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Draft Kit - Sleepers: Last Year's Bum, This Year's Hero

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire.com and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).

Sleepers

No matter the sport, sleepers come in various shapes and sizes. No two leagues are the same, and as the fantasy industry has evolved, so have the various types and sizes of leagues that we play in. So we fully acknowledge that what might qualify as a sleeper in one league might not even be roster-able in another league; conversely, in other leagues finding a 40-point forward out of the ether might qualify as a huge score. Your mileage may vary. To that end, here's our list of sleepers as submitted by the RotoWire staff, broken down by four positions - centers, wings, defensemen and goalies.

Centers

Roman Cervenka (Flames) - He scored in bunches in the KHL and walks into a top-six job in the offensively starved Calgary market. The transition to the smaller ice -- especially for a guy under 6 feet -- can be tough. But there's a shot this 26-year-old could even end up centering Jarome Iginla at times if the cards call the right way. Now THAT's opportunity.

Matt Duchene (Avalanche) - Last year was a lost season for Duchene, who suffered knee and ankle injuries that shortened his season and reduced his burst, causing him to slump to a mere 28 points in 58 games -- not exactly the stuff fantasy champions are made of. The third overall pick in 2009 ripped off 55- and 67-point seasons his first two years in the league, and he's capable of not just matching, but exceeding those totals. He'll be a ridiculous discount in many leagues, the classic last year's bum (and young enough to still be on the escalator).

Ryan Getzlaf (Ducks) - After posting an average of one a point-per-game in 2007-2011, Getzlaf had an atypically abysmal campaign in 2011-12 and only found the back of the net 11 times all season. He has averaged close to 20 goals a season during his career and he's still only 27 years old, so he should represent great value late in drafts as many owners will probably downgrade him due to last season's lackluster showing.

Mikko Koivu (Wild) - His sleeper status may disappear quickly once everyone realizes who his linemates are, Zach Parise and Dany Heatley. Some have described Koviu as a poor man's Pavel Datsyuk, well it may be Datsyuk who is scrounging for change this season

Wings

Cam Atkinson (Blue Jackets) - He's tiny, as in Brian Gionta tiny. But he has good speed, can handle the puck well and isn't afraid to get dirty to get the job done. He turned it on large in the last six games last year, recording five goals and the same in assists, including two, three-point games. He'll hit the wall near Christmas -- college guys always have a hard adjustment to the pro game. But he should slot onto the second line and give Jackets' fans something to cheer about.

Cory Conacher (Lightning) - Is Conacher the next Martin St. Louis? Maybe. He's a small, shifty winger who signed as a free agent. And he went on to win the AHL MVP last season with 39 goals and 80 points in 75 games. Oh ya -- there were those 114 PIMs, too. The guy is no pushover. If Benoit Pouliot doesn't seize the left wing job beside Vincent Lecavalier, it's Conacher who could. And that could just re-energize Mr. Vinny, too.

Simon Gagne (Kings) - Gagne missed most of last season with a concussion but he's posted seven 20-goal seasons in his 12-year career, which is even more impressive when you factor in that he's played 35 games or less in three of those seasons due to injury. Furthermore, he's played previously in his career with both Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in Philadelphia. Still just 32, Gagne has far more skill and scoring pedigree (283 goals in 761 games) than Dustin Penner, his main competition for the second-line left wing gig. Gagne is a rare commodity in today's NHL - a goal scorer. Gagne has scored at a 30-goal pace (over 82 games) for his entire career. He can be had late in drafts and could be golden if he can stay healthy.

Evander Kane (Jets) - It feels weird to call a guy coming off a 30-goal season a sleeper, but his total of 57 points only scratches the surface of Kane's capabilities. He's one of the rare players in the league capable of reaching 40 goals this season, and though his supporting cast hasn't improved much, Kane continues to get better every year. He's gone from 26 points as a rookie to 43 to 57, and another similarly sized jump will put him among the game's elite.

David Perron (Blues) - Perron was sidelined for 25 games last year and 72 games the year before with the dreaded concussion problems that fantasy hockey owners have started to see in their nightmares. However, after returning, the Blues' winger was able to light the lamp 21 times last season on his way to putting up 42 points in 57 games. With a full offseason to shake off the rust, the 24-year-old should be able to top 30 goals this season and provide great return as a mid-to-late round pick.

Benoit Pouliot (Lightning) - Could Pouliot be the next Teddy Purcell? He signed a one-year deal as a possible love match for struggling, but talented, center, Vincent Lecavalier. He could take off if he figures out how to keep his mind in the game for 60 full minutes, night after night. It's either him or Cory Conacher who'll get the opportunity of a lifetime. Pouliot's previous NHL experience should win out and a career season could be on the way.

Michael Ryder (Stars) - Hear us out on this; Ryder scored 35 goals last season but will be ignored early and often on draft day because new Star Jaromir Jagr is expected to beat him out for first line right wing spot alongside Jamie Benn in Dallas. Ryder's consolation prize? - playing on the second line with the newly-arrived Ray Whitney and Derek Roy, two fine playmakers. Moreover, the Benn-Jagr line will be drawing the top checking lines and defensive pairings on a nightly basis, freeing up Ryder's line to play against the less than best. He'll provide good late value for 25-30 goals and 50-55 points.

Eric Tangradi / Beau Bennett (Penguins) - The eternal prospect, Eric Tangradi, is still just 23 years-old. The Penguins asked him to lose weight and improve his skating over the summer and reports have him doing both. He's in line for a potential top-six forward spot so long as the team doesn't use its newfound salary cap space. It would be surprising to see Pittsburgh stick with the same roster all season long, but Tangradi could have a say in the dealings with a strong camp. California native Beau Bennett is the team's other top sleeper prospect, but he's more of the long-term variety. Bennett turned pro over the summer after suiting up for just 13 games at the University of Denver in 2011-12. Pens coach Dan Bylsma mentioned him as a possible winger for Sidney Crosby out of training camp, but that was before Bennett admitted his surgically-repaired wrist might still not be 100 percent healthy during the team's developmental camp. He is the Pens' top offensive prospect.

James van Riemsdyk (Maple Leafs) - The trade from Philly to Toronto could be the best thing to happen to JVR. Sure he goes from a very good team to a less than good one, but he also should be able to play top minutes and if the move to center sticks, could find himself playing between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.

Defensemen

Simon Despres (Penguins) - Pittsburgh traded away one of its top-four blueliners (Zbynek Michalek) during the NHL draft and employs the offensively-challenged Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, meaning that there is plenty of room for a defenseman or two to step up with increased playing time in 2012-13. Simon Despres, the organization's number-one pick in 2009, seems primed for a regular shift after getting his feet wet with 18 games last season. Despres scored only five goals and 15 points in 44 AHL games before collecting four points (1G, 3A) with the Pens, but it's important to remember that 2011-12 was his first pro season. He scored 41 points (13G, 28G) in 47 QMJHL games two years ago.

Ryan Ellis (Predators) - With Ryan Suter departing for greener (icier?) pastures in Minnesota, the Predators will have a huge void to fill on their top defensive pairing with Shea Weber and Ellis certainly has the tools to do so. The 21-year-old needs to work on his defense a bit, but he has the offensive firepower to warrant a spot on the Predators' power-play unit and has the chance to be a great late-round sleeper.

Dougie Hamilton (Bruins) - Hamilton is the real deal -- a Larry Robinson-type defender. He's big, skilled, smart, confident and has nothing left to prove in junior. It's rare for a teenage defender to slide into an NHL job; this guy has the ability to do it. He will deliver 25 points if he makes it past nine games.

