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Yahoo Fantasy Hockey: Sleepers key to winning your pool

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NHL: Nashville Predators at Chicago Blackhawks
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Mar 14, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Nashville Predators defenseman Seth Jones (3) with the puck during the first period against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center. (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

When preparing for your fantasy hockey draft within the next month, here’s a little tip: Don’t worry about the superstars, but instead concentrate on those later-round guys you think are poised to have career years.

The main reason anyone wins any hockey pool isn’t because they drafted the best players. In the first round of a normal hockey pool, there’s not much difference between a Steven Stamkos or an Evgeni Malkin, or between a Claude Giroux or an Alexander Ovechkin. Barring injury, they’ll all get their points.

The secret to success lies in the sleepers and getting those late-round picks that other managers are often overlooking. Last season, it was predicting career fantasy seasons from Alexander Steen, Kyle Okposo or Wayne Simmonds. This year, there’s no shortage of candidates

The sleeper goalies

Chad Johnson – As a backup to Jarolsav Halak, Chad Johnson is pretty much guaranteed at least 30 games. Johnson has put up respectable career numbers (20-6-6 record with a .926 save percentage and 2.07 goals against average), while Halak has only started 50 games in a season twice in his career. Look for Johnson to get a lot of work this season.

Brian Elliott – Speaking of Halak, his former goaltending partner in St. Louis finds himself in a great opportunity. Elliott has the chance to be a true number one goalie for the first time in four seasons. His main competition is rookie phenom Jake Allen (who is another solid sleeper pick), but Elliott’s numbers with the Blues is good enough to guarantee Elliott at least half the starts.

Anton Khudobin – There’s a new coach and a new general manager in Carolina, so the team won’t be tied to the former Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward. Instead, the new regime wants results now, and Khudobin is their best opportunity to do so. Ward has never had a season as good as Khudobin's last season (Khudobin’s 2.30 goals against last year is better than Ward has ever managed in nine seasons with the club), and with Ward’s injury situation the last two seasons Khudobin has a great opportunity to be the team’s top netminder.

Braden Holtby – Twice last year Holtby lost his starter’s job to other goalies. Once was to Philipp Grubauer, and the other was to Jaroslav Halak after the Capitals traded for the Blues goalie. But Holtby is again fully entrenched as the team’s number one guy, and the backup this time is Justin Peters, who isn’t stealing anyone’s number one job. New coach Barry Trotz has always gotten the best out of his goalies, so Holtby should be ranked higher on your draft day list. 

The sleeper defense

Lubomir Visnovsky – The Isles defenseman missed a good chunk of last season because of injuries, but he should still be the team’s top power play guy, which means plenty of opportunity to play with John Tavares. With an improved plus-minus thanks to the Halak/Johnson duo in net, Visnovsky is poised for a surprise campaign.

Tobias Enstrom – There are only eight defensemen in the league that has had at least two 50-point seasons in the past five years and Enstrom is one of them. In that time frame, he has more points than Mike Green, Alex Pietrangelo, Niklas Kronwall, and a host of other defensemen that are ranked higher than him this year in Yahoo drafts. Sure, he had a rough year, but one bad season isn’t enough to write off the Jets defenseman.

Brent Burns – Despite his chemistry as a forward with Joe Thornton, Burns will be moved back on defense for the Sharks to start this season. While he provides value in the hits category, he’s also in a good situation to see lots of power play time, as San Jose figures out who is going to replace Dan Boyle on the point.

Dan Boyle – Boyle in New York will not get the points that he did during his career years in San Jose, but sometimes a change is good for the soul… and the fantasy owner. His 36 points last year was his worst full season since 2001-02, and while that may be a sign of his old age, a new team could rejuvenate the 38-year-old. Boyle will man the power play point that the departed Brad Richards used to play.

Olli Maatta – Maatta had a solid season as a rookie last year, and fantasy owners are hoping for big steps from the sophomore this season. With Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen leaving for greener pastures (translation: more money), Maatta  has a great opportunity to step up and become a regular top-four dman and a second power play unit guy. His "sleeper" status won't kick in until November as he is currently recovering from shoulder surgery. But not a bad guy to draft in the final round and stick on your IR.

Christian Ehrhoff – How excited must fantasy owners be now that Ehrhoff is finally away from the fantasy stench that is Buffalo? Probably almost as much as Ehrhoff. With this move, you can expect to see an increase in goals, assists, plus-minus and power play points and giddiness from Ehrhoff and fantasy owners.

Seth Jones – Another rookie defenseman who was solid last year, Jones had a horrible plus-minus (his minus-23 was worst for all rookies), which killed some of his fantasy value. Even if all his other stats stay the same, Jones won’t be that bad again this year in plus-minus thanks to Pekka Rinne playing a full season.

