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.
1. Jonathan Drouin, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Drouin, the third pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, has the highest fantasy ceiling of any player in his class entering year one. The dynamic forward made a name for himself in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season (41 goals, 64 assists in 49 games) by not only scoring but by finding his teammates, one of whom was Nathan MacKinnon, who was drafted No. 1 by the Colorado Avalanche. Drouin, 18, was held out of Canada's summer development camp because of a sore foot but should be a top-six forward for Tampa Bay in 2013-14. He could earn time on the Lightning's top line with Steven Stamkos, the NHL's top goal-scorer and point-producer over the past three seasons, and Martin St. Louis, who led the League with 60 points in 2012-13. Considering Drouin likely will be taken outside the top 100 in most leagues, he has a chance to be a steal as a rookie and needs to be your priority in mid-to-late rounds.
Projection: 25 G, 35 A, plus-3, 20 PIM, 11 PPP, 210 SOG
2. Beau Bennett, RW, Pittsburgh Penguins
Fantasy owners can expect Bennett to be the beneficiary of playing alongside Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, two coveted fantasy assets, on the Penguins' second unit. Bennett gave the team a glimpse of his promise with 14 points (five on the power-play), a plus-7 rating and 30 shots on goal in 26 games last season before falling out of the rotation more times than not in the Stanley Cup Playoffs because of his inexperience and Pittsburgh's depth. But with Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Tyler Kennedy no longer in town, the team has the perfect excuse to permanently turn to its 2010 first-round pick. It's not even a stretch to say Bennett could contribute on the power play, considering he saw 1:39 per game with the man-advantage last season, which exceeded Pascal Dupuis' 0:48 average by almost a minute. If that trend continues, Bennett could give your fantasy squad a lift in as many as five categories in 2013-14.
Projection: 19 G, 31 A, plus-18, 15 PIM, 14 PPP, 145 SOG
3. Patrick Wiercioch, D, Ottawa Senators
Wiercioch made NHL.com's consensus top 200 fantasy rankings but is vastly underrated after his breakout rookie season. Justin Schultz (15 PPP) and Wiercioch (10 PPP) were the only rookie defensemen with double-digit power-play pointss, but when looking at each team's goals scored and allowed last season, the Senators were more efficient with Wiercioch on the ice (35 GF, 13 GA) than the Oilers were when Schultz was (49 GF, 54 GA). He finished second among rookie defensemen in points (19) and was rewarded with a new contract in July. This season, with Erik Karlsson expected to be 100 percent and Sergei Gonchar with the Dallas Stars, there's a real chance Wiercioch's role at even strength will be elevated while he remains a factor on the power play. Though he may miss the presence of defense partner Gonchar early on, look for reigning coach of the year Paul MacLean to make any necessary adjustments while not compromising Wiercioch's productivity.
Projection: 10 G, 31 A, plus-10, 40 PIM, 15 PPP, 170 SOG
4. Ryan Strome, C/RW, New York Islanders
Strome's fantasy upside hinges on whether he makes the Islanders roster, but nothing is off limits in terms of his potential. If New York's 2011 first-round pick cracks the lineup, the team can give him second- or third-line center duties, or go bold by moving him to wing alongside John Tavares and Matt Moulson, the NHL's fourth-best point pair last season. If the Islanders adopt the latter scenario, Strome could be in the running for the Calder Trophy. Along with playoff standout Kyle Okposo and acquisitions Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Cal Clutterbuck, Strome will compete for the top-line right wing spot in training camp. But considering the turnover at the position in recent years (PA Parenteau, Brad Boyes), the Islanders could instead see this 20-year-old being a long-term playmaker on the wing. If Strome joins forces with Tavares and Moulson for a full season in 2013-14, that trio could combine for close to 200 points.
Projection: 16 G, 29 A, minus-7, 46 PIM, 12 PPP, 160 SOG
5. Emerson Etem, LW, Anaheim Ducks
Etem and Jakob Silfverberg likely will battle it out for the left-wing slot on the Ducks' top line alongside top-tier fantasy assets Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Each young player should be on your keeper-league radar and is in favorable position to score 35-40 points, but neither is likely to score at the other's expense because of Anaheim's deep forward pool. Etem, a California native, showed off his goal-scoring touch with three in seven playoff games and played a bit with Perry and Getzlaf last season. His audition with that duo, and his production when buried in the lineup during the postseason, should be enough to warrant late-round fantasy consideration. Don't expect earth-shattering numbers from this 21-year-old because Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau likes to shuffle his lines, but fantasy owners have legitimate reasons to anticipate a big step forward for Etem in 2013-14.
