The fantasy hockey sleeper game is a fun one but a tricky and dangerous one for wannabe genius GMs. Finding the right breakout picks can elevate a team from contender to champion. But picking a sexy sleeper at the wrong time and passing on proven talents can sink you. It's all about knowing exactly when to grab an undervalued guy.
That's why I preach my unofficial "sleeper" rules in this space every year. I don't merely define a sleeper as an under-the-radar guy no one knows about. Some of them fit that exact description, but some are pretty big names, too. My sleepers are:
- Players who will outperform their average draft positions
- Players who will outperform some players drafted before them
- Players you can steal cheap at the ends of drafts to reap major profits
The goal here is to help you find value by cross-referencing my top 200 player rankings with Yahoo's average draft position (ADP) numbers. If I rank a player 88th, and his ADP is 124, that means I value him as a mid-eighth-round pick when he's going in the 11th on average. You can snag him in the 10th round and get eighth-round production year round. That's assuming my predictions steer you right, of course. Last season, I hit on Petr Mrazek, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Mark Scheifele and fizzled or broke even on the rest. But sleepers are sleepers for a reason. We can't expect to get every one of them right, but if you hit on even a couple, you get a huge return on a cheap investment.
With that, here are my top 10 sleepers for 2016-17 based on ADP stats, sorted alphabetically. Note the conspicuous lack of D-men. I just didn't see any major values this year. Most of my favorite breakout picks at the position seem priced appropriately in drafts so far.
Sam Bennett (THN rank: 124; Yahoo ADP: 166.4)
Drafters are completely missing the boat on Bennett's ceiling. He scored 18 goals, including four in one game, in his age-19 season. He played 15:09 per night. Bennett's ice time will obviously climb as he matures into a long-term role as Calgary's No. 2 center, so his offensive numbers should spike, too. And…Alex Killorn is going ahead of Bennett in drafts right now. Killorn will be 27 when the season starts. His career highs in goals and points are 17 and 41, respectively. Bennett already went 18-18-36. His floor sits almost where Killorn's ceiling does, and Bennett's ceiling is sky high. Bennett is actually a more gifted pure scoring weapon than Sean Monahan, so it's not inconceivable Bennett gets a crack on the top line a few years from now. Regardless, 25 goals and 50 points seem well within reach immediately.
Derick Brassard (THN rank: 105; Yahoo average draft position: 160.9)
It feels strange to put Brassard on a sleeper list. He turns 29 later this month. Alas, when drafters are taking him 56 picks – 4.5 rounds in 12-team drafts – later than I think they should, I have to speak up. Ottawa didn't trade a good young center in Mika Zibanejad to give Brassard a minor role. He's at worst the Sens' No. 2 pivot, and I'd give him the inside track on Kyle Turris to start the year as the No. 1. Brassard will have at least one and possibly two of Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Bobby Ryan on his wings. Brassard shouldn't have much trouble reaching 55 to 60 points. So why is he being drafted so late?
Andre Burakovsky (THN rank: 141; Yahoo ADP: 176.1)
Burakovsky likely won't morph into a top-10 scorer like Evgeny Kuznetsov did last season but could enjoy a similar breakout. Both have first-round draft pedigrees. Both have excellent natural puckhandling ability, though Burakovsky is a better goal scorer while Kuznetsov is a playmaker. Like Kuznetsov, Burakovsky has a strong chance to play all year in Washington's top six. He should overtake Marcus Johansson for the No. 2 left wing spot. Johansson hasn't topped 20 goals or 47 points in his six seasons. He's not going to get much better offensively. Burakovsky, though, is just 21 and closed 2015-16 with 14 goals and 29 points in his last 45 games. That pro-rates to 26-27-53 over 82 games. That seems like a bang-on projection for Burakovsky this season. He can do some damage on the Caps' second line with Kuznetsov or Nicklas Backstrom centering him.
Leon Draisaitl (THN rank: 104; Yahoo ADP: 168.4)
Draisaitl started out as an elite producer in 2015-16, with nine goals and 26 points in his first 20 games. He then hit the skids for 10 goals and 25 points over his next 52 games. We know what difference was. Leon Draisaitl was a monster producer when he played with Taylor Hall, as Jonathan Willis points out, and Draisaitl struggled badly without Hall. Willis cautions us not to anoint Draisaitl a franchise pillar so soon, and while that's prudent, we also shouldn't downgrade him too much in fantasy drafts. (a) He's only 20 years old; (b) he can play center or wing; (c) Todd McLellan likes to move his high-end forwards around to keep them in the top six rather than demote them to checking lines, and (d) should Draisaitl play the right side this year, it would be alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or maybe even Connor McDavid. We don't have to accept point-per-game Draisaitl as a reality again. But 51-point Draisaitl? Entirely possible. Given he still has upside for a lot more than that, there's no way he should be going after guys like Artem Anisimov in drafts. We know what Anisimov is, and that's a guy who managed 42 points spending a whole season on a line with the NHL scoring champ. We don't yet know what Draisaitl is.