The sleeper forwards

Pascal Dupuis – Provided Dupuis can remain on a line with Sidney Crosby, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t be an impact player once again. The nice thing about the 35-year-old is that he contributes in almost every category your league can use: goals, points, plus-minus, shorthanded points, power play points, shots, etc.

Mike Ribeiro – After a subpar year with the Coyotes last season, Ribeiro is getting a chance to redeem himself with the Predators. And best of all, he gets to play with an elite goal-scorer in James Neal, who is a major upgrade from Shane Doan, David Moss and Brandon McMillan, Ribeiro’s most frequent linemates last season.

Johan Franzen – The Mule would be fantasy gold if he stayed off the injured reserve list. He’s missed at least five games a year every season since his rookie year in 2005-06. However, he’s been on a 60-point pace for each of the last six seasons. If he could stay healthy — hey, it has to happen some year —then he becomes a one of the league’s top 50 point producers.

Loui Eriksson – After back-to-back-to-back 70-point seasons, the shine is starting to fall off of Eriksson as he has just 66 points in the past two seasons combined. Things may be looking better for Eriksson this season as there’s a good chance he slides up the depth chart and takes over the spot left vacant by Jarome Iginla’s departure.

Mikhail Grabovski – Except for one lockout-shortened season when the Leafs didn’t use him properly, Grabovski has been a 50-point guy (pro-rated) for most of his NHL career. Now that he’s on the Islanders with a clearly defined role — second-line center behind John Tavares — Grabovski has the opportunity to be a key player.

Michael Ryder – Ryder is one of those frustrating players to own because he only does one thing well: score goals. When he’s doing that, he’s great. When he’s not, he’s pretty much useless. Last season was more of the latter than the former, but things could be looking up for the Newfie.  The Devils made some moves this offseason, giving Ryder some better quality players to work with instead of being stuck with Ryane Clowe and Adam Henrique.

Nathan Horton – Horton is getting paid a lot of money in Columbus and you know the Blue Jackets will give the right winger every opportunity to succeed. Coming off a major injury last year, Horton still put up 19 points in 36 games.

Alexander Semin – There is still some hope for the $7 million man in Carolina. He’s just two seasons removed from a point-per-game (yes, it was the lockout-shortened season). But pretty much everyone underperformed last year with the Hurricanes and at his hefty cap hit he’ll be given every opportunity to match his numbers from years past.

Dustin Brown – Although it was never publicized, Brown had to have been injured last year when he had his worst NHL season ever (although a Stanley Cup ring will help him forget his awful regular season). He’s far better than his 158th overall ranking and he has great peripherals in multi-cat leagues.

Tyler Bozak – Don’t be scared by Bozak’s crazy high shooting percentage last campaign (he’s been above 15.5 per cent in four of his five NHL seasons), but instead be swayed by his 69-point pace. A healthy Bozak playing the full year with Phil Kessel could get 70 points.

Antoine Vermette – Any time you can draft a player who is elite in a certain category in your league, you have to go for it. And that’s what Vermette brings to the table. Last season, Vermette was one of just two players to win more than 1,000 faceoffs. And since you can slot him in as a winger, he carries even more value.

Martin Havlat – The ultimate Band-Aid boy (hell, he even gets injured during a line change), Havlat is getting a new lease on life in New Jersey. Havlat will probably have a role as a top-six player in the swamp, and it’s not like the guy doesn’t know how to score. As recently as 2011-12, he was on a 57-point pace. With the opportunity to get plenty of power-play time, Havlat could turn back the clock and get back to that pace pretty easily.

Beau Bennett – Right now, Bennett is ranked 693rd in Yahoo fantasy, right around the Anton Belovs of the world. No one playing forward on a team with Malkin and Sidney Crosby should ever be ranked that low. Bennett will be given plenty of opportunity to play in the top-six. 

Filip Forsberg – Much of Forsberg’s success will depend on how a new coaching regime decides to deal with youth. Getting 11 minutes a game like last season won’t help, but Forsberg is good enough to be a top-six on this team if they shift him to the wing.

Nail Yakupov – There’s no denying that Yakupov was one of the worst fantasy players out there last season. But the former number one pick is too good to stay in that position. Improving his plus-minus to a minus-10 will help immensely, and 50 points is easily within reach on a potentially offensively powerhouse team like the Oilers.

The honorable mentions:

Mikael Granlund: A full healthy season will do wonders for the 22-year-old.

Aleksander Barkov: The best of the Florida young guns.

Nazem Kadri: Two years removed from a breakout season, he’s ready for another one.

Evander Kane: Time for him to show why someone should overpay when trading for him.

Teddy Purcell: Has shown he can play with offensive players in the past.

Andrew MacDonald: Top PP option in Philly about to enter prime years.

Ondrej Pavelec: Posted better numbers once the head coach was replaced. 

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