With few exceptions, the majority of top-tier players are established and well-known to the common fantasy owner. Though those 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.
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.
PETE JENSEN'S 2014-15 FANTASY HOCKEY SLEEPERS
Hornqvist, traded to the Penguins in the deal which sent James Neal to the Nashville Predators, could prove to be more valuable than Neal this season. It's not long ago that Neal transformed from a middle-of-the-road fantasy player to a top-20 asset (81 points, 329 shots on goal in 2011-12) upon joining a line with Evgeni Malkin. This offseason, Malkin lost both of his linemates (Neal via trade, Jussi Jokinen via free agency), so Hornqvist is likely to either land there or on Sidney Crosby's right wing. Either way, the 27-year-old will have every opportunity to climb the ranks if he continues to patrol the front of the net and register shots at the high rate he did in Nashville (230-plus shots in each of his four seasons of 76-plus games played). With few weapons around him, Hornqvist had 22 goals, 31 assists and 17 power-play points in 2013-14 -- including a seven-game point streak (14 points) from March 21 to April 5. Most fantasy owners won't realize Hornqvist's potential, so target him in the ninth or 10th round of your draft. He's a top 100 player who has top-50 upside or higher, depending on where he is deployed on the power play.
Projection: 36 G, 33 A, plus-12, 40 PIMs, 24 PPP, 285 SOG
Minnesota has one of the most complete top-six forward groups in the League, and fantasy owners should expect Granlund, 22, to see a "splash effect" as a result. He missed two chunks of time during the regular season because of injury, but still finished with 41 points in 63 games. In the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he took advantage of his time with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville by scoring seven points in 13 games, including the Game 3 overtime winner against the Colorado Avalanche. Despite that potential, fantasy owners will still draft more experienced Wild forwards Parise, Thomas Vanek, Mikko Koivu and Pominville ahead of him on average. Granlund saw 2:32 per game on the power play during the regular season and produced in those situations (12 power-play points). He will continue to see 17 or 18 minutes per game but should be much more comfortable and refined in those situations. There are not many other players who will be available in the 14th round of drafts with the potential to score 60-plus points.
Projection: 20 G, 42 A, plus-3, 28 PIMs, 20 PPP, 180 SOG
Kuznetsov grabbed everyone's attention in deep leagues when he arrived from Russia and earned a call-up with Washington last season, but was owned in fewer than 25 percent of Yahoo leagues by season's end. Kuznetsov, 22, showed flashes of brilliance during his stint at the NHL level (nine points in 17 games) and should be considered a Calder Trophy candidate entering the season. But while he carries promise entering his first full NHL season, he's bound to get lost in the shuffle come draft day considering he doesn't have gaudy stats for fantasy owners to notice. He'll either be the Capitals' top-line left wing alongside Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin or their second-line center to balance the team’s scoring. His playmaking ability will also go a long way in earning power-play minutes under new coach Barry Trotz. Ranked No. 133 in my offseason rankings, Kuznetsov should be on your queue as early as the 12th or 13th round of standard drafts. If he ends up playing left wing, he could gain additional Yahoo eligibility.
Projection: 17 G, 42 A, minus-2, 42 PIMs, 19 PPP, 150 SOG
How could a defenseman paired with arguably the League's best blueliner, Drew Doughty, on the best puck-possession team and reigning Stanley Cup champions be considered a sleeper? The answer is Muzzin is the third most valuable defenseman on his own roster based on last season's production. So fantasy owners looking for a blueliner in the 15th round or later need to keep an eye on Muzzin, who exceeded his 2013-14 goal total (five goals in 76 games) in the postseason (six goals in 26 games). If Muzzin continues to see two-and-a-half minutes per game with the man advantage, it's only a matter of time before Doughty lifts his teammate's game to greater heights. Muzzin also carries added value in leagues which reward hits after finishing No. 21 among defenseman in that category last season (169, 2.2 per game). Expect the 25-year-old to improve on his ridiculously low shooting percentage from last season (2.9) and hit double digits in goals for the first time.
Projection: 13 G, 27 A, plus-15, 65 PIMs, 14 PPP, 190 SOG
Buffalo had glaring weaknesses at both ends of the ice last season, and it didn't help in the short term when the team traded away Thomas Vanek, Ryan Miller and Matt Moulson in contract years. All in all, it was a forgettable year for the team's centers in terms of rating (Hodgson: minus-26; Tyler Ennis: minus-25; Steve Ott: minus-26). But with a healthy Chris Stewart, the signing of Moulson and Brian Gionta in free agency and young talent which could also be factored in on the wing, the Sabres could be one of the more improved teams in the East. If Hodgson puts forth a better rating, his balanced scoring, power-play prowess and career shots-per-game average (2.2) indicate he could join the top 100 fantasy ranks by season's end. Hodgson, who is dual-eligible in Yahoo leagues, led the Sabres in points (44), multi-point games (nine) and power-play points (19) in 72 games during a lost season. The 24-year-old will be available after the 15th round in most leagues and could be a steal if his team stays competitive and he mirrors his 2012-13 prorated production rate during an 82-game span.
