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.
MATT CUBETA'S 2015-16 FANTASY HOCKEY SLEEPERS
Carl Soderberg, C/LW, Colorado Avalanche, ADP: 170.9
FANTASY HOCKEY COVERAGE
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By Matt Cubeta & Pete Jensen - NHL Fantasy Insiders
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In his first full NHL season with the Boston Bruins in 2013-14, Soderberg had 16 goals and 48 points. He regressed last season with 13 goals and 44 points, but now with the Avalanche, expect Soderberg to blossom in his third NHL season. For most of last season, Soderberg skated on a line alongside Loui Eriksson and Chris Kelly, and an abnormally low shooting percentage (8.0) likely played a big factor in seeing his goal and point totals drop. With Colorado, the 29-year-old Soderberg could play somewhere on the team's top two lines and possibly alongside fellow Swede Gabriel Landeskog. The Avalanche possess an extremely talented top-six group and Soderberg's strong two-way play should result in an excellent all-around fantasy season.
Projection: 23 G, 33 A, plus-7, 32 PIM, 12 PPP, 177 SOG
Matt Niskanen, D, Washington Capitals, ADP: 169.3
We all know about Niskanen's breakout season in 2013-14 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He finished with career-highs in every offensive category (10 G, 36 A, plus-33, 51 PIM, 15 PPP, 162 SOG) and was the 10th best fantasy defenseman in Yahoo leagues. Last season, his first with the Capitals, Niskanen regressed and was ranked 46th at his position. However, a lot of that had to do with his placement on the team, where he was third on the depth charts among offensive defensemen behind John Carlson and Mike Green. Green is no longer with the Capitals and only Carlson is ahead of him. That means Niskanen could find himself in a similar role to 2013-14: he's one of the team's top two defenseman; he's on an elite offensive team; and he should see a decent amount of power play time (likely on the second unit). All of these factors point to Niskanen carrying plenty of fantasy value for owners and a top-25 positional rank by season's end could be within reach. Considering he's being drafted 92nd among defensemen, Niskanen might be the biggest steal in fantasy hockey this season.
Projection: 11 G, 34 A, plus-14, 48 PIM, 10 PPP, 142 SOG
Kevin Hayes, RW, New York Rangers, ADP: 173.9
Last season Hayes spent most of his 13:02 of ice time per game on the Rangers' third line, skating with a combination of Carl Hagelin, J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast. He finished his rookie season with 17 goals, 45 points, a plus-15 rating and 111 shots on goal, so imagine what he could do if given the opportunity to play among the team's top two lines. With Martin St. Louis retiring in the offseason, Hayes could end up on a line with fellow Americans Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider. The 23-year-old power forward should also see a bump in power play usage which will only increase his fantasy value. Hayes had five power play points while averaging 36 seconds of man-advantage ice time per game last season. The only thing that could hold Hayes back is if he doesn't win that second line job (Miller, Emerson Etem and others could be in the mix), but even if he doesn't remain there all season long, he's already proven he can provide fantasy value in a lesser role. Either way, a breakout season seems to be in the making for Hayes.
Projection: 22 G, 37 A, plus-16, 26 PIM, 14 PPP, 131 SOG
Marko Dano, C, Chicago Blackhawks, ADP: 165.2
Like many players on this list, a lot of their fantasy value hinges on where I expect them to play in the lineup. And like Soderberg, Hayes and every other forward on this list, expect Dano to be among the team's top six forwards. A top six role is what fantasy owners should want from their players. That would ensure playing alongside good players, seeing a healthy amount of ice time and likely getting some power-play ice time. If a player ends up falling to a third line role, their fantasy value likely takes a significant hit. Dano is talented enough that he should win a job among Chicago's top six. And not only does he have loads of potential, he also proved with the Blue Jackets last season that he's NHL ready. Dano, 20, appeared in 35 games for Columbus and had eight goals, 13 assists, a plus-12 rating, 14 PIM and 84 SOG while averaging 13:15 of ice time per game and hardly any ice time on the power play. If Dano ends up playing on a line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, he could truly break out this season.
Projection: 24 G, 27 A, plus-13, 40 PIM, 9 PPP, 212 SOG
Cam Talbot, G, Edmonton Oilers, ADP: 154.9
Talbot has proven everything he could have as a backup goalie to this point. Over the past two seasons with the New York Rangers, he posted a 33-15-5 record with a 2.00 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and eight shutouts in 57 games. He was arguably the best backup goalie in the NHL over the two-year span and was even more impressive when called upon as the everyday starter with Henrik Lundqvist injured last season. Now with Edmonton, he'll have to win the starting goalie job from Ben Scrivens in training camp. People might point to the Rangers defense as a reason for Talbot's success, but the Rangers allowed 29.5 shots against per game last season which ranked 14th in the NHL. The Oilers allowed 30.0 shots against per game and ranked 20th. Besides the addition of Connor McDavid on offense, the Oilers have also added Andrej Sekera to their blue line which will bolster their defense. Tablot is currently being drafted as the 36th goalie off the board, but if he can make around 50 starts this season, it's realistic to expect him to be a top 20-25 fantasy goalie.
