Top 10 fantasy hockey sleeper picks for 2019-20

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The right sleeper can alter a fantasy hockey season. Barring catastrophic injuries, no one gains crucial edges on their opponents in the early rounds of drafts, as everyone gets to pick studs at that juncture. Separating from the pack happens in the middle to late rounds, where we have the opportunities every year to unearth players in Round 10 who end up producing like fifth-rounders.

Being that GM who finds the best sleepers and gets to brag about it later often involves scoring a breakout rookie, but not all rookies are sleepers, and not all sleepers are rookies. If everyone is hyped for a high-ceiling freshman, his average draft position (ADP) might skyrocket. Not only will he not be a sleeper, but you’ll have to reach to get him. That happened with Rasmus Dahlin last year and could with Cale Makar this time around.

To me, a sleeper is any player available later in the draft than he should be ­– and capable of turning you a profit. My sleepers meet some or all of the following criteria:

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 top fantasy 250 player rankings for 2019-20 (available with an all-access membership) with the current average draft positions for Yahoo pools to identify sleepers. If you’re drafting against autodrafters or casual poolies who rely on the default rankings religiously, you can run circles around your competition. Last year, I told you to reach several rounds early on Alex DeBrincat and Elias Pettersson. Hope you did!

Here are my top 10 sleepers for 2019-20, in alphabetical order, based on ADP data from Yahoo. Remember, just because you’ve heard of these guys doesn’t mean they aren’t sleepers. If they’re going way later than they should, that’s a buying opportunity.

Jesper Bratt, New Jersey Devils (My rank: 227th; Yahoo ADP: undrafted)

If you’ve read my top 250 rankings, you’ll know I moved Bratt down after the Devils acquired Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights. Gusev’s spot in the top-six forward group was all but guaranteed, and since New Jersey paid Wayne Simmonds $5 million, it obviously wasn’t going to deploy him in a pure checking role to start the season. With Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri also on board, there was no spot for Bratt in the top six. Sure enough, when Devils opened camp, line 2 featured Hughes between Gusev and Simmonds.

Simmonds, however, is 31 and, as one of the better power forwards of his generation, plays a physically taxing style that ages his body beyond its years. We’ve seen it happen to David Backes. A banged-up Simmonds endured a terrible season last year, and while the Devils are betting on a rebound, we can’t say for certain it was merely a down year. It might’ve been the start of a precipitous decline. We’ll likely know by the end of October if Simmonds can keep up with high-skill guys like Hughes and Gusev. If Simmonds gets demoted, Bratt’s the guy most likely to ascend in the long run – even though coach John Hynes is keeping him tethered to Jesper Boqvist for now. Bratt showed flashes of his talent as a rookie in 2017-18 with 13 goals and 35 points, and he had 33 points as a sophomore in just 51 games.

Bratt can be had pretty much free in drafts, as he’s nowhere close to a household name, but he has potential to turn a huge profit as part of what looks like a dynamic and exciting Devils offense.

Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lighting (My rank: 249th; Yahoo ADP: undrafted)

Cirelli has already established himself as an indispensable member of the Bolts in real life. He’s one of the best penalty-killing forwards in the NHL, he scored five shorthanded goals last season and he’s great on faceoffs. His responsibility will only grow as Tampa’s third-line center. Cirelli also has some legit offensive talent. He scored 19 goals and finished sixth in Calder Trophy voting in 2019-20. The Lightning are like the Kansas City Chiefs in fantasy football: so potent that they can feed many mouths. Even second-unit duty on Tampa’s league-best power play can be a boon. If Cirelli, who only got one power-play point last year, can score second-unit duty, he can be a 20-goal, 50-point guy this season.

The bonus of taking Cirelli: as long as RFA Brayden Point is unsigned, there’s monstrous temporary potential for Cirelli in fantasy leagues, as a Point-less lineup means Cirelli becomes a top-six forward. Every training-camp line combo has put Cirelli with Steven Stamkos thus far. Even if Point returns in time for the start of the season, which is likely, Cirelli’s role should grow this season.

Kevin Fiala, Minnesota Wild (My rank: 214th; Yahoo ADP: undrafted)

Ryan Donato made an instant impact after arriving in Minnesota at the 2019 trade deadline. Fiala did not. He managed just three goals and seven points in 19 games. Including his final days as a Nashville Predator, Fiala slipped to 13 goals and 39 points after a 23-goal breakout in 2017-18. He did so with an extremely unlucky shooting percentage of 7.5, however. Among 365 forwards who logged at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Fiala ranked a respectable 114th in shots per 60 minutes and 54th in rebounds created per 60 minutes. He deserved better puck luck.

On a Wild team desperate for goals and relying too much on grizzled veteran forwards, Fiala should also get the most minutes of his career this season. He’s a 25-goal breakout waiting to happen.

Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils (My rank: 98th; Yahoo ADP: 171.3)

What the heck? In 12-team Yahoo drafts, Hischier is currently going in the 15th round, one pick later than Boone Jenner. That’s so egregious that it seems like a glitch in the system…but if we look at Yahoo’s default ranks, Hischier is 162nd, so there’s the culprit.