Nikolaj Ehlers (THN rank: 134; Yahoo ADP: 168.2)
Rookie Patrik Laine will attract a lot of attention in Winnipeg this season, but don't sleep on the lightning-quick Dane Ehlers. He held his own as a rookie 15 goals and 38 points. He finished strong with 26 points in 35 games, and he formed a powerhouse top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. With Laine likely to play right wing on the second line, there's no reason to break up the top unit. Ehlers should see a significant jump in points this season. It's especially encouraging that he's already such a positive possession driver at his age.
Robby Fabbri (THN rank: 111; Yahoo ADP: 168.1)
Removing – and not adequately replacing – prominent forwards David Backes and Troy Brouwer shuffles up the Blues depth chart. Youngster Fabbri played a lot of third-line left wing as a rookie. He may stay on the wing to open 2016-17, as the Blues still have Jori Lehtera, Paul Stastny and Alexander Steen up the middle, but Fabbri will play on a scoring line. He has to. The Blues need his dynamic skill set. His 18-goal, 37-point debut was respectable, and his 15 points over 20 playoff games gave us a better preview of what to expect going forward. He's a special player. I'd expect a spike in minutes, increased power play time and a leap of at least 15 points this season.
Mikael Granlund (THN rank: 146; Yahoo ADP: undrafted)
Sigh. I can't remember how many times I've talked Granlund up as a big-time sleeper. I've been intoxicated by his potential ever since our scouting panel ranked him as the game's No. 2 overall prospect in Future Watch 2012. We know Granlund has some slick offensive skills. He's flashed them repeatedly in the playoffs. His regular season offensive totals have been consistently underwhelming, however. His 13 goals and 44 points last season were career highs. Still, with Granlund likely playing the wing and Bruce Boudreau taking over as head coach, I'm intrigued one more time. Boudreau typically fields high-scoring clubs, albeit he has less to work with in Minny than he did in Washington and Anaheim. Granlund costs nothing right now – he's not even being drafted in the majority of Yahoo leagues – so he's worth the zero-risk investment.
Bo Horvat (THN rank: 159; Yahoo ADP: undrafted)
Put your eggs in veteran Brandon Sutter's basket if you want. I'll bet on Horvat. Sutter is the more mature player, a veteran two-way guy, but we know what he is by now. He's 27, and Horvat equalled Sutter's career high in points even though Horvat's sophomore season was considered underwhelming, a minor improvement. I expect Horvat to hold down the second-line center job for most of the season and wouldn't be surprised if he even earned the role out of camp. Keeper leaguers should also keep an eye on the rapidly emptying hourglass that is Henrik Sedin, who turns 36 in a couple weeks. Horvat is the logical successor as the first-line pivot a couple years down the road.
Mikko Rantanen (THN rank: 164; Yahoo ADP: undrafted)
Rantanen is a fun name for this list because he's a real sleeper, a guy who should be available in the late rounds of, say, three quarters of drafts, excluding keeper formats. Rantanen slipped under the radar during the epic rookie arrivals of McDavid, Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin, Max Domi and so on. Rantanen cracked the Colorado Avalanche at 18 but was sent to the AHL after nine games. He ripped it up for 24 goals and 60 points in 52 games en route to co-rookie of the year honors. Rantanen will get a long look at a scoring role in Colorado this year. It wouldn't be surprising to see him crack the top nine. He's physically ready for the NHL at 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds.
Sam Reinhart (THN rank: 119; Yahoo ADP: 165.1)
Deeper, more knowledgeable leagues know all about Reinhart, but he's a nice post-hype sleeper in shallow or casual leagues. He was the second overall pick in the 2014 draft, and the Sabres returned him to the WHL after nine disastrous games in 2014-15. Reinhart returned last season, overshadowed by an even bigger prospect in Eichel. The pair forged some real chemistry. Reinhart busted out for 23 goals, including 15 in his last 41 games, which extrapolates to a 30-goal pace over a full season. A 30-20-50 line is a reasonable ask this year. He could provide you with handy back-end goal scoring, and he's taken later than Justin Abdelkader (!!!) on average in Yahoo drafts.
THE HEAD-SCRATCHER TOP FIVE
These players have no business being sleepers yet are picked inexplicably low. Drafters, what's wrong with you!?
- Matt Duchene (THN rank: 37; Yahoo ADP: 100.2)
- Patrik Laine (THN rank: 96; Yahoo ADP: 142.6)
- Milan Lucic (THN rank: 42; Yahoo ADP: 92.9)
- Ondrej Palat (THN rank: 99; Yahoo ADP: 171.9)
- Jakub Voracek (THN rank: 49; Yahoo ADP: 86.7)
I can't officially identify an official goalie sleeper this season since I tend to value them lower than most prognosticators. Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot is going at a bargain-basement price right now. though. His ADP is 157.2, which makes him the 28th goalie off the board on average. That's ludicrous. Edmonton has nowhere to go but up, and Talbot still managed a .923 save percentage from Jan. 1 onward last year. Fantasy football players know the ZeroRB strategy well, and hockey has an equivalent in the ZeroGoalie strategy, which means waiting until the mid to late rounds to grab a goalie. Talbot is an ideal ZeroGoalie pick, set to play at least 55 games and likely to improve on last year's results.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com 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