Projection: 25 G, 33 A, minus-9, 36 PIMs, 25 PPP, 200 SOG
Brassard centered the Rangers' third line last season, but that unit performed better than some top lines around the League. Mats Zuccarello (59 points) and Brassard (45, 18 PPP) finished first and fourth, respectively, in scoring for New York, and each earned a new deal this summer. Brassard's five-year contract, paired with the buyout of Brad Richards, makes him a lock to start the season on the Rangers' second line behind Derek Stepan. Whether Zuccarello moves up as well remains to be seen, but it seems like the logical move considering the duo was the best point pair (25 team goals where each recorded a point) for the Eastern Conference champion. Brassard should see more overall and power-play ice time to make up for Richards' workload (18:41, 3:40) , which could easily elevate his fantasy production. New York will restructure its power-play units to incorporate defenseman Dan Boyle, but Brassard scored more power-play goals (seven) than Richards (five) last season despite nearly 100 fewer minutes in such situations. If Brassard is available after the 15th round, target him as your team's third or fourth center.
Projection: 24 G, 31 A, plus-3, 50 PIMs, 24 PPP, 202 SOG
Despite playing only 60 games last season, Gelinas was the second-best rookie defenseman in terms of power-play points (17). When you compare his total to Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug's production during a full season (19 PPP in 79 games), Gelinas' potential becomes even more evident. His offensive skills immediately carried to the NHL level but his defensive deficiencies led to him getting healthy scratched and spending time in the American Hockey League. Now, with Anton Volchenkov and Mark Fayne out of the picture, Gelinas should be with the Devils for the entirety of 2014-15. New Jersey will need to lean on him more often in order to prevent their League-best penalty kill and shots allowed rates from going downhill. With Marek Zidlicky on a one-year deal, Gelinas can take the next step and join the realm of top-30 fantasy defenseman. He'll likely be available after the 17th round, so jump on him when others are not looking.
Projection: 11 G, 30 A, minus-5, 42 PIMs, 23 PPP, 176 SOG
Islanders coach Jack Capuano has praised Nelson's ability at center but has said he's open to giving the 22-year-old a trial on the left side of John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. Despite playing only 71 and 59 games, respectively, in 2013-14, Okposo and Tavares combined for 135 points -- which should be enough to convince fantasy owners that Nelson has a high ceiling alongside that duo. If Nelson improves in the faceoff circle, he could take some pressure off Tavares and free up the star forward in the offensive zone. Nelson is a can't-miss selection in the final round of standard-league drafts because his numbers (26 points in 72 games; seven power-play points) in more of a depth role last season won't jump out at fantasy owners. The additions of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin should provide secondary support, which will alter the gameplan of opposing defenses. Nelson is a lock for a top-six role and could gain Yahoo eligibility at left wing as the season goes along if he sticks with his team's top dogs.
Projection: 23 G, 29 A, minus-7, 24 PIMs, 12 PPP, 190 SOG
Scrivens posted stellar goals-against average (1.97), save percentage (.931) and shutout (three) totals in 19 appearances for Los Angeles behind Jonathan Quick last season. But when Scrivens was traded to the defensively challenged Oilers, his numbers went south (3.01, .916 in 21 games). Fantasy owners will overlook him in drafts, but Edmonton has bolstered its back end by signing Fayne, a shutdown defenseman, and adding Nikita Nikitin via trade this summer. The team also brought in experienced forwards Benoit Pouliot and Teddy Purcell, moves that will form a supporting cast for Edmonton's core of fantasy-relevant forwards (Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, David Perron, etc.). Goalies have shocked the fantasy world in recent years (Sergei Bobrovsky, Craig Anderson in 2012-13; Ben Bishop, Semyon Varlamov in 2013-14), so what's stopping Scrivens from feeding off a much-improved team? He's more than capable of taking over a game, his 59-save shutout against the San Jose Sharks in January at Rexall Place as Exhibit A. Don't be surprised if Scrivens outplays Viktor Fasth, appears in 65 percent of his team's games and ends up being a top-20 fantasy goalie.
Projection: 54 games, 29 wins, 2.41 GAA, .921 save percentage, 4 shutouts
Gagner was traded twice in one day this offseason and is far from a sure thing; hence his omission in our offseason top 200. But he has a wealth of NHL experience (seven seasons) for a 25-year-old, making him a valuable addition to the Coyotes roster. On top of playing nearly 90 percent of his team's games to this point in his career, he has hit 40-plus points five times and registered an even better points-per-game average in the shortened season of 2012-13 (0.79). And don't forget about that eight-point night in 2011-12 against the Chicago Blackhawks. Fantasy owners will hold his minus-29 rating against him on draft day, but he's leaving a poor possession team and getting a fresh start in Arizona for a team which finished among the top-half in Corsi-for percentage last season. He's younger than Martin Hanzal and Antoine Vermette and has a chance to beat out either of them for a top-six spot. If he does, this dual-eligible asset can eclipse 20 goals and 50 points for the first time of his career.
Projection: 20 G, 31 A, plus-1, 42 PIMs, 17 PPP, 175 SOG
Other sleeper candidates: G Alex Stalock (San Jose Sharks), LW Tomas Tatar (Detroit Red Wings), LW Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames), D Hampus Lindholm (Anaheim Ducks), LW/RW Steve Downie (Pittsburgh Penguins)
Follow Pete Jensen on Twitter: @NHLJensen
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