There’s no more intoxicating feeling for a fantasy GM than to unearth that season-changing sleeper and brag about it endlessly. You probably did pretty well in your league if you snagged Mathew Barzal, William Karlsson or Connor Hellebuyck last year.
I love finding sleepers too, but when I advise you on them every year, I take a highly specific approach that doesn’t fit everyone’s traditional definition of sleeper. A sleeper isn’t merely a player “not many people know about.” He’s not a sleeper if he comes off the draft board exactly or even before you expect him to. That’s why, for instance, even though I admire Filip Zadina’s and Andrei Svechnikov’s talents greatly, you won’t find them among my top-10 sleepers for 2018-19. Their average draft positions (ADPs) in current Yahoo leagues slot them right around where I have them ranked.
To me, a sleeper doesn’t even have to be a no-name or a rookie. It can be anyone undervalued, available later in a draft than he should be. Turning profits on players like these are what win us leagues. I define sleepers as players who meet some or all of the following criteria:
1. Players who will outperform their average draft positions
2. Players who will outperform some players drafted before them
3. Players you can steal cheap at the end of drafts to reap major profits
I’ve cross-referenced my fantasy top 200 for 2018-19 with the current average draft positions for Yahoo pools to identify sleepers. Last season, for example, Mikko Rantanen was being drafted 169th on average, making him a 15th-round pick in 12-team leagues. I had him ranked 125th, suggesting you target him in the 11th round. Hopefully you listened. Now, let’s try and dig up some new criminally undervalued picks. Here are my top 10 in alphabetical order. Note that all 10 are forwards this year. For whatever reason, we don’t get nearly as many goalies or D-men available later in drafts than they should be. You’re more likely to find them on my bust list, as they tend to be overvalued.
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks (THN rank: 86; Yahoo ADP: 129.3)
DeBrincat joins a new wave of child-sized NHLers succeeding with the league cracking down on obstruction and, most recently, slashing. He’s shifty, creative, and just led the Blackhawks with 28 goals as a rookie. Chicago made few noteworthy changes over the off-season and will get bullied in a vicious Central Division. This team needs DeBrincat just as badly as it did last year, if not more. You should draft him expecting a 30-30-60 type of player. Why, then, is he being picked later than Yanni Gourde, who will have to fight tooth and nail to crack his team’s second line?
Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus Blue Jackets (THN rank: 104; Yahoo ADP: 148.3)
Ah, the classic story of a second-half breakout hidden by a veneer of mediocre full-season stats. Dubois’ 20 goals and 48 points placed him seventh and eighth among rookies last season, but his 26 points in 33 games after the all-star break extrapolated to a 65-point season, which is a fair expectation for him this time around. He was 2016’s third overall pick for a reason. The Blue Jackets wanted him to become their No. 1 center, and he’s done exactly that, with Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson on his wings. Buy.
Alex Galchenyuk, Arizona Coyotes (THN rank: 121; Yahoo ADP: 165.5)
Don’t write ‘Chucky’ off the way Montreal did. He hasn’t lived up to his 30-goal breakout in 2015-16, but he still quietly averages 21 goals and 50 points per 82 games in his career, establishing a respectable floor. You could make a case his ADP of 165.5 doesn’t even acknowledge that floor, actually. Nashville checker Colton Sissons is going higher in drafts right now. Galchenyuk is practically free money. But what makes him especially intriguing is his ceiling. He’s still just 24 and only has to pass Derek Stepan to become Arizona’s No. 1 center and play with Clayton Keller. That deployment would fast-track Galchenyuk to career-best numbers.
Even if he doesn’t earn that promotion, the Coyotes are committed to trying him at center in a prominent scoring role, so he’ll have more opportunities than he did in Montreal. He’s a gift right now, going in the 14th round.
Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils (THN rank: 92; Yahoo ADP: 159.1)
I get it. Hischier had a nice rookie season centering MVP Taylor Hall, and the entire hockey world predicts a big regression for Hall. Maybe that happens, but drafters are forgetting to price in a pro-gression for Hischier. He just posted a 52-point season as an 18-year-old. The only players in the past 25 years with more points after starting a season 18 years old: Sidney Crosby, Patrik Laine, Nathan MacKinnon, Jeff Skinner and Matt Duchene. Hall may not carry the Devils like he did last season, but he also may not have to. Hischier was a No. 1 overall pick, after all. A 10-point jump in production is hardly a big ask and would make him deserving of a top-100 selection in pools.
Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks (THN rank: 108; Yahoo ADP: 167.2)
Horvat’s ADP confuses me. Yes, he’s more of a leader and two-way player than a pure offensive force, but he’s locked into Vancouver’s No. 1 center job on a team that just said goodbye to Henrik Sedin. Horvat is The Guy. At worst, he gets passed by another sleeper on this list (keep reading) and winds up Vancouver’s No. 2 center, but he’s produced in that role before. This guy went to the All-Star Game last year and has improved his points per game every season of his career. Why is he going later than Erik Haula in drafts? Go steal Horvat.
J.T. Miller, Tampa Bay Lightning (THN rank: 123; Yahoo ADP: 160.3)
Miller is somewhat of a post-hype breakout guy. He was a first-round pick in 2011 and took a few years to develop before establishing himself as a solid middle-six forward who could play center or wing with a decent scoring touch. But a trade from the Rangers to the Lightning changed Miller’s career. Joining a devastating line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, Miller racked up 10 goals and 18 points in 19 games. As I constantly warn poolies, you have to be careful chasing line deployments, but we don’t really have to worry about Miller getting bumped off the Lightning’s first line, because he’s coming so cheap in drafts that it doesn’t hurt you if that happens. If Miller sticks on that top line, he might wind up a 25-25-70 player at the price of a waiver-wire add. Guys like that are league-winners.