Niklas Kronwall (Red Wings) - Sometimes, opportunity is half the battle. With Nicklas Lidstrom having retired, Kronwall is going to be the Red Wings' top blueliner this year, and that means he's going to be the one inheriting Lidstrom's duties -- which means even more ice time and even more power-play time. Kronwall's already coming off a career high in goals (15), and he could reach that mark again while tallying a boatload of assists as Detroit's power-play quarterback. Don't be surprised if he finishes among the top five defensemen.

Dmitry Kulikov (Panthers) - Jason Garrison left Florida as a free agent and Kulikov should be playing alongside Brian Campbell on the first power play unit this season. Last season Kulikov scored 28 points in 58 games - a 40-point pace - with 10 power-play points. Kulikov, still just 21, has already played three full seasons in the NHL after winning virtually every award that he could in his lone season of junior hockey in 2008-09 (named QMJHL's Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Best Defenseman, and Top Draft Prospect). Expect 40-45 points.

Nikita Nikitin (Blue Jackets) - He plays in a black hole. And he's behind the so-called sexier Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski. But it was big Niktin who scored at close to a 50-point pace after his arrival from the Blues. He will be overlooked on draft day; you shouldn't do that.

Mark Streit (Islanders) - Streit has a solid season last year after missing all of the 2010-11 campaign due to a shoulder injury. It took him a bit to get into the flow of the game, but this is a player who is used in all situations for the Islanders as he is their top defenseman. Yes, his plus/minus was hard to stomach last season, but the Isles are improving, and so should his numbers. It doesn't hurt that he may have Lubomir Visnovsky playing next to him as well.

Goalies

Corey Crawford (Blackhawks) - We have to believe last season was more of a sophomore jinx for Crawford than a sign of things to come. With Detroit and Nashville having suffered significant offseason losses, the division is not as strong as it used to be and Chicago would seem to be one of the better teams. Crawford could reap the benefit of this assuming he can put last season behind him.

Braden Holtby (Capitals) - Anyone who watched last year's playoffs understands what Holtby is capable of doing. The 22-year-old stepped in as the starter for Washington and put up a .935 save percentage and 1.95 GAA over 14 games. This isn't so different from what he's done in his too-small regular-season sample: Over 21 games split between the last two seasons, Holtby's gone 14-4-3 with a 2.02 GAA and .929 save percentage. The oft-injured and not-all-that-great Michal Neuvirth is his only competition for the starting job. Spend the extra dollar to make sure you secure Holtby's services this year.

Ondrej Pavelec (Jets) - Pavelec's 2011-12 numbers (2.91 GAA, .906 save percentage) aren't exactly going to scream "sleeper candidate", but the Jets liked the 24-year-old Czech netminder enough to sign him to a five-year deal over the summer. While Winnipeg has the tendency to struggle on defense from time to time, Pavelec most likely won't be taken as at top-15 goalie in most leagues and has the talent and opportunity to propel himself from the second/third-tier of netminders into the top echelon of backstops in 2012-13.

Kevin Poulin (Islanders) - By season's end, the crease on the Island of Misfit Toys will be his. Evgeni Nabokov is good, but injury prone at this age. Rick DiPietro is as good as gone if there's an amnesty clause in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. And the Isles will make the playoffs on this guy's back. He has the talent to be above the league average very, very soon.

Tomas Vokoun (Panthers) - If Tomas Vokoun is a sleeper in the traditional sense to you after 14 NHL campaigns, you probably should pick a pastime other than fantasy hockey. That said, his role in Pittsburgh could pay big dividends. Marc-Andre Fleury is the starter but the organization brought Vokoun in on a two-year contract to challenge the Flower. GM Ray Shero said after the season that Fleury likely played too many regular season games, even though he won a career-high 42 contests. As a result, Vokoun figures to start 25 or so games in a perfect world. If Fleury struggles again -- as he did the last three weeks of 2011-12 - then Vokoun could see extended runs for weeks at a time. At 36, Vokoun presents an injury risk of his own, but fantasy owners which pick Vokoun up on the cheap could be in for a nice return.

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