Projection: 21 G, 18 A, plus-9, 18 PIM, 5 PPP, 120 SOG
6. Filip Forsberg, RW, Nashville Predators
Fantasy owners can't take too much from Forsberg's five-game stint with the Predators in 2012-13 (0 goals, 1 assist, 14 shots on goal), but that late-season exposure to NHL competition can go a long way in helping the organization pinpoint areas of improvement for him to address in training camp. The team has Colin Wilson and Patric Hornqvist healthy and added Viktor Stalberg, meaning 19-year-old Forsberg has much more talent around him. He's likely to flank either Mike Fisher or David Legwand, and could make the Washington Capitals regret trading him as early as this season. If other owners in your league don't seem sold on Forsberg because of his youth and the Predators' offensive woes a season ago, it would be wise to grab him with one of your final draft picks before others catch on to this Swedish prodigy.
Projection: 17 G, 23 A, minus-5, 23 PIM, 10 PPP, 185 SOG
7. Jonas Brodin, D, Minnesota Wild
Ryan Suter was one of the most valuable fantasy defensemen during his first season with Minnesota, which bodes well for the long-term value of his partner, Brodin. The Swede played 45 games in his first NHL season, sharing nearly 75 percent of his total ice time with Suter. Brodin is not quite a seasoned offensive player, but he did finish 43rd among defensemen and second among Wild skaters in ice time, adding 11 points, a plus-3 rating and 51 shots. This 20-year-old is the perfect fourth, utility or bench defenseman to target once the top 35 are off the board in your draft. He's likely to see major minutes again in 2013-14 and is under the tutelage of Suter, who led the NHL in time on ice last season.
Projection: 8 G, 22 A, plus-2, 28 PIM, 7 PPP, 115 SOG
8. Robin Lehner, G, Ottawa Senators
Though timeshare goalie tandems are worth considering, it's much more effective to draft a workhorse starter and grab his backup in late rounds. If you're mulling this strategy, Ottawa's goalie duo might be the best option. Craig Anderson is a top-10 fantasy goalie entering the season, and Lehner, who can be obtained with one of the final picks of your league's draft, will back him up. But why is Lehner (5-3-4, 2.20 GAA, .936 SV% in 2012-13) worth a bench spot if Anderson is expected to start 60-plus games? It really comes down to having a young insurance option who can provide quality performance and potentially more if the opportunity presents itself. If Anderson stays healthy, Ottawa could get selective by giving this 22-year-old favorable starts, making him a strong complementary option for owners who draft Anderson. If Anderson has another injury-altered season, Lehner would be in position to blossom as the Senators' goalie of the future.
Projection: 13-6-2, 2.26 G.A.A., .921 SV %, 2 SO
9. Cam Atkinson, RW, Columbus Blue Jackets
Atkinson missed time last season due to a lower-body injury he sustained in January and played 35 of the 48 games. Now the 24-year-old appears to be the odd-man out at right wing on a team with Marian Gaborik and Nathan Horton. Though things may seem bleak, Horton is expected to miss time after offseason shoulder surgery, meaning Atkinson's value entering this season might be higher than most owners think. He had nine goals, nine assists and nearly hit the century mark in shots in 2012-13, and he should be a top-six mainstay while Horton recovers. When the team is fully healthy, Atkinson could potentially adjust to the other wing to stay productive. All in all, Atkinson is overdue for a breakout season and will be in position to make that happen for an underrated Columbus team.
Projection: 23 G, 17 A, plus-7, 14 PIM, 9 PPP, 205 SOG
10. Alex Chiasson, RW, Dallas Stars
Before being sidelined with a shoulder injury in April, Chiasson emerged as a trending waiver wire option for fantasy owners. He scored six goals operating mostly with Ray Whitney and Jamie Benn in his first seven games at the NHL level. It's well-documented Benn will be moving to left wing to accommodate Tyler Seguin's move to center on the Stars' top line, but one thing to remember is that Lindy Ruff will be implementing a new system that may not run smoothly right from the start. Therefore, though a name like Valeri Nichushkin may seem more enticing in the late rounds of your draft, Chiasson has a taste of the NHL level and should excel whether on the top line with Benn and Seguin or on the second unit with Whitney. There's always a chance Seguin could move back to right wing and Benn back to center, but Chiasson proved last season with his goal-scoring flair that he should be a big part of the future in Dallas.
Projection: 15 G, 22 A, plus-4, 17 PIM, 6 PPP, 163 SOG
Honorable mentions: Mark Scheifele, Tommy Wingels, Andrei Loktionov, Zack Kassian, Jake Allen
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