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.
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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.
Find out who made the cut on Matt Cubeta's sleepers list from last season
MATT CUBETA'S 2013-14 FANTASY HOCKEY SLEEPERS
PIMs: 4 | Shots: 27 | +/-: -3
Projection: 24 G, 25 A, plus-2, 34 PIMs, 9 PPP, 221 SOG2. David Perron , LW, Edmonton Oilers
Perron, 25, has had a few productive seasons in the NHL, but coming off a quiet 2012-13 (10 goals, 15 assists), I expect his first season with the Oilers to be his best. Perron's ability to provide decent value in every fantasy category is what I like most about him. Averaging out his six-year career and extrapolating those numbers to an 82-game season, this is what Perron would look like: 20 goals, 48 points, 12 power play points, plus-11, 56 penalty minutes and 114 shots on goal. That's an extremely useful fantasy forward. The move to Edmonton should increase Perron's value as he goes from a defensive-minded team to a squad that has lots of talent offensively. Expect Perron to line up on the team's second line with Nail Yakupov (more to come on him) and Sam Gagner , and look for the former Blues forward to put together a tremendous season.
Projection: 24 G, 31 A, plus-3, 44 PIMs, 11 PPP, 168 SOG
3. Ryan McDonagh , D, New York Rangers
McDonagh finished 221st among all fantasy players in Yahoo leagues last year, right behind Justin Schultz and ahead of Dennis Seidenberg among fellow defensemen. That's not exactly the most useful fantasy player. Expect a big difference in what will be McDonagh's third full NHL season with the Rangers. In his first full season in New York, McDonagh surprised many by recording seven goals, 32 points and an outstanding plus-25. Despite the breakthrough season, he was ignored by many on draft day last year (159th average draft pick and selected in 67 percent of Yahoo leagues). He went on to put up better per-game numbers (.40 points per game) and his plus-13 rating showed his defensive game is among the NHL's best. This year, he should not be ignored come draft day. McDonagh has never received much power-play time in the past (averaged just 0:38 per game last season), but I believe new coach Alain Vigneault will use him significantly more in 2013-14. His offensive game is quickly developing and he could very well turn out to be the most valuable fantasy blueliner on the Rangers. A 40-plus point season with a great plus/minus and more power play production is certainly realistic.
Projection: 8 G, 31 A, plus-17, 38 PIMs, 8 PPP, 139 SOG
PIMs: 76 | Shots: 50 | +/-: 2
Projection: 19 G, 36 A, plus-5, 104 PIMs, 16 PPP, 181 SOG
Pirri has played in seven NHL games in his young career and has two assists. This is obviously not appealing -- but what is appealing is how he's performed in the AHL and where he could fit in with the Blackhawks in 2013-14. During the past two seasons with the Rockford IceHogs, Pirri has 45 goals, 131 points, a plus-20 and 108 penalty minutes in 142 regular-season games. But the biggest factor for his fantasy value will be if he can win the No. 2 center job behind Jonathan Toews . If he does, he'll likely be centering a line with Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa on his wings, and that could be huge for the 22-year-old. Pirri might not have a lot of NHL experience, but his potential is worth scooping up late in any fantasy draft.
Projection: 17 G, 33 A, plus-6, 56 PIMs, 10 PPP, 199 SOG
6. Nail Yakupov , RW, Edmonton Oilers
You're probably asking yourself, "How can Yakupov be a sleeper?" Because he will provide more value than where he will be selected on draft day -- by a lot. And that's what a sleeper is -- any player who exceeds the general expectations placed upon him before the season begins. Many of you probably expect Yakupov to be picked in either the fifth or sixth round, but he should be going as early as the third round, and that makes him a sleeper. Yakupov, 19, quietly tied Jonathan Huberdeau for the NHL lead among rookies with 31 points last season and his 17 goals led all rookies. This was all accomplished despite receiving just 14:33 of ice time per game; expect this number to go up to around 17-18 minutes per game. After starting his NHL career slowly, Yakupov erupted in April with 11 goals and 15 points in 14 games to go along with a plus-7. Yakupov should see more power-play time going forward (2:28 per game last season) and playing on the second line with Sam Gagner and newcomer David Perron means Yakupov will certainly build off his successful rookie season. There's a reason he was the No. 1 pick in the 2012 Draft, and we're all about to find out why.
Projection: 33 G, 36 A, plus-3, 40 PIMs, 21 PPP, 219 SOG
PIMs: 20 | Shots: 81 | +/-: 0
Projection: 26 G, 31 A, minus-1, 50 PIMs, 10 PPP, 231 SOG
All the hype shifted from Hamilton to Torey Krug when the Bruins embarked on their Stanley Cup playoff run, but Hamilton is the guy to draft this season. The No. 9 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft had a decent rookie season with the Bruins (5 goals, 16 points, plus-4) while averaging 17:07 of ice time per game. It's safe to say everything is on the way up for the 20-year-old, and despite placing him low in my defensemen ranks, I think he can finish as a top 25 blueliner. Prior to the NHL starting last year, Hamilton recorded eight goals and 41 points in 32 games in the OHL and his track record before that with the Niagara IceDogs was even more impressive. Look for the youngster to have a more prominent role in Boston (including more power play ice time) and be sure to tab Hamilton before Krug in your draft.
Projection: 9 G, 26 A, plus-6, 48 PIMs, 8 PPP, 169 SOG
You can probably grab Khudobin, 27, in the last round of your fantasy draft, but there are two possibilities where he could turn out to be a steal. 1) Cam Ward , the current starting netminder in Carolina, is coming off an injury-plagued season in which he played 17 games. If he catches the injury bug again, Khudobin will step in as the team's starting goalie; 2) Khudobin will flat-out out-play Ward and take the No. 1 job from him. Ward is typically a workhorse, but I'm not really sure why. He has a career 2.74 goals-against average and his .910 save percentage shows it hasn't been just a matter of bad luck -- he's only had one season with a save percentage better than .920 (.923 in 2010-11). On the other hand, Khudobin has a lot of skill and despite a small sample size, he has put up very good numbers when given the chance -- 2.03 GAA and .933 save percentage in 21 career games. If you draft Ward, you should definitely grab Khudobin as a handcuff, but either way, the Kazakhstan native should be selected based on his potential for opportunity and his upside.
Projection: 32 starts, 15 wins, 2.39 GAA, .923 SV%, 3 SO
Five words (well, kind of): Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are the two players with whom Abdelkader is expected play with to open the season. A player who has 28 goals and 60 points in 257 career games will be skating on the same line with two of the best players in the League, and this could make Abdelkader a very interesting fantasy player to own in 2013-14. The 26-year-old finished with a career-high 10 goals last season (in 48 games) while seeing 14:48 of ice time per game. If he's going to be on a line with Datsyuk and Zetterberg, you can expect his ice time to increase. Abdelkader's power-play opportunities will be extremely limited with Detroit having several talented forwards, but you can surely expect him to have the best season of his career. Even if he doesn't stick on that top line all season long, Abdelkader is definitely worth picking late in your draft.
Projection: 17 G, 21 A, plus-7, 58 PIMs, 3 PPP, 167 SOG
Other Sleeper Candidates: Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Devin Setoguchi (Jets), Chris Kreider (Rangers), Mikael Granlund (Wild), Valeri Nichushkin (Stars)
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