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.
MATT SITKOFF'S 2014-15 FANTASY HOCKEY SLEEPERS
1. Jonathan Drouin, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
The third pick of the 2013 NHL Draft is a favorite to win the Calder Trophy in 2014-15 after spending a productive third season with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He finished with 108 points (29 goals, 79 assists) in 46 games, had an astonishing 41 points (13 goals, 28 assists) in 16 playoff games and chipped in nine points in seven games for Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden. The only player picked in the top six of his draft class who didn't play a minute of NHL hockey last season, the 5-foot-11 left wing is now ready to make the jump to Tampa Bay. The day he was drafted, many saw him as the heir apparent to the aging Martin St. Louis. With St. Louis now playing for the New York Rangers, the time is now for Drouin to prove the extra year in juniors was worth it. Target him in the fourth or fifth round of drafts as a second wing or third forward on your team.
Projection: 23 G, 30 A, plus-17, 18 PIM, 17 PPP, 173 SOG
2. Jori Lehtera, C, St. Louis Blues
The 26-year-old was originally a third-round (No. 65) pick of the Blues in 2008. After 14 games in North America in the American Hockey League, he went back overseas to play in the Kontinental Hockey League for the past four seasons. He is returning this season to the organization that drafted him, signing a two-year deal, and is now figured to be in the top nine of a deep Blues team. The 6-foot-2 center impressed during Finland's run to the bronze medal in the 2014 Sochi Olympics and had 12 points for his country in their silver medal run at the World Championships in Minsk. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock will play around with his line combinations with the addition of Lehtera and Paul Stastny down the middle, but we expect the Finnish forward to be relied on in an offensive role this season. This will make him a steal on fantasy draft days.
Projection: 12 G, 28 A, plus-23, 30 PIM, 13 PPP, 141 SOG
3. John Gibson, G, Anaheim Ducks
We broke down the goalie situation of the Ducks earlier where we predicted the 21-year-old to be a force on this season's fantasy scene. He could join the company of Carey Price, Roberto Luongo, Martin Brodeur and Steve Mason as active goalies to play a majority of their team's games at the tender age of 21. The Ducks are a Stanley Cup contender, and the organization has already showed their faith in the 39th pick of the 2011 NHL Draft, starting him in the last four of their Stanley Cup Playoff games. The Ducks' goalies will be one of the best tandems in the League this season and targeting them both will bring fantasy success to your team.
Projection: 46 games, 29-13-4, 2.26 GAA, .920 SV%, 4 SO
4. Radim Vrbata, RW, Vancouver Canucks
Right Wing - VAN
GOALS: 20 | ASST: 31 | PTS: 51
SOG: 263 | +/-: -6
John Tortorella tried 12 different wings with Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin last season in even-strength situations, and the results were a big dip in their production. Tortorella has since been replaced by Willie Desjardins and the Canucks signed right wing Radim Vrbata from the Arizona Coyotes. The 33-year-old is a four-time 20-plus goal scorer and six-time 40-plus point producer in his career. He'll now get his shot to play with the Sedins on the Canucks' top line. He will add punch to a power play that struggled last season; since he entered the League, his 73 power-play goals ranks him 51st during that span. Picking the veteran in the seventh or eighth round as your second or third wing is a perfect place.
Projection: 28 G, 33 A, plus-10, 12 PIM, 23 PPP, 215 SOG
5. Jacob Trouba, D, Winnipeg Jets
Defense - WPG
GOALS: 10 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 29
SOG: 121 | +/-: 4
The 20-year-old's rookie season started out slowly; he had two points in his first 11 games and then missed the next 17 because of an upper-body injury. Nevertheless, he was one of the hottest players upon his return. The ninth pick of the 2012 NHL Draft had 27 points in his last 59 games and finished second on the team in defensive scoring. Under Jets coach Paul Maurice
, the rookie defenseman saw his ice time increase and he was relied on in all situations. His power-play time (128:14) was second only to Tobias Enstrom
and shorthanded time on ice (190:24) was again second behind Mark Stuart
among defensemen. Trouba was one of 27 defenders to have double-digit goals last season and he did it in the fifth least amount of games played (65), so a return of that type of production is expected. You should target Trouba as your No. 2 or 3 defenseman on your fantasy team, but in a league that accounts hits and blocked shots, he could be a decent No. 1.
