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Draft Guide

Sleepers

by Corey Abbott
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

 

Identifying sleepers early can have a tremendous impact on your fantasy squad and the later rounds of your draft are typically the spot to take some chances.  However, you shouldn’t forget that even if they aren't drafted right away, there are always players who slip under the radar.  If someone comes out firing when the season starts, don’t hesitate to pick them up because they could very well be the next big surprise performer.  Look for players who will be receiving more opportunities and have the talent to break through.

Some players who could be undervalued because of previous injuries or a rough year the season before are included here as well because their situations will be better and they may slip in drafts.

Jake Guentzel (PIT) - C, LW - If you followed Guentzel’s play at the end of 2016-17 or if you witnessed his performances in the postseason, then he probably is not flying under the radar on your draft list.  However, if you are just looking at his 16 goals and 33 points in 40 games last year then you may not fully understand what all the hype is about.  Guentzel didn’t make his NHL debut until Nov. 21 and he made an immediate impact with two goals.  He spent some time as a healthy scratch afterward and was returned to the minors despite having three goals and one assist in his first five matches with Pittsburgh.  When he rejoined the big club in mid-January it was clear that he would be staying in the NHL for the rest of the year.  Guentzel was especially good down the stretch when he amassed nine goals and 18 points in 16 matches, while playing alongside Sidney Crosby.  His speed and ability to finish plays with a lightning quick release makes him one of the more tantalizing players to play alongside the Penguins’ captain in a long time.  Guentzel has a 60-70 point ceiling in 2017-18 if he continues to see action on lines centered by Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.  

Andre Burakovsky (WSH) - LW, RW - Burakovsky appeared as a sleeper last year as well, but he disappointed with 35 points (12 goals, 23 assists) in 64 games.  He averaged just 13:15 of ice time per match and missed 15 games because of a hand injury.  Burakovsky will get another chance to break out offensively this season, as he is projected to occupy a top-six forward spot on a regular basis for the Capitals after some offseason subtractions.  Washington traded Marcus Johansson to New Jersey and Justin Williams went back to Carolina as a free agent, so there are openings that Burakovsky should be able to take advantage of on an offensively talented team.  When he got the chance to play with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie in the playoffs, he rose to the occasion with three goals and one assist in three games against Pittsburgh.  If he sticks with Backstrom for most of the 2017-18 season or gets to play Evgeny Kuznetsov, then he should finally crack 20 goals and produce around 50-60 points.  

Scott Darling (CAR) - G - Darling was obtained from Chicago in the offseason and then signed to a four-year, $16.6 million contract.  He has posted strong numbers as the Blackhawks’ backup goalie for the last three seasons and appears to be ready to make the jump to being a starter in 2017-18.  He has a .923 save percentage through 75 games along with a 2.37 goals-against average in his career.  Darling made a career high 27 starts and appeared in 32 games last year.  He registered an 18-5-5 record with two shutouts, a 2.38 GAA and a .924 save percentage.  Darling has an even-strength save percentage of .928 over the last three years, which puts him among the top-10 goaltenders in the league with at least 70 appearances.  His save percentage will probably dip somewhat and he will allow slightly more goals against, but he could generate 30 wins for the first time in 2017-18.  Carolina is viewed by many to be a team on the rise and Darling will play behind an underrated, young defense corps that permitted just 28.3 shots against per game last year.  That total was bested by just four teams, while Chicago allowed the ninth-most shots against per contest (31.4).  If Carolina manages to claim a playoff spot this campaign, then Darling could bring plenty of value to the table as a depth netminder on your fantasy roster.  

Evgeny Dadonov (FLA) - RW - Dadonov will return to the NHL this season after some productive campaigns in the KHL.  He notched 30 goals and 66 points in 53 games last year and then agreed to a three-year contract with the Panthers in the summer.  Dadonov also participated in the World Cup of Hockey and the World Hockey Championship for Russia, where he occupied key offensive roles.  The 28-year-old winger has showcased his speed and scoring ability since he left North America following the 2011-12 campaign.  Dadonov is projected to play on the top line alongside Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau in 2017-18.  Huberdeau missed most of last season due to an Achilles tendon injury and Barkov has dealt with injuries as well during his brief career, but they both should bounce back if they are healthy.  That will put Dadonov in a great spot to succeed.  He accounted for 20 points in 55 appearances early in his NHL career with the Panthers, but he is ready to make an impact now with 50-60 points as a distinct possibility.  

