G, 36 A, plus-3, 40 PIMs, 21 PPP, 219 SOG
Burns, 28, is another player who's a bit of a household name. But he's also a guy who will get drafted much later than he should, and that's mostly because of his Yahoo position eligibility. After years of playing defense, Burns will officially be a full-time forward for the Sharks in 2013-14, and the beauty of it all is that he'll be listed at both right wing and defense in Yahoo leagues. That means if you land Burns on your squad, you'll be able to slot a forward into your defensive roster spot. Not only will that be a huge help to you, but Burns is also expected to play alongside playmaker Joe Thornton, which means he could put up some pretty impressive stats. When moved to the forward position on March 12, 2013 last season, Burns went on to close out the year with nine goals and 20 points in his final 24 games. In a full season, there's reason to hope for at least 25 goals and 55 points -- plus he'll probably chip in around 50 penalty minutes, too. The last defenseman to post 25 goals and 55 points was Mike Green back in 2008-09, and he was likely an early-round draft pick (only three defensemen have accomplished that feat in the past 19 years). You'll be able to steal Burns much later than that.
Projection: 26 G, 31 A, minus-1, 50 PIMs, 10 PPP, 231 SOG
All the hype shifted from Hamilton to Torey Krug when the Bruins embarked on their Stanley Cup playoff run, but Hamilton is the guy to draft this season. The No. 9 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft had a decent rookie season with the Bruins (5 goals, 16 points, plus-4) while averaging 17:07 of ice time per game. It's safe to say everything is on the way up for the 20-year-old, and despite placing him low in my defensemen ranks, I think he can finish as a top-25 blueliner. Prior to the NHL starting last year, Hamilton recorded eight goals and 41 points in 32 games in the OHL and his track record before that with the Niagara IceDogs was even more impressive. Look for the youngster to have a more prominent role in Boston (including more power-play ice time) and be sure to tab Hamilton before Krug in your draft.
Projection: 9 G, 26 A, plus-6, 48 PIMs, 8 PPP, 169 SOG
You can probably grab Khudobin, 27, in the last round of your fantasy draft, but there are two possibilities where he could turn out to be a steal. 1) Cam Ward, the current starting netminder in Carolina, is coming off an injury-plagued season in which he played 17 games. If he catches the injury bug again, Khudobin will step in as the team's starting goalie; 2) He will flat out out-play Ward and take the No. 1 job from him. Ward is typically a workhorse, but I'm not really sure why. He has a career 2.74 goals against average and his .910 save percentage shows it hasn't been just a matter of bad luck -- he's only had one season with a save percentage better than .920 (.923 in 2010-11). On the other hand, Khudobin has a lot of skill and despite a small sample size, he has put up very good numbers when given the chance -- 2.03 goals against average and .933 save percentage in 21 career games. If you draft Ward, you should definitely grab Khudobin as a handcuff, but either way, the Kazakhstan native should be selected based on his potential for opportunity and his upside.
Projection: 32 starts, 15 wins, 2.39 GAA, .923 SV%, 3 SO
Five words (well, kind of): Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are the two players with whom Abdelkader is expected play with to open the season. A player who has 28 goals and 60 points in 257 career games will be skating on the same line with two of the best players in the League, and this could make Abdelkader a very interesting fantasy player to own in 2013-14. The 26-year-old finished with a career-high 10 goals last season (in 48 games) while seeing 14:48 of ice time per game. If he's going to be on a line with Datsyuk and Zetterberg, you can expect his ice time to increase. Abdelkader's power-play opportunities will be extremely limited with Detroit having several talented forwards, but you can surely expect him to have the best season of his career. Even if he doesn't stick on that top line all season long, Abdelkader is definitely worth picking late in your draft.
Projection: 17 G, 21 A, plus-7, 58 PIMs, 3 PPP, 167 SOG
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