Fantasy Hockey: Pre-Season Sleepers
With the NHL season’s first puck drop set for tonight in Toronto, it’s time to look at some players who went undrafted in most leagues, but won’t remain free agents for long. I have provided two sleepers from each roster position, all of whom are available in over 50 percent of standard Yahoo! leagues. These are great players to target if you drafted a player who got injured in the pre-season, or isn’t meshing with your current team construction. I have used Yahoo! ownership percentages and rankings as a reference, but make sure to check with your league to see if these players are available and eligible at the positions I have them listed. Join me throughout the season for a weekly tour of the waiver wire landscape and advice on who to pick up for maximum impact in your league.
Craig Smith, Nashville Predators: currently owned in 27 percent of leagues. With the addition of goal-scoring winger James Neal, the return of elite goaltender Pekka Rinne, and hiring of offensive minded head coach Peter Laviolette, I’m buying into the Predators as the NHL’s most improved team this season. Although Neal has been skating on a line centered by free agent acquisition Mike Ribeiro in the pre-season, I think Smith is the better long term option for the job. Ribeiro has a reputation as a player prone to lapses of concentration on the ice, and his move to a fourth team in four years reflects that. On the contrary, Smith’s responsible two-way play helped him lead the Predators with a plus-16 rating last season, while simultaneously leading the club in goals and trailing only defenseman Shea Weber in points. Monitor this situation closely as the season progresses and pick him up once he starts centering the top line, or be proactive and make the move now.
Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets: currently owned in 17 percent of leagues. Set to center the Jet’s top line alongside talented wingers Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler, there is potential for significant improvement from the second year pro. Consistently feeding the puck to two of the league leaders in shots on goal from last season should enable Scheifele to rack up a large assists total by season end. After putting up 34 points in only 63 games as a rookie last season, Scheifele can realistically top the 55-point mark with his expanded role if he remains healthy. If you drafted a team with a lot of depth at center but are deficient at other positions, a playmaker of Scheifele’s caliber on the waiver wire will give you the flexibility to trade one of your pivots for player who can fill a position or category you need help in.
[caption id="attachment_81832" align="alignright" width="300"] Craig Smith will center the Predators charge back to the postseason.
Photo credit: Kristen Jerkins[/caption]
Brayden Schenn, Philadelphia Flyers: currently owned in 43 percent of leagues. The centerpiece of the Mike Richards trade from 2011 which has spurred the LA Kings to two Stanley Cup titles, Schenn has been overshadowed in his time as a Flyer by Wayne Simmonds, who was viewed as a throw-in and checking line forward at the time of the deal. This looks to be the year when the former fifth overall pick finally breaks out. Schenn has the inside track for the LW slot alongside C Claude Giroux and RW Jakub Voracek, which could be one of the most dynamic offensive lines in the NHL. Even if that slot doesn’t work out, Schenn will likely find himself skating along with the aforementioned Simmonds as a consolation. His blend of balanced scoring and commitment to physical play makes Schenn a valuable asset across multiple categories. With a pre-season rank of 162, Schenn has the potential to be a top-50 Fantasy performer this season.
Nick Foligno, Columbus Blue Jackets: currently owned in 12 percent of leagues. Nick Foligno was on fire this pre-season, finishing in the top-five league wide with seven points in just five games of action. While that level of production won’t continue throughout an 82-game regular season, it is the peripheral stats that make Foligno a versatile Fantasy performer. Only three players last season were able to tally at least 15 goals, 95 penalty minutes and 200 hits. Foligno joins St. Louis Blues C David Backes, and teammate Brandon Dubinsky in this elite group. While Backes and Dubinsky were almost unanimously selected on draft day, Foligno can still be had if you act fast.
