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Top 10 fantasy hockey sleeper picks for 2017-18

Matt Larkin
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Top 10 fantasy hockey sleeper picks for 2017-18

Oliver Bjorkstrand. Author: Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Top 10 fantasy hockey sleeper picks for 2017-18

Matt Larkin
By:

The key to winning your league: identifying players ranked way too low and possessing big upside.

Timing, timing, timing. That’s what defines a fantasy sleeper. If you’ve read my annual sleeper column the past few years, you know I don’t identify sleepers the way most people do: to me, a sleeper isn’t always just a guy very few people have heard of. No, in my world, sleepers are players who offer unexpected value because they can be drafted at the perfect time – later than they should be, because they’ve slipped through cracks for whatever reason.

I define sleepers as:

1. Players who will outperform their average draft positions
2. Players who will outperform some players drafted before them
3. Players you can steal cheap at the end of drafts to reap major profits

I’ve cross-referenced my fantasy top 200 for 2017-18 with the current average draft positions (ADPs) for Yahoo pools to identify sleepers. And remember, while a sleeper can be a no-name, it doesn’t have to be. Last season, I ranked Leon Draisaitl 104th when he was being drafted 168th on average. He was a sleeper because I expected him to perform as a ninth-rounder in 12-team leagues when he was being picked in the 14th round on average. With that logic in mind, here are 10 sleepers to watch in 2017-18.

Oliver Bjorkstrand, Columbus Blue Jackets (THN rank: 170; Yahoo ADP: undrafted)

All this kid does is score at every level. He was a monster performer in major junior with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. He had 10 goals in 17 games during the 2016 AHL playoffs to help the Lake Erie Monsters win the Calder Cup. His brief NHL stints over the past two seasons have added up to 10 goals in 38 games, putting him on a 20-plus goal clip for a full season.

The Blue Jackets are a deep, versatile team at forward, but with respect to the dynamite Cam Atkinson, they don’t have a sniper quite like Bjorkstrand, a guy who could mature into someone who makes the opposition tremble every time he has the puck. Bjorkstrand is ready for a full-time NHL role and, when he gets one, it will make sense to play him on a scoring line. The dream scenario would land him with Alexander Wennberg and Artemi Panarin, but even a second-line assignment would work just fine. Bjorkstrand is pretty much free at the draft table, meaning there’s no risk to picking him, and he has the ceiling to score 25 or 30 goals this year.

Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils (THN rank: 121; Yahoo ADP: 158.7)

Chris Kunitz and Connor Brown are currently coming off the board before Hischier on average. Yes, it’s smart to temper expectations for No. 1 overall draft pick Hischier to avoid comparing him to Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. But Kunitz? Good gravy. Hischier is still plenty good if he’s going No. 1 overall in real life. He’s a creative, shifty scorer who could become a Danny Briere or Claude Giroux type. And Hischier has a tremendous opportunity in front of him. Travis Zajac’s long-term injury eliminates major competition for the Devils’ first-line center gig with Taylor Hall on the left wing. Hischier should be going a couple rounds earlier in drafts based on his projected role alone, and he has the talent to run with the job. I expect his ADP will rise during training camp as puff pieces about him start piling up.

Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks (THN rank: 110; Yahoo ADP: 163.1)

Horvat? A sleeper? He’s the Canucks’ best forward and went to the NHL All-Star Game last year. But, hey, drafters are treating him like a nobody, meaning you can steal him in casual leagues, so he deserves sleeper status for a second straight year. If he didn’t overtake Henrik Sedin for first-line pivot duty last year, it happens in 2017-18. Horvat is a heart-and-soul leader and likely the future captain of this team. He’ll probably never be a point-per-game player, but he has another echelon to climb. A 60- or 65-point season feels doable.

Jussi Jokinen, Edmonton Oilers (THN rank: 182; Yahoo ADP: undrafted)

Jokinen is 34, just got bought out by his previous team and could play as low as the third line in Edmonton. So why the sleeper treatment? First off, anyone sniffing the Oilers’ top-nine forward group should be drafted in medium to deep leagues, so it’s inexcusable to see that not happening with Jokinen right now. Secondly, he can play all three forward positions and knows his way around a power play. Depending on how Oilers coach Todd McLellan deploys his lines, we could see Jokinen playing the left wing on Connor McDavid’s unit. Maybe Draisaitl ends up the second-line center, and Jokinen plays with him and Milan Lucic. Maybe Jokinen centers Ryan Strome or Jesse Puljujarvi. The permutations are fascinating. It’s thus worth grabbing Jokinen as a late-round lottery ticket and watching how the line combos play out in the pre-season.

Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes (THN rank: 118; Yahoo ADP: 172.3)

Why hasn’t the light bulb turned on for drafters with Keller? He has first-round pedigree, picked seventh overall by the Coyotes in 2016. He was a dominant NCAA player at Boston U. His skills are most commonly compared with Patrick Kane’s. Our scouting panel of NHL scouts and executives rated Keller the No. 1 overall NHL-affiliated prospect last winter.

Maybe fantasy owners see Derek Stepan, Christian Dvorak and Dylan Strome as threats to Keller’s playing time down the middle? Don’t worry about that. Not only does Keller have superior raw skill to Dvorak’s and Strome’s, but Keller doesn’t have to play center. New Desert Dogs coach Rick Tocchet will find a way to fit Keller onto a scoring line, even if that means the wing. He’s my pick to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie this year.

