2019 Fantasy Hockey Series: Sleepers
September is the spring of hockey. Once the calendar hits September, the Kontinental Hockey League (“KHL”) gets underway and the NHL is just around the corner. As most of the free agent field has settled and teams are beginning to take shape, now is a great time to begin reviewing the offseason, including the draft, transactions and team profiles for the upcoming season all in anticipation of your annual fantasy leagues.
Many of you are likely looking for that “diamond in the rough” to carry your team to victory in vengeance of a disappointing last season or you may be looking for that sleeper pick to add depth to an already superior keeper league lineup. Regardless of your fantasy savviness and prior success, this NHL fantasy series will be one for anyone who wishes to win their upcoming NHL fantasy league… which really should be anyone. Anyways, we will be taking a look at draft sleepers, busts and draft strategies to help propel your team to the top of the standings over the next couple of weeks, hopefully in advance of your draft day. My goal here is to let all my readers become aware of some sweet deals, potential lemons and strategies to mentally dominate your fantasy league. Sound like a plan?
Couple items I want to get off my chest.
1. First off, I do not have a crystal ball. These players could easily be bust draft picks for your fantasy team. Now before you start sending me all this hate mail and screenshots of these players’ performances, I plan on providing semi-monthly to monthly updates on who you should consider picking up from your waiver wire throughout the season. This should help ensure you have a contingency plan for when you start off your fantasy season 0-4 because of me.
2. Second, as always, everyone at the Hot Takes Network love to receive comments regarding our articles and podcasts and would love to converse over related topics that cover the article. Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section of the blog post.
3. Third, if you are in a fantasy hockey league that I am also participating in, these fantasy preview articles are closed to you until our drafts are complete. I don’t think they’re going to listen to this anyways but it’s worth a shot right?
Alright, let’s begin.
Today, we are going to be reviewing 5 potential sleepers that you should be monitoring over the course of the fantasy draft. These players are vulnerable to slipping through your opponents’ radar and you can find yourself with a very valuable mid-late round pick. This may be because of past inconsistencies, a poor season, or these players are on the brink of taking their game to the next level. With that said, please do not mistake sleeper with being a high draft pick. The nature of a sleeper is to draft good value during the mid to late rounds. If someone below goes in the first round, just be glad it was not you.
1. Alex Galchenyuk – Pittsburgh Penguins
After a 2015-16 season that saw Alex record 56 points in 82 games, it seemed that Alex finally was on the breakthrough of reaching his potential that analysts had been expecting from a former 3rd overall draft pick. However, Galchenyuk really never found that groove again, only reaching over 50 points once in the next three seasons, never surpassing his career high of 56. When Galchenyuk was traded in June, as part of the Phil Kessel trade, the talent and elite status of players he would be playing alongside for the upcoming season changed dramatically. Now set to the play the wing in the 2019-2020 season, Galchenyuk will likely play on a line centered by either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, both arguably the two best players Alex has called teammates. We’ve previously seen the impact of playing alongside impact players, just ask Pat Maroon after his time with McDavid. Alex Galchenyuk has been strong when playing with the man advantage, recording 20 or more points on the powerplay in the last two seasons, good for 47% and 51% of his seasons’ points respectively. Galchenyuk’s production seems to be lacking at even strength. If he can get top 6 minutes with Malkin and/or Crosby, expect that production to dramatically increase. Don’t be surprised if he pulls a 70 point season this year.