Projection: 11 G, 27 A, plus-3, 52 PIM, 10 PPP, 130 SOG
6. Craig Smith, C, Nashville Predators
Center - NSH
GOALS: 24 | ASST: 28 | PTS: 52
SOG: 215 | +/-: 16
Lost in a forgettable Predators season that saw a franchise goalie get hurt and a franchise coach fired was the career-year from the 24-year-old forward. The 6-foot-1 wing had a career-high in goals (24), assists (28), points (52), power-play goals (seven) and shots on goal (215). With new coach Peter Laviolette
's offensive-minded system, and additions such as James Neal
, Mike Ribeiro
and Olli Jokinen
could mean even bigger numbers for Smith. The speedy wing is entering the final year of his contract and, if paired with Ribeiro and Neal on the top line could become one of the biggest fantasy steals of the draft. Make sure you stash Smith on your bench when you reach your final rounds.
Projection: 28 G, 29 A, plus-13, 24 PIM, 11 PPP, 186 SOG
7. Tanner Pearson, LW, Los Angeles Kings
The 21-year-old has played in as many playoff games as regular-season games (25), but this season he will finally be counted on as a regular contributor. A member of the "That 70s Line" with Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli, he finished with 12 points en route to a Stanley Cup victory. The 30th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft is ready to graduate from the AHL's Manchester Monarchs where he had 79 points in 105 games over the past two seasons. His chemistry with Toffoli has transitioned from the minors to the NHL, and we don't see Kings coach Darryl Sutter splitting up one of his most successful lines of the postseason. Pearson is another good player to target in your last two rounds and if you end up drafting either Carter or Toffoli in earlier rounds, then that is an added bonus for your fantasy squad.
Projection: 14 G, 20 A, plus-8, 14 PIM, 8 PPP, 123 SOG
8. TJ Brodie, D, Calgary Flames
Defense - CGY
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 27 | PTS: 31
SOG: 104 | +/-: 0
The defenseman broke out last season with a career-high 31 points and is poised to hit even higher marks in his fourth full NHL season. No one on the Flames played more minutes than Brodie's 1,949:06 last season, and only captain Mark Giordano
faced better quality of competition, proof that Brodie did not have sheltered minutes with his production. Brodie, who has a cannon of a shot, makes a perfect No. 4 defender on a fantasy team.
Projection: 6 G, 31 A, plus-4, 26 PIM, 9 PPP, 110 SOG
9. Jiri Tlusty, LW, Carolina Hurricanes
One year removed from a career-year that saw him score 23 goals in 48 games played while being one piece of the top line with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin, the 26-year-old Tlusty had a slump and injury-filled season in 2013-14. The Czech forward did finish the year strong with 12 points in 15 games played over the last two months and that, combined with a new coach (Bill Peters), makes Tlusty an underrated fantasy player this season. Staal and Semin should be in full health for the start of training camp after having core muscle surgery and wrist surgery, respectively, which bodes well for Tlusty's fantasy value. Target Tlusty in the last two rounds of fantasy drafts and pair him with either Staal or Semin to create even more value.
Projection: 23 G, 21 A, plus-5, 22 PIM, 7 PPP, 132 SOG
10. Alex Tanguay, LW, Colorado Avalanhce
Left Wing - COL
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 11
SOG: 24 | +/-: 7
One of the biggest surprises of the NHL season was the Colorado Avalanche's rise to a Central Division crown, but the person that had no impact on their rise could play a big role in their sustainability this season. Tanguay missed most of last season because of knee and hip issues and, after playing in 16 games, finally had season-ending hip surgery in February. The veteran was back skating with the team in the playoffs, showing he is ready to return for the start of this season. In his limited minutes with the Avs last season, he still led the team in power-play time on ice per game (2:49) and should see plenty of action on the man advantage this season. If he finds himself healthy and playing on a wing with either Matt Duchene or Nathan MacKinnon, he could end up being a bargain for anyone who drafts him in their final round.
Projection: 15 G, 26 A, plus-6, 20 PIM, 14 PPP, 92 SOG
Other sleeper candidates: Devante Smith-Pelly (Anaheim Ducks), Cody Ceci (Ottawa Senators), Darcy Kuemper (Minnesota Wild), Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers), Teuvo Teravainen (Chicago Blackhawks).