Sam Reinhart (BUF) - C, RW - Reinhart was a breakout candidate in 2016-17, but he registered just 17 goals and 47 points in 79 games.  That still ranked him third among all Sabres in scoring in what was a disappointing season for the team.  His shooting percentage dropped from 13.9 percent when he scored 23 goals in 2015-16 to 9.6 percent last year when he potted 17 markers.  It’s believed that new head coach Phil Housley will provide Reinhart with more line stability after he shifted between playing center and the wing last campaign.  He should see more action alongside Jack Eichel, who missed the beginning of 2016-17 with an ankle injury.  The young duo have had success playing together before and a full year on the same combination at even strength, as well as the power play, will help them both reach new heights offensively.  Reinhart also has the motivation of playing for a new contract, as his entry-level deal is set to expire at the end of the year.  The 21-year-old forward has 60-point potential in 2017-18.  

Jordan Eberle (EDM) - RW - Eberle had a couple of rough years with the Oilers and a disappointing showing in the playoffs before he was shipped to the Islanders in the offseason.  The change of scenery and the opportunity to play with John Tavares presents him with the chance for a big bounce-back performance.  Tavares helped Matt Moulson became a three-time 30-goal scorer and he lifted Josh Bailey and Anders Lee to 50-point efforts in 2016-17.  He will have the same effect on Eberle, who posted a career low 9.6 shooting percentage last year despite recording a personal best 208 shots on goal.  The 27-year-old won’t be relegated to third-line duty with New York and he’ll get prime minutes on the power play.  He has a legitimate chance to hit 30 goals for the first time since 2011-12 and a return to the 60-point plateau should be in the cards.  

Sebastian Aho (CAR) - LW, RW - Aho enjoyed a successful rookie season in 2016-17 with 24 goals and 25 assists in 82 games.  He finished a step below fellow first-year players like Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, as they all topped 60 points, but he ranked third among all rookies in goals and second in shots with 214.  Aho also placed second on the Hurricanes in scoring and he led the team with 17 power-play points. If Carolina continues to trend in the right direction and makes a run for a playoff spot then he should play an integral role.  Aho has 30-goal and 60-point potential in 2017-18 on what should be Carolina’s top scoring line alongside Elias Lindholm.  

Mika Zibanejad (NYR) - C - Zibanejad was limited to 56 games last season because of injuries.  He was forced to sit out 25 contests due to a broken fibula early in the year, but still managed to record a personal best 0.66 points per contest.  Zibanejad notched 14 goals and 23 assists in his first campaign with the Rangers.  He will be New York’s top center in 2017-18 after Derek Stepan was traded to Arizona.  Stepan led the team with 18 power-play points last year and Zibanejad, who contributed 11 points, should receive a larger role with the man advantage.  He had a career high 51 points with the Ottawa Senators in 2015-16 and could hit the 60-point milestone this season.  

Robby Fabbri (STL) - C, LW - Fabbri’s 2016-17 season was cut short due to a knee injury, but he had plenty of sleeper potential going into the year.  He collected 11 goals on 91 shots and had 29 points in 51 games before he needed season-ending surgery to repair a torn ACL.  Fabbri was forced to miss the last 41 games of the year, including the playoffs, so he is eager to get back on the ice and prove himself.  He could open the season as the Blues’ second-line center or see action as a top-six forward at left wing.  Fabbri has played well with Vladimir Tarasenko in spurts over the last two seasons.  He could also see time alongside new arrival Brayden Schenn, which would be beneficial for him as well.  If he plays a full season in 2017-18, then he should comfortably surpass the 50-point mark.

Timo Meier (SJS) - LW, RW - The Sharks lost Patrick Marleau to Toronto via free agency and Joe Thornton appears to be slowing down, so an emphasis is expected to be placed on the team’s younger players this season.  That will mean more opportunities for players like Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Daniel O’Regan and Barclay Goodrow.  Meier is the most intriguing forward of the bunch even though he contributed just three goals and three assists in 34 NHL games last year.  He averaged just 12:28 of ice time per game, but was a shooting machine in 2016-17 with a whopping 85 shots on target and 156 total shots attempted.  Meier ranked fourth in the league with 12.03 shots on goal per 60 minutes played, which placed him in some elite company.  Alex Ovechkin, Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner were the only players to top that mark last campaign and Ovechkin was the leader at 12.47.  Meier could skate on one of San Jose’s top-two lines this campaign, which could place him alongside Joe Pavelski or Logan Couture, which will hopefully lead to an increase in power-play time.  He started 52.4 percent of his even strength shifts in the defensive zone and he finished with a 56.7 Corsi For percentage.  The sample size is small for Meier, but it was reminiscent of another massive shot generator in Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson prior to his breakout performance last season.  With an improved shooting percentage and more opportunities in the attacking zone, Meier has the potential to make a big impact sooner than later and it could come as early as this year. 