Casey Mittelstadt, Buffalo Sabres (THN rank: 136; Yahoo ADP: 157.8)
In football and basketball, real-life first-round players, typically in their early 20s, accelerate directly to their drafting teams and become hyped picks in fantasy leagues. Think Saquon Barkley in the NFL right now. Hockey is different. Draftees are teenagers and (a) don’t always jump directly to the NHL or (b) don’t always make monstrous impacts as rookies if they do. And yet the ADP research tells us drafters treat NHL rookies like NFL rookies, falling victim to recency bias. Svechnikov, Zadina and Rasmus Dahlin, picked this past June, are fresh in poolies’ minds and fly up the draft boards.
Meanwhile, people forget about the first-rounders from last year who didn’t jump directly to the NHL, making them value picks. Exhibit A: Mittelstadt. He’s a dynamic scorer who got a taste with the Sabres late last season after leaving the University of Minnesota to turn pro. He’s every bit the Calder Trophy threat his teammate Dahlin is. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mittelstadt follows a similar path to another first-rounder who didn’t go right to the NHL: Barzal.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers (THN rank: 68; Yahoo ADP: 151.2)
Look at that discrepancy. Whoa. Do drafters just see ‘The Nuge,’ 2011’s first overall pick, as a bust who will remain a 20-goal, 50-point guy forever? Like Galchenyuk, Nugent-Hopkins has established a good floor if that’s the case. Unlike Galchenyuk, Nugent-Hopkins is already pencilled in on his team’s top line to start the year. He’ll be playing with something called (checks notes) “C. McDavid.” Oh, and look at that, when they played together for the final 13 games of 2018-19, Nugent-Hopkins exploded for 15 points. Maybe the arrangement doesn’t last and he gets demoted again. But there’s no cushier fantasy assignment that playing on No. 97’s wing. I’ve priced RNH as a sixth-round pick in 12-team leagues, but he’s being chosen in the 13th right now. Even if you don’t trust me, please, at least take him in the 10th or 11th round. His profit potential is gargantuan.
Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks (THN rank: 131; Yahoo ADP: 169.8)
Sleepers aren’t fail-proof. They wouldn’t be sleepers otherwise. And since Pettersson is an AHL-eligible European import who has never played the North American pro game, the Canucks have the option of demoting him to start the season. But here’s betting they don’t, because he’s too darned good for the AHL already. He just dominated grown men in Sweden with Vaxjo, leading the SHL in points and points per game, winning the regular season and playoff MVP and breaking Kent Nilsson’s record for points by a junior-aged player.
Pettersson, not Horvat, is Vancouver’s long-term successor to Henrik Sedin as a front-line puck distributor to pair with goal-scorer Brock Boeser. We can’t always predict the future accurately, but we can sometimes, and I predict Pettersson wins the Calder Trophy this season. You can draft him late enough that it won’t sink your team if you have to drop him in October.
Nick Schmaltz, Chicago Blackhawks (THN rank: 124; Yahoo ADP: 173.4)
Schmaltz, like DeBrincat, finds himself in a nice spot with a struggling team looking to transition to a new era of young stars to support the aging veteran group, which still counts Patrick Kane as in his prime but has the likes of Duncan Keith and even Jonathan Toews leaving their best seasons in the rear-view mirror. Schmaltz can play center or wing, so even if you view Artem Anisimov as competition for the No. 2 center job, Schmaltz can merely slide to the left wing. Coach Joel Quenneville will find the minutes. Schmaltz’s ice time per game jumped by almost five minutes from his rookie to his sophomore year. Talented player, important scoring role, first-round pedigree, available on average in the 15th round…what more could you want in a sleeper?
THE ‘WTF’ TOP FIVE
These guys aren’t sleepers. They’re stars. Which is why their ADPs are so insane that I don’t even know what to tell you. I know Senators and Islanders players have a stink on them this year, but this is going too far. Please let me in these leagues. And can we play for money? Lots of it? Thanks.
Matt Duchene, Ottawa Senators (THN rank: 111; Yahoo ADP: 161.9)
Anders Lee, New York Islanders (THN rank: 79; Yahoo ADP: 168.4)
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning (THN rank: 50; Yahoo ADP: 128.8)
Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets (THN rank: 7; Yahoo ADP: 45.0)
Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators (THN rank: 66; Yahoo ADP: 164.1)
THE GOALIE SLEEPER
I’m a proponent of ZeroGoalie, meaning I don’t recommend snagging the top-ranked netminders (look what would’ve happened if you picked Carey Price instead of waiting on Andrei Vasilevskiy last year), so most goalie ADPs are higher than my top 200 ranks. Relative to other goalies, however, Philipp Grubauer looks criminally underrated this season. He’s the 35th goalie off the board in Yahoo drafts on average right now, which is insane for a guy who (a) has a .923 career save percentage, (b) was acquired by the Avs, then signed to a three-year, $10-million contract, implying they intend to play him plenty; and (c) had advanced save metrics last year suggesting he was as good as any goalie in the league on a per-game basis.
Grubauer may start the year platooning with Semyon Varlamov, but the money talks. Varlamov enters the final season of his contract. General manager Joe Sakic didn’t pay Grubauer backup dollars. We can bet on a platoon at worst, and maybe Grubauer steals the job the same way Vasilevskiy did during the final season of Ben Bishop’s contract in Tampa. The 35th goalie in ADP is my 21st-ranked goalie.
THE ALL-DEEP-SLEEPER TEAM
Most of these players will already be owned in keeper leagues, but they can probably be scooped in the late rounds of most redraft leagues:
G: Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators
D: Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators
D: Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
F: Andreas Johnsson, Toronto Maple Leafs
F: Jack Roslovic, Winnipeg Jets
F: Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators