Top 10 fantasy sleeper picks for 2015-16

Matt Larkin
David Pastrnak.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

They’re back. Everyone’s favorite players to draft in fantasy pools. The sleepers.

There’s a special high that comes with being “the genius who predicted _______’s breakout season.” That’s why it’s so intoxicating to research sleepers every year. If you’ve already studied my most recent update of the top 200 overall players, now it’s time to dig for undervalued guys.

As I outlined in last year’s sleeper list, I identify them as follows:

(a) Players who will outperform their average draft position
(b) Players who will outperform some players drafted before them
(c) Players you can steal cheap at the ends of drafts to reap major profits

After taking last year’s feedback into consideration, I want to stress (a) and (b) a lot more than (c). There’s a misconception every sleeper has to be “that guy no one else knows about who’s still on the board in the final round of a draft.” Anyone looking for only that type of sleeper on this list will end up posting something like “Gee, thanks for the shocking insight on Teuvo Teravainen, I had no idea who that guy was, jerk.” But that person misses the more important point. Teravainen goes on average 172nd overall in fantasy drafts, according to Yahoo’s ADP (average draft position) numbers. My rank for Teravainen in the top 200: 139th overall. Essentially, I’m saying he should outperform 32 guys currently being drafted ahead of him. Savvy GMs may think it’s no big revelation to talk up Teravainen, but the general drafting public evidently hasn’t caught on yet. Teravainen’s a legit sleeper.

Of course, I’m not going to tout Ryan Johansen as a sleeper when I rank him 18th and he’s going 33rd. There’s a line to draw here. I still want to help you find guys you can actually steal in the mid to late rounds. With that, let’s begin the 2015-16 list:

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Could Cody Franson make the Buffalo Sabres a playoff team?

Matt Larkin
Cody Franson.  (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Cody Franson sure seemed destined to cash in a-la Scrooge McDuck this summer, diving into a pit of money. With each passing day, his situation increasingly resembles that of the exact opposite: a down-on-his-luck beggar.

OK, so that’s an exaggeration. Franson isn’t wandering the streets asking for a team to sign him. He is, however, running painfully low on suitors. He’s expressed how sick he is of one-year deals and, as a right-shot defenseman, he should command a hefty price tag. But there just aren’t many teams with the wiggle room for a multi-year deal at what should more than double, if not triple, the cap hit of Christian Ehrhoff’s new pact with L.A.

The Kings would’ve been a nice fit for Franson as long as suspended Slava Voynov’s cap hit remained off the books, but they opted for the far cheaper Ehrhoff. The Boston Bruins sure seem like a fit but, with $4.76 million in cap space, would press themselves up against the cap or over it with a Franson contract.

That voice you hear in the distance? “What about us? Excuse me! EXCUSE ME?” It’s that of deep-pocketed Terry Pegula and his Buffalo Sabres. They have more than $12 million to play with, and Pegula loves flexing his financial muscle. The Sabres also happen to have a weak defense corps. It’s no wonder, then, The Buffalo News cites two sources stating the Sabres have offered Franson a two-year contract.

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Let’s predict Phil Kessel’s goal total as Sidney Crosby’s linemate

Matt Larkin
Phil Kessel in his new Penguins jersey. (via Pittsburgh Penguins/Twitter)

Phil Kessel has escaped the media madness of Toronto. He’ll soon settle in the considerable shade cast by Sidney Crosby’s shadow. The Toronto effect won’t wear off instantly, however. Kessel’s performance this season will be scrutinized like crazy as he joins the sport’s highest-profile player on a line.

That’s right. It’s confirmed Kessel will open the Pittsburgh Penguins’ camp on Crosby’s wing. Coach Mike Johnston told the team website to expect Kessel “on the right side with Sid to begin with.” Could Kessel end up with a different center? Sure, but it would only be Evgeni Malkin, an equally plum partner. And it’s highly unlikely the Pens break camp with news “Kessel and Crosby just couldn’t get on the same page.”

It’s thus time to ask a fun question. Assuming Crosby is his center, how many goals will Kessel score in his first season with Pittsburgh?

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Fantasy hockey: the top 30 keeper league players by position

Matt Larkin
John Tavares (Getty Images)

It’s nowhere near time to panic. You aren’t behind on your cramming for fantasy hockey draft day. You can print out my latest top 200 player list and leaf through it at the cottage.

Keeper and dynasty league GMs, though, have to be a bit more on the ball. These folks are running long-term franchises. They technically never stop playing, as they’re free to make trades all off-season. They can also host their drafts earlier, as their leagues depend less on immediate health and up-to-date depth charts.

It’s thus an ideal juncture to explore some keeper league rankings. Doing so means dispelling the hell out of some myths. For one, keeper league rankings are not merely prospect rankings. Sorry, but Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel and Aaron Ekblad do not automatically top these lists. Elite prospects like Sam Reinhart, Leon Draisaitl and William Nylander don’t make the cut at all here, as I think they’re still multiple seasons away from being impact NHLers.

And here’s the thing too many people forget about keeper leagues: they still have standings and championships this year, and the next, and the next. So as long as an established star player projects to stay dominant for the next few seasons, he warrants strong keeper league consideration over the youngsters. McDavid tops the ranks if we’re projecting for five or 10 years down the road. But will he outscore John Tavares in the next two or three years? Doubtful. That’s not a knock on Connor. That’s a compliment to Johnny T.

Some veterans, however, are punished in these rankings. The likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have reached their mid-30s and dealt with nagging injuries in recent seasons. They will outscore many of the players on these lists this season, but they could decline sharply within two years. Give me Mark Scheifele in 2016-17 over Datsyuk if I’m starting a keeper league team from scratch. That’s why you won’t see Detroit’s dynamic veterans make the list.

