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Top 10 fantasy sleeper picks for 2015-16

Which players will drastically outperform their fantasy draft positions? Matt Larkin outlines 10 picks going way later on average than they should be.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

They're back. Everyone's favorite players to draft in fantasy pools. The sleepers.

There's a special high that comes with being "the genius who predicted _______'s breakout season." That's why it's so intoxicating to research sleepers every year. If you've already studied my most recent update of the top 200 overall players, now it's time to dig for undervalued guys.

As I outlined in last year's sleeper list, I identify them as follows:

(a) Players who will outperform their average draft position

(b) Players who will outperform some players drafted before them

(c) Players you can steal cheap at the ends of drafts to reap major profits

After taking last year's feedback into consideration, I want to stress (a) and (b) a lot more than (c). There's a misconception every sleeper has to be "that guy no one else knows about who's still on the board in the final round of a draft." Anyone looking for only that type of sleeper on this list will end up posting something like "Gee, thanks for the shocking insight on Teuvo Teravainen, I had no idea who that guy was, jerk." But that person misses the more important point. Teravainen goes on average 172nd overall in fantasy drafts, according to Yahoo's ADP (average draft position) numbers. My rank for Teravainen in the top 200: 139th overall. Essentially, I'm saying he should outperform 32 guys currently being drafted ahead of him. Savvy GMs may think it's no big revelation to talk up Teravainen, but the general drafting public evidently hasn't caught on yet. Teravainen's a legit sleeper.

Of course, I'm not going to tout Ryan Johansen as a sleeper when I rank him 18th and he's going 33rd. There's a line to draw here. I still want to help you find guys you can actually steal in the mid to late rounds. With that, let's begin the 2015-16 list:

10. Tyler Ennis (THN rank: 135; Yahoo average draft position: 175.7)

Call it the Buffalo discount. While newly arrived Sabres Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane should get plenty of love on fantasy draft day, any holdovers from the franchise's recent dark days send potential buyers running. It's understandable. Who would want anything to do with those putrid teams? There are exceptions, however. Ennis, 25, quietly potted 20 goals and set a career high with 46 points on a team that posted its third-worst points percentage in franchise history last season. Now, Ennis is tentatively slated to open 2015-16 playing the right wing with O'Reilly and Kane. That's a nice upgrade from Ennis' most common 2014-15 linemates, Zemgus Girgensons and Matt Moulson.

9. Sam Bennett (THN rank: 175; Yahoo ADP: undrafted)

A shoulder injury made Bennett the 2014 NHL draft class' forgotten blue chipper. He returned to his OHL Kingston Frontenacs late last season, though, and went bananas with 11 goals and 24 points in 11 games. After Kingston got knocked out of the OHL playoffs, Bennett joined his NHL club, the Calgary Flames. He scored three goals in 11 post-season games and didn't look out of place at all, showing a strong net presence.

Bennett is an elite prospect, likened by many to Doug Gilmour coming out of the draft. Calgary's top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler is set, but there's room for Bennett on the No. 2 unit. He can play his way into that spot, as he has more natural offensive talent than any other Calgary forward in the bottom three lines. His ADP tells us he can be had with an endgame pick. You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone else that late with Bennett's upside.

8. Elias Lindholm (THN rank: 159; Yahoo ADP: undrafted)

Bennett going undrafted in most pools I can understand, as he's only been in the league a year and missed most of last season, but what's the excuse for Lindholm? He enters his third NHL season. He progressed nicely as a sophomore, with 17 goals and 39 points despite only turning 20 halfway through the season. Lindholm plays for a Hurricanes team so ugly on paper that he's almost guaranteed top-six duty. Better yet, even though he's a natural center, he spent a healthy amount of time as a first-liner on Eric Staal's wing. Yes, the plus-minus should be gross again, but there's no way Lindholm should go undrafted. He's a steal.

7. Jakob Silfverberg (THN rank: 124; Yahoo ADP: 163.9)

I expected the secret to be out on Silfverberg, who exploded during the 2015 playoffs on the Anaheim Ducks' second line, racking up 18 points in 16 games on Ryan Kesler's wing. Yet the ADP suggests drafters quickly forgot about the playoffs or were in bed by the time Anaheim's games came on. It's true Silfverberg hasn't accomplished much in the regular season, a.k.a. the fantasy season. He did, however, set career highs with 13 goals and 39 points last year. His playoff performance extrapolates to 21-71-93 over a full year. Silfverberg obviously won't do that in his next 82 games, but it's still a reminder of his talent. He has an outstanding goal-scorer's release, he has been a highly touted prospect for several years, and it wouldn't be a stretch to see him cross 20 goals and 50 points. For dirt cheap.

6. Petr Mrazek (THN rank: 143; Yahoo ADP: 163.4)

Mrazek believers should push hard to make their leagues draft today, as that ADP should rise as Red Wings training camp begins. Is he in a battle with Jimmy Howard for Detroit's starting goalie job? Supposedly, but the playoff playing time doesn't say so. Mrazek started all seven games for the Wings. He posted a 2.11 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. He shut out the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Lightning twice. He's 23. New Detroit coach Jeff Blashill won the AHL's Calder Cup in 2013 with Mrazek as his starting goalie. Howard could not have more strikes against him here. Everything points to Mrazek opening 2015-16 the starter or at least the 1A.

