If you've played fantasy hockey (or any fantasy sport) for long, you know that you don't typically win a season based on those first few rounds of picking superstars. For the most part, those picks all even out. It's the sleepers that can take an ordinary team and propel it to greatness. Finding that hidden gem, late in the draft, that finishes in the top 10 can make all the difference in the world. So what are you looking for as you scan your eye deep down the list of last year's stats? A few factors come to mind:
1. Young, rising stars who are being promoted into a bigger role. For many players, it's simply a matter of opportunity. Consider Claude Giroux last season. No one doubted the talent. He just had too many stars to leapfrog to get to 20 minutes a game. When the hole opened up, he seized it.
2. Down and back again. Some players saw a decline in recent years, due to injury or other factors. When they're set to return, they can often be overlooked and undervalued. This can also ring true for players who left to play in the KHL for a time and are now returning to the NHL.
3. Young guns who peaked early, then slid a bit. Often times, a rookie will burst out of the gate, then level off in their 2nd or 3rd season. We tend to write these players off by their fourth year, when in reality, that's just the time when we should expect them to hit their prime. Here is where you can find some real value.
Tuukka Rask (BOS)
Even in the midst of Thomas's superhuman season, Rask managed to find his way into 29 games last season. That shows how serious the Bruins are about getting him playing time. Add in the extended playoff run, and Boston will turn to him more and more in 2011-12. Should Thomas come down to earth, or sustain another injury, Rask will instantly propel to a top 10 option. Don't be afraid to draft him, as he'll get enough starts either way to warrant the selection.
Curtis McElhinney (PHO)
With Bryzgalov gone, the starting gig in the desert is completely up for grabs. McElhinney seems like a fair bet to edge out LaBarbera and Smith for the early starts. This one won't be decided until the first puck drops. If you're looking for a late-round gamble in a deep league desperate for goalie starts, throw McElhinney on your list.
Jonathan Blum (NAS)
Blum was a first round pick in 2007, but has (and will continue to) struggled to earn top minutes on the crowded Nashville defense. He has the skills to put up big numbers. He just needs the opportunity to make it happen. He could be a good sleeper to keep an eye this season.
Alex Edler (VAN)
Edler missed the 2nd half of the season with a back injury. He returned in the playoffs, and while he didn't produce much offensively, the important thing is that he showed himself to have fully recovered. With Ehrhoff out of town, the Canucks will be counting on Edler to play top minutes. Expect 40+ points from him in 2011-12.
Ryan Whitney (EDM)
Whitney started last season on a tear, with 27 points in 35 games. A severe ankle injury ended his season prematurely. Most fantasy owners have probably forgotten about him at this point. He should be ready for the start of the season. Look for Whitney to be the lone source of hope on the Edmonton defense this season once again.
Tyler Kennedy (PIT)
With all the big names that wear a sweater in Pittsburgh, it's easy to overlook the 5'11'' winger who wears #48. Penguin fans know that he's the one thing that kept the offense alive when the plague hit last spring. Kennedy has never passed on a chance to shoot the puck, and given enough time on the wing with Crosby or Malkin, he has a good shot at cracking 30 goals sometime soon.
Vincent Lecavalier (TB)
Hard to paint a $10 million dollar center as a sleeper, but his declining point totals have him falling out of sight for fantasy players. Down the stretch and into the playoffs, he looked a bit more like the Vinnie of old. He registered 17 points in the last 14 regular season games. He also played above a point a game through the long playoff run last spring.
James Neal (PIT)
Neal was a shocking disappointment upon arriving in Pittsburgh last spring. The goal scorer in Dallas suddenly went dry with the Pens. Perhaps the summer will be good for his psyche and he'll start things fresh in the fall. Should he find significant time along side Malkin and/or Crosby, the theory is he can be a lethal sniper. He should be available late in the draft and is worth a shot.
Tyler Seguin (BOS)
There's a chance that Seguin won't even make the team this fall. There's a better chance he'll be a significant fantasy factor by the end of the season. He showed flashes of brilliance in the playoffs that justify his #2 overall selection in 2010. His versatility will help his cause as well, since he can slide into the center or wing position. With Horton and Savard still reeling from concussions, it seems likely that Seguin can fill a scoring void for Boston this season.
Paul Stastny (COL)
Stastny's totals in 2010-11 were disappointing after the standard his set for himself in his first few seasons. He dropped from 79 points to 57, yet he actually scored more goals last year. His low point total will cause many owners to undervalue him at this year's draft. He could easily turn it on and crack 80 points this season. Prime sleeper candidate to target mid-draft.
A few other guys who will be undervalued based on last season's performance, but are hard to paint as "sleepers" to consider as you draft:
• Nicklas Backstrom (WAS)
• Pavel Datsyuk (DET)
• Ryan Getzlaf (ANA)
• Ilya Kovalchuk (NJ)
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