We live in an era of peak scouting accuracy. Gone are the days of No. 1 overall draft picks going bust a-la Patrik Stefan or Nail Yakupov. When a player goes first these days, he’s expected to immediately become a top-end player. Look at Nathan MacKinnon, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Rasmus Dahlin. Hischier, chosen No. 1 in 2017, was a perfectly solid rookie, notching 20 goals and 52 points, but he didn’t dominate, and he didn’t take a gargantuan leap forward last season, either, posting a 17-30-47 line in 69 games.

But Hischier is still just 20 years old. He spent much of last season without his usual linemate Hall, who was limited to just 33 games. That cloaked a real improvement from Hischier. Now, he gets Hall back, plus the Devils have a deadly second line anchored by Hughes. That means opposing checkers can’t automatically key on the Hall-Hischier-Palmieri line. There may be a perception that Hughes will siphon fantasy value from Hischier, and perhaps that’s why Hischier’s ADP is so low, but I actually expect the opposite effect. Mathew Barzal was a powerhouse rookie when he had John Tavares drawing attention away on another line, then Barzal regressed without Tavares last season – and Hischier should do the opposite. His breakout should come in 2019-20. I could see 70 points happening.

Andreas Johnsson, Toronto Maple Leafs (My rank: 126th; Yahoo ADP: 170.7)

Johnsson slowly climbed Toronto’s depth chart, eventually found his way onto Auston Matthews’ line, scored a Nov. 24 hat trick and went on a 55-game run in which he picked up 18 goals and 40 points. That extrapolated to 27 goals and 60 points across a full season. Among the 365 forwards who logged at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Johnsson ranked 25th in individual points per 60 minutes, ahead of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Evgeni Malkin, David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin. Johnsson showed he belongs on a high-skill line yet averaged just 1:35 of power-play time per game – 11th on the Leafs. Johnsson saw more looks on the power play in the playoffs when Nazem Kadri got suspended, and with Kadri off to Colorado, Johnsson might get a long-term spot on the loaded first unit.

The statistical profile suggests a high-impact fantasy forward masquerading as a depth guy because his opportunities came late in the year. With Patrick Marleau gone and Zach Hyman hurt, Johnsson opens 2019-20 unchallenged as the Leafs’ top left winger. He has sky-high breakout potential.

Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche (My rank: 137th; Yahoo ADP: 167.4)

Some players live and die with their roles. Kadri was a back-to-back 30-goal scorer as a No. 2 center in Toronto, he wasn’t as fantasy-worthy in a No. 3 role last season and, with a trade to Colorado, he returns to a No. 2 deployment.

Kadri likely won’t see time with Gabriel Landeskog or Mikko Rantanen on his wings, so he could see a downgrade in supporting cast, and he likely won’t get as many first-unit power-play looks, but an increase in overall ice time should offset those factors. Under coach Mike Babcock, Kadri only averaged 16:31 across the past three seasons. It wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see Avs coach Jared Bednar bump Kadri to something like 18:00. Over the past three seasons, 414 forwards played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5. Among that group, Kadri ranked 83rd in goals per 60 minutes and 43rd in shots per 60. He could do a lot of damage with increased ice time. Kadri also had an uncharacteristically low shooting percentage of 8.7 last year, so he should see positive regression to his career mark of 11.5.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens (My rank: 210th; Yahoo ADP: undrafted)

I never forget ‘The Nils Ekman rule.’ In summer 2006, the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired him from the San Jose Sharks, and he was hyped up as a new linemate for Sidney Crosby. In my fantasy draft a couple months later, I reached on Ekman several rounds early, believing he could excel just as he did riding shotgun with Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo in San Jose. Ekman, though, was Just A Guy and quickly lost his chance to play with Sid the Kid. The lesson: don’t chase line deployments when it comes to marginal players. Bet on talent instead.

That brings us to Kotkaniemi, the 2018 draft’s third-overall pick, who managed 11 goals and 34 points last season as the NHL’s youngest player. Montreal has a deep logjam at center between top scorer Max Domi, shutdown pivot Phillip Danault, rookie Ryan Poehling, top prospect Nick Suzuki and Kotkaniemi. On a great team, Danault would make more sense as a No. 3. Poehling wowed with a hat trick in his debut but profiles as more of a two-way guy. Depending on whether Suzuki makes the team, Kotkaniemi offers the highest ceiling other than Domi’s among the centers competing for top-six duty. He’s gained a bunch of weight this summer, and he’s unlikely to have his reps managed this time around. On paper, he’s competing for the No. 3 center job right now, so picking him means you’re betting on talent. It’s the reverse Nils Ekman strategy.

