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
Teuvo Teravainen (LW, Chicago Blackhawks; ADP: 167.9)
We've touched on Marko Dano's sleeper potential because of how different Chicago's top-six group looks after the Saad and Patrick Sharp trades and Brad Richards' departure in free agency, but that applies to Teravainen also. He's a well-known prospect who is still going way too late in drafts on average and can play wing or center. Teravainen, 21, had nearly two SOG per game as a rookie and exceeded his regular-season points output (nine in 34 games) in the Blackhawks' championship run (10 in 18 games). He'll chip in on the power play for Chicago and has a chance to be Patrick Kane's center, which would lead to a spike in fantasy value. Expect 50-plus points, an efficient rating and respectable SOG and PPP totals this season.
Projection: 21 G, 34 A, plus-9, 18 PIM, 14 PPP, 160 SOG
Troy Brouwer (RW, St. Louis Blues; ADP: 178.9)
Brouwer was a subject of my hits-league guide but also has a chance to be very valuable in standard leagues if he meshes well with fantasy standouts David Backes and Alexander Steen on the Blues' top line. Most view Brouwer as a downgrade from T.J. Oshie, but he actually could be a better fit with Backes, especially on the category-coverage front after he had 25 goals, 92 PIMs, and 21 PPP in 2013-14. His power-play success came from playing for the Washington Capitals with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, perennial powers with the man-advantage, but he rarely played on the top line at even strength. If he does with the Blues, he could be an asset considering his career shooting percentage (14.3, 12th among active players with a minimum 530 games). There are many sleepers at right wing, but Brouwer sets himself apart with PIMs (53 last season) and is appropriate if you neglected that category in early and middle rounds.
Projection: 27 G, 23 A, plus-7, 75 PIM, 17 PPP, 175 SOG
Brandon Pirri (C/LW/RW, Florida Panthers; ADP: 171.3)
Pirri's category coverage was incomplete last season, but the 24-year-old's production and future place in the lineup should have fantasy owners salivating. He scored 22 goals, seven on the power play, with 143 SOG in 49 games. His goals-per-60 average (1.82, third among those with a minimum 49 games) and SOG per game (2.9) were spectacular considering he played mostly with Jimmy Hayes and Vincent Trocheck on the third line. The Panthers' top line is solidified with Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr, but Nick Bjugstad burst on the scene as a goal-scorer and could boost his assist totals with Pirri on his wing. Pirri, unlike his days in Chicago, can help elevate Florida into a playoff spot and earn power-play time. Even if his shooting percentage dips a bit this season from 15.4 in 2014-15, he will score more goals with anything near the same rate of SOG production over 82 games. He's definitely worth a late-round flyer considering Yahoo gave him tri-eligibility.
Projection: 29 G, 18 A, plus-5, 26 PIM, 15 PPP, 230 SOG
Tyler Myers (D, Winnipeg Jets; ADP: 168.2)
There's a crowded blue line in Winnipeg with Myers, Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Tobias Enstrom in the mix for power-play time, but Byfuglien faces uncertainty in a contract year. Byfuglien has switched from forward to defenseman in the past and could be traded at any point this season, with either scenario opening the door for Myers to be the Jets' No. 1 defenseman. Myers had 15 points, a plus-9 rating and 52 SOG in 24 games after arriving in a trade from the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 11. He had two power-play points with the Jets but did see 2:55 per game with the man-advantage. His SOG uptick after the trade (2.2 per game) compared to his career number (1.5) is significant, and his plus/minus was refreshing after many lost seasons in Buffalo. Myers largely has been a disappointment since winning the Calder Trophy in 2009-10, but it's not too late for him to resurrect his career.
Projection: 12 G, 30 A, plus-15, 60 PIM, 14 PPP, 151 SOG
Sam Bennett (C, Calgary Flames; ADP: 170.1)
Bennett, 19, has bulked up this offseason, should make the Flames out of training camp and should hold a top-six spot. He's entering his rookie season after a strong playoff (three goals, one assist, eight PIMs, 20 SOG in 11 games) and has a chance to follow in Johnny Gaudreau's footsteps if he lives up to the hype. Bennett, drafted in the first round (No. 4) by the Flames in 2014, could center Michael Frolik, who shoots a ton, or flank Mikael Backlund on the second line like he did in the playoffs. In a best-case scenario, Bennett would play wing alongside Gaudreau and Sean Monahan if the Flames look to pack their prized young players on one line and shift veteran Jiri Hudler down for depth scoring. Bennett's value skyrockets if you're in a keeper format, with the Flames set up to contend for years to come with a first-class defense. It hurts that Bennett is only eligible at center, so he may be more of a waiver-wire add or a late-round pick in deep leagues, but don't be surprised to see a strong plus/minus from him with 50-plus points.
Projection: 24 G, 28 A, plus-14, 37 PIM, 12 PPP, 178 SOG
Elias Lindholm (C, Carolina Hurricanes; not drafted on average)
If you're looking for fantasy value, Carolina is far from the first roster you'd browse. That said, Lindholm is a high-upside sleeper who took steps forward last season and should be on the top power-play unit for the Hurricanes with Eric Staal, Justin Faulk and Wisniewski. The 20-year-old will play on either the first or second line with a chance to build off a solid first full NHL season; he had 39 points, 15 PPP and 170 SOG in 2014-15 (81 games). His first two seasons in the League have been lost ones in terms of plus/minus (combined minus-37), but he could become less of a liability in that category if the Hurricanes, who added Wisniewski and Eddie Lack, hang around in a tough Metropolitan Division. If he makes the jump from 2:30 per game on the power play to three minutes, he could reach 20 PPP and become a borderline top-100 player. He's at the bottom of my sleeper list because he was inconsistent last season and his team brings risk, but he's a must-draft player later on in deep leagues because of point potential.
Projection: 23 G, 30 A, minus-8, 20 PIM, 23 PPP, 195 SOG
OTHER SLEEPER CANDIDATES: Rasmus Ristolainen (D, Buffalo Sabres, ADP: 161.9), Teemu Pulkkinen (LW, Detroit Red Wings, N/D), Jonathan Drouin (LW, Tampa Bay Lightning, 172.3), Jimmy Hayes (RW, Boston Bruins, ADP: N/D), Michael Hutchinson (G, Winnipeg Jets, ADP: 171.6)