Honorable Mentions:

Anthony Mantha (DET) - LW, RW - Mantha stands a chance to be around a 55-point player in 2017-18, with 20-plus goals if he plays with more consistency and maintains a spot on one of Detroit’s top-two lines.  He has the tools to be a successful scorer at the NHL level, and with more power-play time he should reach another gear offensively.

Ryan Strome (EDM) - C, RW - Strome will get a fresh start with the Oilers in 2017-18 that could include playing alongside Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl if he logs time as a winger.  That would put him a great position to flirt with the 60-point mark.  However, there’s also a chance he could center the third line, which would be a significant blow to his fantasy value.  Strome’s versatility could work against him in his first season with Edmonton, but he should get his fair share of chances to make it work with McDavid and/or Draisaitl.     

Mikko Rantanen (COL) - RW - Rantanen was the lone 20-goal scorer on an abysmal Avalanche team last season.  He is expected to continue to play alongside Nathan MacKinnon in 2017-18 and will get power-play action on the top unit.  Rantanen should be penciled in for 50-plus points in his sophomore campaign.  

Kevin Fiala (NSH) - LW - Fiala was impressive in the playoffs for the Predators before he suffered a fractured femur.  He amassed 114 shots and scored 11 goals during the regular season with Nashville.  Fiala will get a chance to help replace the offense that was lost when James Neal was snatched up in the expansion draft and he will be in the mix for a spot on the second line.  

Ivan Provorov (PHI) - D - Provorov emerged as Philadelphia’s best defenseman last season.  The 20-year-old blueliner posted 30 points in his rookie year and he could surpass the 40-point mark in 2017-18 if he takes over as the quarterback of the top power-play unit.  Provorov will log heavy minutes in 2017-18 and possesses plenty of value as an all-around defender.  

Brayden Point (TBL) - C - Point was impressive for the Lightning last year, especially when he centered the top line after injuries struck Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson.  He tallied 18 goals and 40 points in 68 matches during his rookie year.  The offseason trade of Jonathan Drouin could open a spot for Point to play right wing alongside Stamkos, but there’s also the possibility that that he centers the third line at the start of the year.  

Jakob Silfverberg (ANA) - RW - Silfverberg has been a potent playoff performer over the last three seasons and he nearly hit the 50-point mark during the 2016-17 campaign.  He reached new personal highs with 23 goals and 49 points.  If Silfverberg receives the kind of power-play time he did in the postseason (3:05 PP TOI/GP) that would be a significant step up from his average ice time with the man advantage in the regular season (1:57).  That could help finally push him over the edge.  

Brendan Gallagher (MTL) - RW - Gallagher is another high-volume shooter who has the potential to break out.  Only Meier (22.83) ranked ahead of Gallagher (21.54) in 5v5 shot attempts/hour last year.  He has been derailed by injuries for the last two seasons, but should bounce back if he can stay healthy.  

Elias Lindholm (CAR) - C, RW - Lindholm accounted for a career high 45 points in 72 games last season.  He generated 25 points in 34 matches after the All-Star break, which would put him at about a 60-point pace if that continues over an 82-game schedule in 2017-18.  Lindholm has established some chemistry with up-and-comer Sebastian Aho and they could be a productive duo this year for Carolina.  

Shea Theodore (VGK) - D - Theodore displayed a glimpse of his offensive potential in the playoffs last year when he earned eight points in 14 appearances with the Ducks.  He has recorded 17 points in 53 NHL outings during the regular season.  Theodore was taken in the expansion draft by Vegas and he could line up as a top-four defender on the team this season.  He also has the most offensive potential of the group and may get to quarterback the top unit on the power play.

Corey Abbott

Corey Abbott is an Editor for Hockey on NBC Sports Edge. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @CoreAbbott.