5. Evgeny Kuznetsov (THN rank: 137; Yahoo ADP: 173.7)

Kuznetsov really fits the "How is this guy a sleeper?" bill but, hey, the ADP tells us people still haven't awakened to him. The sublimely talented Russian center, 23, gained momentum late in his first full NHL season. He finished March and April with 13 points in 19 games. He really flashed his brilliance in the playoffs, with five goals, seven points and two multi-point efforts over 14 games. Kuznetsov is locked in as the Caps' No. 2 center now and should have solid linemates. If we assume T.J. Oshie gets the first shot on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Kuznetsov should get savvy Justin Williams on his right and one of Marcus Johansson and Andre Burakovsky on his left. That makes for a pretty deadly second unit. Kuznetsov is as strong of a breakout candidate as anyone this year. Also, as commenter Chris Hook reminded me at the bottom of this page, Backstrom is in danger of missing the start of the season. Just another possible boon to Kuznetsov's value.

4. Teuvo Teravainen (THN rank: 139; Yahoo ADP: 171.7)

'Teuvo Time' occurs at pick 172 on average, so some GMs have discovered the slick Finn. He's a great bargain if you can get him that late, though. Teravainen's natural position is center, but the Hawks are flush there with Jonathan Toews, Artem Anisimov, Andrew Shaw and (assuming he signs) Marcus Kruger. The Hawks' key position of need: left wing, as they lost their top two guys, Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp, via summer salary dump trade. Teravainen can play the left side. He only has to beat out the unknown Artemi Panarin, the fallen-out-of-favor Bryan Bickell or the shell-of-his-former-self Kris Versteeg for the plum first-line position alongside Toews and Marian Hossa. And if coach Joel Quenneville decides that's too much to ask of Teravainen, he'll "settle" for Anisimov and Patrick Kane (police investigation pending) as linemates. The light bulb switched on for Teravainen in the playoffs, when he bested his regular season point total in about half the games, and his possession ratings have been excellent so far. He could do a lot with his opportunity and become this year's Gaudreau.

3. Mark Scheifele (THN rank: 131; Yahoo ADP: 156.3)

A key reason why Scheifele is a favorite sleeper of mine: he's established a nice floor to go with an ever-increasing ceiling. Scheifele was the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft, so there was nothing fluky about his leap to 15 goals and 49 points at age 21 last season. Actually, Scheifele's dip in shooting percentage from 13.0 to 8.8 suggests he was unlucky. He showed great chemistry with Drew Stafford and is secure in his role as Winnipeg's No. 2 pivot. And my money is on Scheifele usurping Bryan Little for first-line duty by year's end. Little is a perfectly handy player, but he's 27 and his career high is 64 points. We know what he is by now. Scheifele is still a baby by NHL standards and already nipping at the heels of Little's personal-best campaign. Scheifele won't hurt you at his ADP, and his high-end pedigree makes another big scoring leap likely. Pro-rate his stretch run of 8-15-23 in 34 games after the all-star break and you get a full season of 19-36-55. Seems about right.

2. Ryan Strome (THN rank: 105; Yahoo ADP: 168.5)

Strome's situation is highly similar to Scheifele's. Strome went just two picks before Scheifele in 2011, and he bested Scheifele's 2014-15 point total by one. Strome is a slightly more tempting pool pick, though, because he plays for an offensively stacked New York Islanders squad that could easily lead the NHL in goals. Will Strome play with John Tavares or won't he? Either way, Strome is an appealing fantasy proposition. He can play center and both wings, and the Islanders have enough forward depth that Strome is virtually guaranteed good linemates, Tavares or no Tavares. Strome has already established a fantasy-friendly floor of 50 points at age 22 yet is drafted on average alongside players with 50-point ceilings. That makes him highway robbery at his ADP.

1. David Pastrnak (THN rank: 98; Yahoo ADP: 174.6)

Hello? Drafters? Are you awake? What are you doing? The NHL's youngest player last season: David Pastrnak. The Boston Bruins' top scorer from Jan. 1 onward? David Pastrnak. The 2014 first-rounder blasted his way from the AHL to the NHL in half a season and immediately became an integral part of Boston's top-six forward corps. Pastrnak had 21 points in 27 games over a sizzling February and March. He has great hands and speed, and his steadily improving two-way game should earn him a nice uptick in minutes this season. Look for Pastrnak to end up fellow Czech David Krejci's wing. Pastrnak's 27 points in 46 games put him at a 48-point pace over a full season. And let's remember – he did that at 18 years old. He has oodles of opportunity on a Boston team desperate to anoint a new star.

BONUS ROUND: The non-sleeper sleepers

A few players I wanted to list as sleepers, but who are not bargains based on ADP:

- Valeri Nichushkin (My ranking 160, ADP 166.7)

- Justin Schultz (184, 169.4)

- Nail Yakupov (178, 168.6)

- Martin Jones (143, 135.9)

- Mathew Dumba (NR, 167.5)

- Derrick Pouliot (NR, 166.9)

- Nikolaj Ehlers (197, 167.6)

- Jonathan Drouin (183, 174)

BONUS ROUND 2: The deeper sleepers

Two later-round names to target for those demanding a deeper sleeper in a deeper league:

J.T. Miller – First-round draft pedigree. Saw time on Rangers' top line with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard in 2015 playoffs. Any chance he unseats the now-healthy Mats Zuccarello and takes that spot full-time?

Teemu Pulkkinen – Huge goal scorer in AHL. Has a massive one-timer Wings brass compare to Brett Hull's.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin



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