2. Dylan Strome – Chicago Blackhawks
It seems as though the Strome brothers have produced quantity over quality. We have Ryan Strome, a former 5th overall pick trying to find his game again in the Big Apple and also Matthew Strome, a player who has one of the best hockey IQs in the OHL but is hindered by his poor skating ability. Of the Strome brothers, Dylan seems to have the best chance of living up to the expectations his name carries. However, this didn’t come easy for the Erie Otter alumni. After a subpar 9 points in 21 games in 2017-18 with the Arizona Coyotes, his 2018-19 campaign did not start on the right foot either, registering just 6 points in 20 games. When he was traded during the season to join his fellow Erie Otter teammate in Alex DeBrincat, Strome began to gel with his new team and played closer to his 3rd overall expectations, registering 51 points in 58 games. There is no doubt that Strome has the talent to make an impact in the NHL and it appears that the Chicago Blackhawks and the new change of scenery did him well to cap off the 2018-2019 season. This may be viewed as a fluke but this isn’t an undrafted overage OHL player we are talking about. Some highly touted players take a couple seasons and a change of scenery to find a system that complements them and Strome could be a case in point. Expect Strome to carry this momentum to give him confidence from the first puck drop on the new campaign with the Chicago Blackhawks. Maintaining the production he experienced with Chicago last season would extrapolate to a projected 72 point season. Not bad for a player who may still have the dreaded “bust” speculations looming in fantasy owners’ minds.
3. Andreas Johnsson – Toronto Maple Leafs
As part of the youth movement in Leafs Nation, Johnsson found himself quite comfortable during the latter end of the 2018-2019. Johnsson frequently played alongside Auston Matthews after the all-star break and Andreas took advantage of the opportunity, registering 21 points in 30 games. To tack onto this momentum, Johnsson contributed offensively during the Leafs’ playoff stint, registering 4 points in 7 games. Johnsson has all the momentum and confidence to carry forward into the 2019-2020 campaign, especially with a nice contract over the summer. With the departure of Connor Brown, the last open spot to play with 90-100 point player in Auston Matthews comes down to Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen (assuming Nylander can find his form from 2017-18). If Johnsson wins this 2nd line role, get ready for Andreas to take a big leap in production, breaking the 60, even 65 point barrier. Fantasy owners, before drafting Johnsson, it is essential to confirm he won this second line role! But find out before your buddies do or you may miss out on him!
4. Robert Thomas – St. Louis Blues
Full disclosure – I may be a little biased about Robert Thomas. I was able to watch Thomas live often while leading my Hamilton Bulldogs on their historic OHL championship victory in a David vs Goliath matchup against the Greyhounds. Not only that, but then Thomas contributes to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. That’s 2 OHL championships, 1 Memorial Cup and a Stanley Cup added to his resume. Kid just knows how to win.
In addition to this winning attitude, Thomas became a big part in the Blues’ offense down the stretch, helping the Blues reach the postseason after a historic 2019. In addition to a strong playoff performance, in which an injury hindered his contributions in the Stanley Cup Finals, Thomas also registered 21 of his 33 points in his final 38 regular season games. Funny how this trend came when Craig Berube came at the helm. He’ll be battling with David Perron and Zach Sanford for a second line role to play with center, Ryan O’Reilly. If Thomas, who will be coming off an injury, can find a top six role, watch for him to record between 50-55 points. Your job as a fantasy owner is to identify where Craig Berube sees Thomas. Most importantly, will he get top six minutes? That’s something that will be based on how the preseason plays out, but I’m optimistic he can take a second line role, leaving Sanford for a third line spot because I really felt Berube provided Thomas with a growing responsibility as the season went on and it should carry forward in this upcoming season. If so, he’s not someone to look for in the opening rounds but can be a very useful depth/flex piece.
5. Nino Niederreiter – Carolina Hurricanes
If you don’t trust me and are skeptical of my picks so far, this would be the player I am least confident in to be a real steal in the draft. So tread carefully. This is not because I think everyone has Finding Nino on their radar but if I can recall correctly, I swear he had a similar hot spell during his tenure with his former Minnesota Wild… maybe not. Anyways, Nino Niederreiter is another player who was highly touted out of the draft who hasn’t quite fulfilled all the hype he once had (join the club). He recorded a career high 57 points in 2016-17 with the Minnesota Wild. However, after a decline in points the following season (32 points in 63 games), Niederreiter appeared he was going to be on a similar trek, registering 23 points in 46 games with the Wild to begin the 2018-19 season. Then he got traded to Carolina, where everything changed. Nino went on to play with a more youthful Carolina offense and seemed to feel right at home, recording 30 points in 36 games, tallying a total of 53 points last season (not bad right). However, most fantasy owners likely didn’t reap these benefits because he was probably dropped by 99% of the leagues prior to storming into Carolina.
