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.
Find out who made the cut on Matt Cubeta's sleepers list from last season.
MATT CUBETA'S 2014-15 FANTASY HOCKEY SLEEPERS
1. Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Dallas Stars
At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, there shouldn't be much standing in the way of Nichushkin turning into a fantasy mainstay in 2014-15. As an 18-year-old last season, Nichushkin played in 79 games and posted 14 goals, 20 assists, a plus-20 rating, eight penalty minutes, three power-play points and 128 shots on goal. Not a bad stat line for a rookie that received under 15 minutes of ice time per game and only 1:19 per game on the power play. Expect a lot of growth in year two, especially since Nichushkin is expected to start the season on the Stars' top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. The No. 10 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft might not receive a ton of power-play ice time with Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky added to the picture, but as long as he can stick on that top line during even-strength play, fantasy owners should expect 25-plus goals, around 50 points and a phenomenal plus/minus.
Projection: 26 G, 28 A, plus-17, 24 PIMs, 8 PPP, 176 SOG
2. Nathan Horton, RW, Columbus Blue Jackets
Horton has already played 10 seasons in the NHL, but people tend to forget he's 29 years old, meaning he's very capable of returning to his 25-30 goal type seasons. While his Columbus debut wasn't exactly ideal (he missed 46 games because of injury and then finished with five goals and 19 points in 36 games), he is expected to be fully healthy entering the 2014-15 season, and that makes him a very sneaky fantasy draft pick. There was a time when he was all but a lock for 20-plus goals, 50-plus points and 50-plus penalty minutes and there's no reason to think he can't return to that form in his second season in Columbus. In fact, Horton has scored at least 20 goals in six seasons, he's had over 50 points in four and over 50 penalty minutes in six. Playing on a solid Blue Jackets team should result in a solid rating, plus he'll also receive around 2-3 minutes of power-play ice time and isn't afraid to put shots on goal. With the potential to start on the team's top line alongside budding superstar Ryan Johansen, Horton is one forward worth spending a late-round pick on.
Projection: 27 G, 27 A, plus-4, 58 PIMs, 14 PPP, 192 SOG
3. Mark Scheifele, C, Winnipeg Jets
In his first full NHL season, Scheifele didn't disappoint for the Jets. Before suffering a knee injury that cost him the final 19 games, Scheifele scored 13 goals and 34 points, and was plus-9 in 63 games. Looking ahead, there's reason to believe Scheifele can take his game to the next level. The No. 7 pick in the 2011 draft will line up as the team's No. 2 center behind Bryan Little and will likely have Evander Kane and either Blake Wheeler or Michael Frolik on his wings, depending on how the Jets format their right wings. Scheifele should also receive an uptick in power-play ice time (1:58 per game last season), and while he won't help much in the penalty minutes (14) or shots on goal categories (100), Scheifele's point potential makes him worth selecting with one of your final picks come draft day. Don't forget that in 2012-13 he had 39 goals and 79 points in just 45 games in his final OHL season prior to making the jump to the NHL.
Projection: 22 G, 34 A, plus-1, 28 PIMs, 14 PPP, 160 SOG
4. Christian Ehrhoff, D, Pittsburgh Penguins
Ehrhoff, 32, will likely slip in many fantasy drafts because owners will be scared off by his minus-27 rating from last season while playing for the Buffalo Sabres. Things didn't exactly work out in Buffalo, where he scored 16 goals and 87 points with a minus-23 in 192 games after scoring 28 goals and 94 points with a plus-55 in 159 games during his two previous seasons for the Vancouver Canucks. Now a member of the Penguins and on a one-year contract, look for Ehrhoff to bounce back in a big way. While his rating suffered in Buffalo, his point production was still solid (his 87 points ranked 32nd among all defensemen over that span) and if you add in his two seasons with the Canucks, his 181 points since 2009-10 are 13th among all defensemen. The one thing to keep a close eye on is whether Ehrhoff ends up on the top power-play unit for the Penguins. He has been a power play quarterback for years with the Canucks and Sabres, but in Pittsburgh there will be some competition (Kris Letang and Paul Martin). If he can find his way on that No. 1 group with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz up front, expect Ehrhoff's value to be sky-high and he could finish as a top-20 fantasy defenseman, like he was in Vancouver.
Projection: 11 G, 30 A, plus-6, 46 PIMs, 16 PPP, 167 SOG
5. Alex Galchenyuk, C/LW, Montreal Canadiens
There's no doubting Galchenyuk's talent and potential. He's already shown great promise in his first two NHL seasons with 22 goals and 58 points in 113 games. Entering his third season, Galchenyuk will be looked upon to play important minutes for the Canadiens, at even strength and on the power play. Prior to getting injured last season, Galchenyuk, 20, had 13 goals and 31 points in 65 games while receiving under 15 minutes of ice time per game. However, 10 of his points came on the power play, where he saw just over two minutes per game. The dual-eligible forward will play on one of the team's top two lines with Tomas Plekanec (whom he played 59 percent of his shifts with during his five Stanley Cup Playoff games) and has plenty of room to grow. Look to select him with one of your final picks come draft day.
