Top-tier players at each position are needed to compete for a fantasy title, but late-round, under-the-radar options with upside, known as sleepers, can pay large dividends.
Fantasy sleepers are found late in drafts with a chance to outperform expectations, but this concept needs to be distinguished from breakout, draft bargain, and bounce-back candidates. Breakouts (i.e. Jakub Voracek, Vladimir Tarasenko in 2014-15) usually are obtained in the 90 range, or a little later in drafts, but can reach superstar production after showing signs of promise in the past. Draft bargains (Blake Wheeler, Radim Vrbata, Scott Hartnell in 2014-15) have pedigree but are overlooked. Bounce-backs, whether injury (Pekka Rinne, Kris Letang in 2014-15) or performance (Rick Nash, Braden Holtby in 2014-15), have a track record of fantasy relevance that comes with a factor that hindered their ceiling the previous season.
Sleepers are obtainable with pick 150 or later in drafts based on Yahoo average draft position (ADP). If an undervalued player becomes a fantasy steal, his production supplements that of your top-tier players. The expression "take a flyer on 'Player X' because he could..." applies to sleepers because there is always a wild card involved (inexperience/age, incomplete category coverage, change of scenery, position/line combinations, etc.). If a player faces questions but is mostly a sure thing, he's taken higher on average and wouldn't qualify as a sleeper.
Examples of fantasy sleepers identified by NHL.com last season are: Filip Forsberg, Nikita Kucherov, Johnny Gaudreau, Tomas Tatar, Justin Faulk, Frederik Andersen, Derick Brassard, Steve Downie, Jori Lehtera, TJ Brodie, Craig Smith, Nick Bjugstad and Alex Tanguay. It's human nature to have some misses, but any sleeper successes can carry your team.
This week, NHL.com fantasy insiders Pete Jensen and Matt Cubeta take an in-depth look at underrated players who should be on your radar late in drafts. Each writer will provide 10 sleeper picks (in order of preference) with corresponding stat projections, along with five additional candidates for fantasy owners to keep an eye on.
Cam Atkinson (RW, Columbus Blue Jackets; ADP: 179.0)
Atkinson has back-to-back seasons of 20-plus goals, 40 points and 200-plus shots on goal, but he has not shown consistency in the other four standard-league categories. The 26-year-old may finally take the next step in 2015-16 when he plays alongside Ryan Johansen or Brandon Dubinsky in a top-six role. He averages 2.7 SOG per game in his career and has a chance to be the finisher for either line. Atkinson also plays a position that's more of a premium in the Buckeye State, with Columbus rolling three lines deep but being more stacked at center and left wing. It's not crazy to expect Atkinson to set career highs in goals, assists, plus/minus, power-play points and SOG this season playing on a line with Johansen and breakout candidate Brandon Saad. He could finish among the top 75 overall fantasy players.
Projection: 30 G, 26 A, plus-12, 30 PIM, 16 PPP, 225 SOG
Petr Mrazek (G, Detroit Red Wings; ADP: 167.6)
Mrazek, 23, had an outstanding power-play save percentage against the dangerous Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs (.976) and has all the momentum over Jimmy Howard, 31, whose numbers have declined the past two seasons. Mrazek is going more than 40 spots later on average than Howard (ADP: 124.9), so it's a no-brainer to target the younger goalie as your third fantasy option. He was the Red Wings' go-to guy down the stretch and in the playoffs, has played under new Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill before in the American Hockey League and has won 19 of 40 career NHL games with strong peripherals. If you invest in Mrazek, expect him to earn at least a 50-50 share of playing time with Howard. If he wins the job outright or earns more time if Howard sustains an injury, he'll have even more wins with perhaps a slight drop-off in save percentage. Mrazek should significantly outperform his ADP.
Projection: 22 wins, 2.25 GAA, .920 SV%, 4 SO in 41 games
Jakob Silfverberg (LW/RW, Anaheim Ducks; ADP: 168.5)
It's tough to find dual-eligible, top-six wings from elite teams in late rounds, but Silfverberg is attainable deep in drafts. He averaged better than a point per game with nine primary assists (T-2nd in NHL) in the postseason after moving to Ryan Kesler's wing. The Ducks let Matt Beleskey walk this offseason and traded Emerson Etem to the New York Rangers, so Silfverberg, who turns 25 on Oct. 13, should stick with Kesler and see an elevated role. He had 189 SOG in 81 games last season mostly playing on the third line, but his shooting rate was poor (6.9 percent). Shooting 10 to 12 percent at last season's SOG rate would mean 19-23 goals for Silfverberg, and his assist total would get better with second-line minutes and an elevated power-play role (0:35 on PP per game, four PPP last season).
Projection: 23 G, 40 A, plus-20, 25 PIM, 13 PPP, 210 SOG
David Savard (D, Columbus Blue Jackets; ADP: 170.4)
Given all the offseason chatter surrounding Columbus forwards, there's been far too little talk about the power-play quarterback situation. Jack Johnson (ADP: 164.0) is a draft bargain after he had 21 power-play points and strong hits (157) and blocks (131) totals last season; he's going low because of his minus-13 rating. He's the leading power-play candidate with James Wisniewski gone, but Savard's late-season surge should not be overlooked, nor should the return of Ryan Murray (undrafted on average) from injury. Savard, who signed a five-year contract extension Sept. 8, played with Johnson at even strength and also hits a bunch (195 in 82 games last season) for such fantasy formats. Savard played a sizable amount of power-play minutes in the second half of last season, when he had 36 points, 71 PIMs, 10 PPP and 112 SOG. He had at least a point in 32 of 82 games in 2014-15 (27th among defensemen) and may be in the right place at the right time to expand on his totals.
Projection: 14 G, 32 A, plus-5, 65 PIM, 22 PPP, 150 SOG
Read the full list of fantasy sleepers by clicking HERE