We are now here in September of 2019 and Niederreiter is quietly looking like an interesting piece, potentially setting himself up on the wing with Sebastian Aho and Teravainen. If that falls short, Nino could also play on the 2nd line with a combination of Jordan Staal, Andrei Svechnikov (coming into his sophomore year) and Ryan Dzingel. To conclude, I’m very optimistic that if Niederreiter displays the form he had in the ladder half of the season in the preseason and training camp, I am confident that Nino sees top six forward ice time and he’ll have a decent to strong supporting cast with him. I don’t think he maintains the pace he had to cap of last season, but I can see Nino reaching the 60 point total for the first time in his career if he gets first line minutes and can remain consistent for 82 games… something that Niederreiter has struggled with in the past. One more red flag is that Niederreiter recorded only 4 points in 15 playoff games during the Canes playoff run. Hopefully that was Niederreiter having a hard time adjusting to playoff hockey and not a case where playoff hockey and his hot spell ending were coinciding. I personally like this sleeper but proceed with caution.
6. BONUS: James Neal – Edmonton Oilers****
I know. I lied. I said I would have five sleepers, but then I slipped in a bonus for you. I’m sorry. Please note the four asterisks. This is not symbolize that this is a bonus pick, but it’s to symbolize that there is a VERY material condition that needs to be confirmed prior to immediately categorizing James Neal as a sleeper. More on that later.
Here’s a fun stat, every year James Neal has played more than 20 games (11 seasons), Neal has scored 20+ in every one of them except for one… which happened to be when my favourite team, the Calgary Flames signed him long term. James will be a very interesting player in this year’s fantasy draft. Coming off a season where James was delegated all the way from the first line to the eventual fourth line over 82 games, James recorded only 19 points in 63 games. So in every other season, he has registered 20+ goals but he can’t get 20 POINTS for the Flames? When will a free agent signing work in Calgary? That’s another conversation for another day. Anyways, this abysmal season has deterred risk-adverse fantasy owners away from James Neal. After being traded to the Edmonton Oilers, there is very much uncertainty surrounding James Neal that might prove to be your benefit during the fantasy draft. You see, many fantasy owners don’t want to take the chance on a guy like James Neal. An aging player who is on the other side of his prime, I get it. I’m not disagreeing with their take but there may be value for Neal under ONE condition: he wins the first line right wing role to play alongside McDavid. His competition for this right wing spot is the following: Alex Chiasson, Sam Gagner, and Kailer Yamamoto. I’m not sure James will get the first line role to begin the year. I believe Yamamoto may find some time there if his preseason impresses management. However, with that said his competition are by no means locks for the first line right wing slot. Remember the asterisks? If James Neal wins the opportunity to win that first line role alongside McDavid (currently ranked 2nd among right wingers), if you are in a league where people are not intently following depth charts and line combinations, you could really get a real steal with James Neal. McDavid turned Pat Maroon into a 27 goal scorer… imagine how many goals Neal could score, set up by McDavid. As a fantasy owner, your job is to be the first to know about Edmonton’s line combinations to begin the season and if James Neal is set to be alongside McDavid, hope and pray that your buddies in your fantasy league did not see the reports and you’re set. HOWEVER, if Neal’s situation is undisclosed or there is material uncertainty, proceed with caution. If that’s the case, Neal would likely hit the waiver wire and you can pick him up once you’re comfortable with the line combinations. If your fantasy opponents follow line combinations intently, then you’ll need to know who knows about the Neal and McDavid line (if it happens) and strategically draft around these people to ensure you get James Neal, but at the right time.