Nino Niederreiter, Minnesota Wild: currently owned in 12 percent of leagues. A highly touted prospect ever since being drafted fifth overall by the New York Islanders in 2010, Niederreiter has taken longer to develop at the NHL level than the forwards selected ahead of him: Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin and Ryan Johansen. After a productive first season with the Wild, Niederreiter stepped up when it mattered most, notching three goals and three assists in two highly competitive playoff series’ against the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. A player who is able to produce at a high level in his first taste of playoff hockey is one you want to keep an eye on moving forward. With a chance to skate on a scoring line for a defensively responsible Wild team, there is potential for 40-plus points and a strong plus/minus rating. Niederreiter also placed second on his team with 175 hits last season, which gives him added value in leagues which count hits.
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning: currently owned in 5 percent of leagues. The second year pro from Russia is the most widely available player on this list, but that may not be the case for too much longer. While many people don’t pay attention to and/or value pre-season statistics, Kucherov’s league leading six goals in six games is hard to ignore. With highly touted forward prospect Jonathan Drouin out of the lineup for the beginning of the season, there is an opportunity for one of Tampa Bay’s talented wingers to step up into an expanded role. Kucherov showed flashes of offensive brilliance in his rookie campaign, and if given a chance to skate with center Steven Stamkos, he has the potential for a major breakout. If he continues to score in the season’s opening week, pick him up immediately.
Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota Wild: currently owned in 29 percent of leagues. The Minnesota Wild are firmly entrenched as one of the stingiest defensive teams in the league, with a seventh place finish in goals allowed last season as evidence. That would make their starting goaltender a valuable addition to any roster, and in most leagues he is still available. With Josh Harding battling MS and a broken foot, and Nicklas Backstrom set to turn 37 this season, the job has fallen to a sixth round draft pick with only 28 career starts to his name. This individual is Darcy Kuemper, and lack of name recognition is the only reason why he is so widely available at the moment. With a plethora of responsible two-way forwards, and Norris trophy candidate Ryan Suter anchoring the defense, coach Mike Yeo has the personnel and system in place for a goaltender to flourish. Kuemper will make a reliable second or spare goaltender for your club if you are able to acquire him.
Alex Stalock, San Jose Sharks: currently owned in 25 percent of leagues. Of all the backup goaltenders in the NHL, Alex Stalock has the best chance of taking over as his team’s starter by the end of the season. With Antti Niemi entering the final year of his contract, the lack of extension talks coming from the San Jose front office indicate that he may not be in their long term plans. Tensions are high in San Jose after yet another disappointing postseason, and head coach Todd McLellan won’t hesitate to make a change in net if Niemi struggles to start the season. Even if Stalock does not become the Sharks full-time starter, he is still likely to get over 30 starts for a President’s Trophy contending team, which alone gives him value worthy of a spot on your bench as a spare goaltender.
Nick Leddy, New York Islanders: currently owned in 22 percent of leagues. The chips are all falling in place for Leddy to have a breakthrough on the Fantasy scene this season. Despite posting solid offensive numbers for the Chicago Blackhawaks over the past three seasons, Leddy’s role with the club had plateaued with elite producers Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook positioned ahead of him on the depth chart. This week’s trade to Long Island will give the former first round pick an opportunity to expand his role from understudy to leading man. With the Islanders most skilled offensive defenseman and power play quarterback Lubomir Visnovsky currently on injured reserve, the task of leading the offense from the blue line will fall squarely on Leddy’s shoulders. His 31 points, with ten on the power play, should see a noticeable spike in the transition from the Blackhawks second unit to the Islanders top unit with Hart trophy candidate John Tavares and his running mate Kyle Okposo.
Eric Gelinas, New Jersey Devils: currently owned in 14 percent of leagues. In a season full of standout performances by first year players, Eric Gelinas’ solid rookie campaign was often overlooked. The Devils floundering performance last season likely had a lot to do with the lack of attention on Gelinas and his tremendous shot from the point. While the Devils are unlikely to see much improvement in the standings this season, that doesn’t mean the potential for a big season from the second year pro should be ignored. He is only three years removed from scoring 16 goals, dishing 21 assists, and putting up 55 penalty minutes for the Devils AHL affiliate in Albany. If he can bring a similar level of production to the NHL, that would put him firmly in the top-20 defensemen this season. If you are looking for a spare D with upside to add to your roster, Gelinas is one of the best options likely to be available.
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