Projection: 22 wins, 2.39 GAA, .921 SV%, 4 SO
David Pastrnak, LW/RW, Boston Bruins, ADP: 176.2
While Pastrnak did spend much of his rookie season among the team's top six forwards in 2014-15, he averaged 13:58 of ice time per game. However, nothing stands in his way this season as he'll be looked at for key contributions after seeing Milan Lucic traded to the Los Angeles Kings. The 19-year-old Czech Republic native was productive in his first NHL season, with 27 points in 46 games. If his stats were extrapolated over the course of a full 82-game season, he would have finished with 18 goals, 30 assists, a plus-12 rating, 14 penalty minutes, five power play points and 166 shots on goal. With more ice time and a solidified role in the lineup, Pastrnak should be able to build on an impressive rookie season and exceed his current average draft position.
Projection: 24 G, 29 A, plus-3, 20 PIM, 10 PPP, 181 SOG
Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Dallas Stars, ADP: 169.5
Nichushkin topped my list of fantasy sleepers last season, but a hip injury cost him 74 games and he finished with one point in his eight games played. All signs points to good things in 2015-16 for the 6-foot-4 Russian winger. At 20 years old with blazing speed, Nichushkin is the perfect candidate to slide into the team's top line with superstars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. And even if it doesn't work out on that line, he should be able to lock up a spot on the second unit with secondary superstars Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp. His rookie season in 2013-14 (14 G, 34 points, plus-20) showed plenty of promise, but this season should be Nichushkin's true coming out party. He won't help you in the penalty minutes category and he probably won't get ample power-play time, but I'm all in on Nichushkin and you should be too.
Projection: 28 G, 31 A, plus-4, 18 PIM, 9 PPP, 179 SOG
Morgan Rielly, D, Toronto Maple Leafs, ADP: 167.5
If you can go into selecting Rielly by telling yourself that he's going to hurt you in the plus/minus category, you'll be golden. Rielly has the capability of being a strong contributor in every offensive category except it will come with that damaging rating. If you're doing your draft and you have a bunch of players on good teams that should have solid ratings, you can probably afford to grab Rielly late in your draft as your No. 4 or 5 defenseman. He has immense upside and could exceed double-digit goals and more than 40 points in his third NHL season. Rielly, 21, should also see a bump in power-play ice time per game (2:26 last season) as he'll likely be viewed as the team's No. 1 offensive defenseman ahead of Dion Phaneuf. Rielly is currently being drafted 87th among defensemen in Yahoo leagues, but even with his detrimental rating, he could still be a top-50 defenseman.
Projection: 10 G, 31 A, minus-18, 20 PIMs, 15 PPP, 164 SOG
Max Domi, C, Arizona Coyotes, ADP: 172.0
Domi is an interesting case. At some point he'll have a prominent role with the Coyotes, but it might not happen right out of training camp. Either way, Domi is worth a late pick on draft day. He has scored more than 30 goals and 87 points in each of his past three seasons in the OHL with the London Knights and his offensive production has improved in four straight seasons. Everywhere he's played, he's shown success. And once he's with the Coyotes, I expect him to be productive there as well. Arizona doesn't have much offensive punch, but Domi and fellow prospect Anthony Duclair provide an extremely bright future and it could pay dividends as early as this season. Domi could also develop into the type of player fantasy owners drool over. He's the full package capable of scoring, racking up assists, contributing penalty minutes and plenty of shots. Keeper league draftees need to be all over him.
Projection: 20 G, 26 A, minus-7, 48 PIM, 10 PPP, 159 SOG
Michael Raffl, C/LW, Philadelphia Flyers, ADP: N/A
Raffl, 26, has appeared in 135 NHL games across two seasons. To this point, he hasn't been a fantasy factor. But there are signs that his third NHL season could be the breakout fantasy owners have been searching for. Last season he spent 45.87 percent of his ice time on a line with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. I expect him to be a candidate for that line again this season and while his 21 goals in 67 games were valuable last season, his seven assists left us wanting more. Playing with those two superstars could make Raffl a fantasy steal in 2015-16. He simply needs to stay healthy and put together a complete season, capable of contributing goals, assists, a solid rating, decent penalty minute totals and a healthy amount of shots. He likely won't produce much on the power play (averaged 25 seconds of PP time per game last year), but balanced stats in every other category are within reach. Raffl isn't on anyone's draft radar right now, but don't hesitate to select him with one of your final picks. He'll be there and could end up surprising you.
Projection: 22 G, 27 A, plus-7, 40 PIM, 6 PPP, 168 SOG
OTHER SLEEPER CANDIDATES: Leon Draisaitl (Edmonton Oilers), Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers), Robin Lehner (Buffalo Sabres), Matt Dumba (Minnesota Wild), Sergei Plotnikov (Pittsburgh Penguins)