Projection: 22 G, 27 A, plus-1, 44 PIMs, 15 PPP, 171 SOG
6. Josh Harding, G, Minnesota Wild
At first glance, you might wonder why I'm putting a goalie that had an NHL-best 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage last season on a sleeper list. It won't be easy to better those numbers or even replicate them. He was fantastic last season. No one is arguing that. The reason he's on this list is because he's going to slip in drafts because of his multiple sclerosis. And while there's a chance Harding could miss time at any point during the season, he is definitely worth drafting. And I believe he's worth drafting somewhere around round 10, not with your final pick. As of this moment, the Wild are expecting Harding to be ready for the start of the season, and that alone is reason enough to draft him. It's not often you come across a goalie of his caliber in the middle-to-late rounds of a draft, so why not roll the dice with him. Worst case is you draft the 30-year-old, he plays a bunch early on and performs well and then you can trade him at a high point. Best case is Harding finds a way to appear in 50-plus games and finishes as a top-10 fantasy goalie. Seems well worth the risk to me.
Projection: 37 starts, 23 wins, 2.40 GAA, .919 SV%, 4 SO
7. Justin Faulk, D, Carolina Hurricanes
In the past three seasons, among players under 22, four defensemen have more points than Faulk's 69, and only two have more than his 18 goals. He might not get the same kind of attention as Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler, but his production is very similar during that time frame. Have a look:
Fowler's past three seasons: 189 games -- 12 goals, 64 assists, 76 points
Faulk's past three seasons: 180 games -- 18 goals, 51 assists, 69 points
Fowler's plus/minus has been slightly better during that time (minus-17 to minus-24), but Faulk has 45 more penalty minutes and 56 more shots on goal. All said, they are comparable fantasy players. However, Fowler will get drafted several rounds before Faulk. Let someone else grab the valuable Fowler and you can grab Faulk much later and end up with similar production. Faulk is one of the most talented young defensemen in the NHL, and his 23:24 of ice time shows how much the Hurricanes trust him. He could even see a spike in power-play ice time (2:07 last season) where he had eight points, and if that's the case, Faulk could end up easily being a top-30 fantasy defenseman.
Projection: 9 G, 31 A, minus-2, 40 PIMs, 12 PPP, 161 SOG
8. Chris Stewart, RW, Buffalo Sabres
Since the 2011-12 season, only six players have at least 45 goals, 200-plus penalty minutes and a positive rating: Scott Hartnell, Milan Lucic, David Backes, Corey Perry, Alexandre Burrows and Chris Stewart. Stewart's 28-goal, 64-point season in 2009-10 may never happen again, but there's still value in drafting a player capable of scoring 15 goals and around 40 points with over 100 penalty minutes. And while his rating is likely going to take a hit playing for the Sabres, his role will be much greater than it was with the Blues, where he saw a lot of fourth-line minutes. Despite receiving just 13:41 of ice time per game last season in St. Louis, Stewart delivered 15 goals and 118 penalty minutes in 63 games. At 26 and in the prime of his playing career, Stewart should be a top-six forward for the Sabres and could even see top power-play minutes for Buffalo. If you can afford the potentially damaging rating, Stewart could end up a rewarding fantasy player in 2014-15.
Projection: 24 G, 18 A, minus-14, 112 PIMs, 13 PPP, 174 SOG
9. Aleksander Barkov, C, Florida Panthers
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin might get more attention come draft day this season, but don't underestimate Barkov, whom the Panthers selected one pick ahead of Drouin in the 2013 draft. Barkov will be 19 at the start of the season, but he already has one NHL season under his belt (eight goals, 24 points in 54 games last season) and at 6-3, 213, the sky is the limit for the Finnish center. Barkov received just over 17 minutes of ice time per game last season, with 2:40 of that coming on the power play, proving the Panthers brass fully trust him with important ice time. He'll only get more and more minutes as the years progress, and eventually Barkov could be one of the first centers off the board in fantasy drafts. For now, you can expect him to be a 20-goal scorer with 40-50 points, and for those in keeper leagues, don't hesitate to draft him before the final round.
Projection: 20 G, 26 A, minus-6, 32 PIMs, 13 PPP, 159 SOG
10. Charlie Coyle, C/RW, Minnesota Wild
Coyle, like several of my sleeper picks, is a big, young forward with the promise of playing on one of his team's top lines. While he finished last season with just 12 goals and 30 points in 70 games, most of his 17:05 of ice time per game was spent on the team's top line with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. He should remain there for the 2014-15 season and that makes him worth drafting with one of your last picks. Coyle, 22, was a bit unlucky last season, converting just 8.9 percent of his 135 shots on goal. If that percentage bounces back to around 10 or 11 percent and he can increase the amount of shots he puts on net, Coyle should be a lock for 20-plus goals with solid peripheral stats.
Projection: 21 G, 27 A, plus-5, 52 PIMs, 8 PPP, 168 SOG
Other sleeper candidates: Cam Atkinson (Columbus Blue Jackets), Carl Hagelin (New York Rangers), Frederik Andersen (Anaheim Ducks), Seth Jones (Nashville Predators), Michael Frolik (Winnipeg Jets)