Anthony Mantha, Detroit Red WIngs (THN rank: 133; Yahoo ADP: 167.1)

Mantha potted a respectable 17 goals and tallied 36 points in 60 games last season while posting outstanding possession numbers. There’s a lot of room for him to grow based on how good he is at driving shot attempts in Detroit’s favor. While he didn’t fast-track to the NHL as a teen, he was a first-round pick in 2013 and was a big-time scorer in the junior ranks. Absolutely nothing about Mantha feels fluky, and it’s not like his shooting percentage was unsustainable at 12.8. It could actually improve given Mantha’s natural skill. He’s a good pick to lead Detroit in goals this year. I could see him getting 25, no problem. Drafters seem scared off because the Red Wings look like they’ll struggle again. But non-playoff teams aren’t always fantasy graveyards. Mantha should turn a nice profit at his modest ADP.

Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning (THN rank: 129; Yahoo ADP: 167.7)

I see what’s happening with Point in fantasy drafts. The concern is that healthy Steven Stamkos  + Tyler Johnson’s presence pushes Point into the third-line center role, right? Don’t worry. Point is too good not to be a fantasy factor. He had nine goals and 16 points in his final 15 games of 2016-17 as a rookie. There’s a good chance Tampa simply moves him to the wing to ensure he gets top-six minutes. He could also surpass Johnson as early as this year in the pecking order, anyway. Point is a special little player. I’ll be reaching for him in drafts this year.

Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche (THN rank: 125; Yahoo ADP: 169.3)

There’s probably a link between this time of year and that silly-low ADP for Rantanen. Most savvy GMs wouldn’t draft their leagues this early, so there’s a good chance the leagues drafting a month before the season starts have a lot of casual fantasy players. Those same people might look at Rantanen’s modest 20 goals and 39 points on a last-place team and shrug their shoulders.

But we know better. We know Rantanen is a big, powerful future star who dominated the AHL two seasons ago and who finished 2016-17 on Colorado’s top line with Nathan MacKinnon and Sven Andrighetto. We know Rantanen led his team in goals at age 20, and that he scored six of those goals in the last eight games of the season. Rantanen is a first-line NHL talent, and he’ll continue his progression this season. He’s already established a floor of about 20-20-40, so 25-25-50 doesn’t feel like an aggressive projection at all.

Sam Reinhart, Buffalo Sabres (THN rank: 130; Yahoo ADP: 164.6)

Reinhart lands on the sleeper list a second straight year because he didn’t elevate to fantasy stardom like he was supposed to last year. It wasn’t really his fault. Blame his stalled development on Jack Eichel’s ankle injury. Once Reinhart got his center back, everything went as planned. He had 37 points in the 58 games that followed. That’s a 52-point pace, and it represents Reinhart’s floor now. I expect a true breakout for him and Eichel this season.

Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers (THN rank: 126; Yahoo ADP: 168.1)

Drafters are ruthless. A guy misses a chunk of a season with injury, and people treat his abbreviated numbers like they’re his full-season total. Their loss, our gain. Zibanejad was on pace for better than a 60-point season before breaking his leg last November, and now he gets the Rangers’ No. 1 center gig to himself with Derek Stepan off to Arizona. Zibanejad is one of the cheapest first-line centers to draft right now. He shouldn’t be. Snatch him up if he keeps falling outside the top 150 selections.

THE HEAD-SCRATCHER TOP FIVE

Some of the ADPs are so absurd that I can’t apply a sleeper label in good conscience. I don’t know what people are doing here, but I want in their leagues, and I want to play for money:

  • Viktor Arvidsson, Nashville Predators (THN rank: 67; Yahoo ADP: 103.1)
  • Max Domi, Arizona Coyotes (THN rank: 65; Yahoo ADP: 159.8)
  • Anders Lee, New York Islanders (THN rank: 122; Yahoo ADP: 165.0)
  • Vincent Trocheck, Florida Panthers (THN rank: 93; Yahoo ADP: 169.8)
  • Alexander Wennberg, Columbus Blue Jackets (THN rank: 80; Yahoo ADP: 163.2)

THE GOALIE SLEEPER

Goalies never make my official sleeper list because I never rank them as highly as standard leagues do, but we can still identify value-pick netminders relative to where they’re drafted. Last year, I championed Cam Talbot. You’re welcome. This year: Mike Smith. He’s the 18th goalie off the board right now, which is totally understandable given the bland numbers he’s posted for years on bad Arizona teams. But he has a shot at a massive resurgence on what should be easily the best team he’s ever had in front of him, which includes a top-four of Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic on defense. Smith should at the very least should be a cheap source of 35 or more wins, and maybe he puts it all together to show us he was good this whole time and simply masked by a poor supporting cast.

THE ALL-DEEP SLEEPER TEAM

For anyone complaining the sleepers above aren’t real sleepers, here’s a group of more obscure names to watch and target at the end of your drafts. Yes, I realize most of these guys will be gone in dynasty leagues:

G: Antti Raanta, Arizona Coyotes
D: Julius Honka, Dallas Stars
D: Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights
F: Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
F: Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets
F: Jakub Vrana, Washington Capitals

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Top 10 fantasy hockey sleeper picks for 2017-18