Here are my top 30 keeper league picks by position. Age as of opening night, Oct. 7, 2015, listed in brackets.

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Is Wayne Simmonds right to be optimistic about his Flyers?

Matt Larkin
Wayne Simmonds. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Want to make an NHL player bristle? Just follow these easy steps:

(a) stand a foot away from him;
(b) remind him his team missed the playoffs last season;
(c) ask him if his team is rebuilding.

The experiment works like a charm on Philadelphia Flyers right winger Wayne Simmonds between training sessions at BioSteel’s 2015 hockey camp, where players from all over the league – and other leagues – gather to compete, hone their skills and rehabilitate. Reminded of the Flyers’ sixth-place finish in the Metropolitan division, and asked whether a new coach and large shipment of elite young defense prospects signifies a rebuild, Simmonds shakes his head so fast you can practically see the sweat fly.

“No,” he said, recoiling slightly, brow furrowed. “We’re a good team right now.”

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THN’s top 200 fantasy players for 2015-16

Matt Larkin
Pavel Datsyuk falls 10 spots from 43rd to 53rd. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

It’s never too early. Not even in the middle of summer.

The ideal image of fantasy hockey prep at this time of year might be curling up on a dock with THN’s Ultimate Fantasy Pool Guide. That’s a great idea. It’s loaded with useful information, it projects the NHL’s top 300 scorers and it hits newsstands any day now.

But what happens when you’ve read that paper edition cover to cover? As the summer inches closer to fall and training camps start up, you’ll want another update in hockey pool expertise. That’s what this specialized list of rankings is for. I will update my top 200 players periodically, and with increasing frequency, until opening night of the 2015-16 season.

Think of this ranking set as a companion piece to the pool guide. The former focuses on points, while this list blends goalies and skaters into a master breakdown tailored for anyone drafting in leagues with multiple stat categories. The rankings below are based on a standard Yahoo head-to-head format with the following categories: goals, assists, plus-minus, penalty minutes, power play points, wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts.

Did last year’s list steer you right? It helped me win both my pools, so hopefully that buys your trust. Remember, these rankings are about fantasy, not real life, so a few stars will be listed lower than you might expect. Enjoy, and feel free to debate the rankings – and let me know about any glaring omissions – in the comment section below.

Aug. 14 UPDATE: Time for the rankings’ second draft and what will likely be the final update before training camps begin in the coming weeks. For this edition, the tweaks are minor, but I’ve taken into account a few reader comments that swayed me. I’ve also pondered the Patrick Kane situation.

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Bad or unlucky? Five rebound players to watch in 2015-16

Matt Larkin
Milan Lucic (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

“I’m just not getting the bounces” often sounds like a lame excuse for a struggling player. Sometimes, though, the numbers tell us that player is right.

Underachievers fall off statistical cliffs year to year because of anything from age (Patrick Marleau) to injury (Zdeno Chara) to changing environments (James Neal). Once in a while, though, a bad season is more the result of poor luck than anything else. Advanced statistics can tell us who didn’t “deserve” his struggles as much as it may seem and who is poised for a major rebound season as a result.

Here’s a short list of players who should return to respectability in 2015-16.

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Carey Price to Wild? Kopitar to Ducks? Redrafting 2005’s first round

Matt Larkin
Carey Price. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the Sidney Crosby draft lottery. We’ve already celebrated by reviewing Sid the Kid’s best career moments. Now it’s time to delve into the 2005 draft. It’s famous for giving us Crosby and Carey Price, two of the best players at their positions this generation. Looking back, though, reveals the 2005 draft class is also memorable for being, well, so forgettable. Drafting Price and other stars such as Anze Kopitar meant navigating a minefield of busts.

A look at 2005’s first round, pick by pick:

1. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
2. Bobby Ryan, Anaheim Ducks
3. Jack Johnson, Carolina Hurricanes
4. Benoit Pouliot, Minnesota Wild
5. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
6. Gilbert Brule, Columbus Blue Jackets
7. Jack Skille, Chicago Blackhawks
8. Devin Setoguchi, San Jose Sharks
9. Brian Lee, Ottawa Senators
10. Luc Bourdon, Vancouver Canucks
11. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
12. Marc Staal, New York Rangers
13. Marek Zagrapan, Buffalo Sabres
14. Sasha Pokulok, Washington Capitals
15. Ryan O’Marra, New York Islanders
16. Alex Bourret, Atlanta Thrashers
17. Martin Hanzal, Phoenix Coyotes
18. Ryan Parent, Nashville Predators
19. Jakub Kindl, Detroit Red Wings
20. Kenndal McArdle, Florida Panthers
21. Tuukka Rask, Toronto Maple Leafs
22. Matt Lashoff, Boston Bruins
23. Niclas Bergfors, New Jersey Devils
24. T.J. Oshie, St. Louis Blues
25. Andrew Cogliano, Edmonton Oilers
26. Matt Pelech, Calgary Flames
27. Joe Finley, Washington Capitals
28. Matt Niskanen, Dallas Stars
29. Steve Downie, Philadelphia Flyers
30. Vladimir Mihalik, Tampa Bay Lightning

Woof. Of that draft class, three first rounders, Zagrapan, Pokulok and Bourret, never played an NHL game. Ten players, or one third, failed to reach 100 NHL games, albeit the late Luc Bourdon would’ve had he not died tragically in a motorcycle accident. The 2005 first round has produced four skaters with at least 300 NHL points. For perspective, the 2004 and 2006 groups each had four 300-point guys in the first five picks alone.

So how about we give the league a do-over on 2005’s first round? The rules: (a) any player from the class’ seven rounds is eligible; (b) draft order stays the same; (c) team needs at the time will be factored in; (d) hindsight is very much 20/20. This is all in good fun.

Here we go.

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