Nick Schmaltz, Arizona Coyotes (My rank: 129th; Yahoo ADP: 178.8)

Dylan Strome’s long-awaited breakout in Chicago earned the headlines, but the other side of the trade between the Blackhawks and Coyotes was a positive story, too. Schmaltz was a good fit in Arizona from the start, picking up 14 points in 17 games. Then he blew his ACL. It was a sad end to a promising 2018-19 for him, but it created a buy-low opportunity for us in 2019-20. He’s fully recovered and all but guaranteed to center a line with Phil Kessel or Clayton Keller ­ – or both, should Tocchet decide to experiment with Keller on the left wing. The only competition Schmaltz has for No. 1 center duty is Derek Stepan, unless prospect Barrett Hayton makes the team and blows away the competition. Hayton likely won’t threaten Schmaltz’s role until next season, however.

For now, Schmaltz is the best center option and most likely to earn meaningful minutes with Arizona’s most talented forwards at even strength and on the power play. He’s still just 23 and carries a first-round draft pedigree. If he can stay healthy, I actually think 50 points is Schmaltz’s floor. The ceiling could be 15 or 20 points higher, and he’s dirt-cheap in drafts right now.

Sam Steel, Anaheim Ducks (My rank: 191st; Yahoo ADP: undrafted)

It’s a common misconception that the best rookies are guys drafted the previous June. Sometimes, mature rookies who have spent a year or two developing, often as pros in the AHL, have a leg up on the kids. The Ducks, who are the kings of finding big-time talents at the back of the first round in drafts, scooped Steel 30th overall in 2016. He was relatively undersized for a center and took a few years to marinate, first lighting it up in major junior, then cutting his teeth with AHL San Diego. He managed 20 goals and 41 points in 53 AHL games as a first-year pro, held his own with 11 points in his first 22 NHL games and earned some valuable experience in the AHL playoffs.

Steel’s coach during that run with the San Diego Gulls: Dallas Eakins, who happens to be the Ducks’ bench boss now. Ryan Kesler is out for the season, leaving a huge hole in Anaheim’s top nine. We know Ryan Getzlaf is the No. 1 pivot and that Adam Henrique likely starts the season in the No. 2 role, but Henrique is a safe, two-way guy who brings floor, not ceiling, to the Ducks. Steel is the dynamic scoring talent. It’s only matter of time before he – not to mention fellow prospect Troy Terry – ascends to a scoring-line assignment. The Ducks are committed to developing their kids and will give Steel every opportunity.

Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators (My rank: 115th; Yahoo ADP: 154.6)

I shouldn’t have to advertise Tkachuk as a sleeper. He already delivered on that promise last year, looking mature beyond his years and as physically strong as a 25-year-old during his rookie campaign with the Sens. Tkachuk is big, mean and can put the puck in the net. He also has pretty much no competition to become Ottawa’s No. 1 option at left wing. He sat 38th in goals per 60 minutes last year among forwards with at least 500 minutes played at 5-on-5. The Sens’ forward group is weaker now than it was at the start of last season, sure, but Tkachuk’s increased minutes more than cancel that factor out.

Tkachuk is a unique “sleeper” in that he’s not merely a kid who can exceed expectations this season. He’s already the No. 1 offensive forward on his team. His ADP is truly baffling. This guy scored 22 goals in 71 games as a teenager. Go get him – not to mention his probable center, Colin White.

THE ‘WTF’ TOP FIVE

Some ADPs create sleepers. Others are just so bizarre that they defy any possibility of analysis. These are just…messed up:

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders (My rank: 37th; Yahoo ADP: 131.6)
Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers (My rank: 60th; Yahoo ADP: 117.2)
Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils (My rank: 61st; Yahoo ADP: 126.9)
Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings (My rank: 88th; Yahoo ADP: 148.9)
Dylan Strome, Chicago Blackhawks (My rank: 86th; Yahoo ADP: 155.9)

THOUGHT THEY WERE SLEEPERS, BUT THE SECRET’S OUT

I’d planned to list these players as sleepers, but their ADPs match up with my rankings, suggesting everyone already knows about them. Still, don’t forget about these guys in the late middle rounds:

G: Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes
D: Samuel Girard, Colorado Avalanche
D: Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
F: Pavel Buchnevich, New York Rangers
F: Roope Hintz, Dallas Stars
F: Ondrej Kase, Anaheim Ducks

THE GOALIE SLEEPER

Since goaltenders are so fickle season to season, I constantly rank them lower than the default Yahoo rankings do, so they never meet my sleeper criteria. But I do always like to present you with an undervalued option. Last season, that was Phillip Grubauer. This year: keep an eye on Thatcher Demko in Vancouver. The ADP data tell us he’s not even being drafted in typical leagues. Jacob Markstrom has done a fine job as a veteran stopgap, but Demko has been the goalie of the future for a while now and will start the season in the NHL as the No. 2. If Markstrom falters at all, Demko could get an extended look. He’s a strong deep-league bench stash, especially in dynasty formats.

THE ALL DEEP-SLEEPER TEAM

These players should be owned in all keeper leagues but might be available to be stashed away in redraft formats. Keep in mind that not every name on this list is even a lock to make his team.

G: Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers
D: Adam Boqvist, Chicago Blackhawks
D: Erik Brannstrom, Ottawa Senators
F: Drake Batherson, Ottawa Senators
F: Cody Glass, Vegas Golden Knights
F: Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes

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