If you’ve ever won your fantasy hockey league, chances are there was either a sleeper or a player having a breakout season on your roster that helped propel you to victory.
Typically, high-end draft picks often cancel each other out and where you gain a real advantage over your competition is landing that player who comes somewhat out of nowhere. Take Dylan Cozens last season for example, as the Buffalo Sabres forward broke out for 68 points and raised his shot total by more than 50. If you snagged him late in your draft, he turned out to be a steal and probably carried your squad to a few victories.
These players don’t always have to be targeted in drafts, though, as sometimes you can find a gem or two in the first couple of weeks on waivers that turn out to be difference makers. Maybe a change in deployment or an early hot streak sparks a great season.
The earlier you identify these players, the better your chances at a championship become.
1. The New Jersey Devils are likely going to be one of the more targeted teams in your fantasy drafts, with players like Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier flying off the board fairly early. That means there could be good value in Dawson Mercer, who is going to take advantage of a loaded top six that now also includes Tyler Toffoli. Mercer finished with 56 points last season, thanks to grabbing 20 of them in a 12-game point streak. I think this year he could flirt with 70 if all goes well.
2. The Calder race should be very compelling this season and I’m anxious to see how Luke Hughes stacks up. With all the offensive talent the Devils boast, could Hughes hit 50 points if he gets decent minutes and some power-play time?
3. Speaking of 70 points, I think Matty Beniers has a chance to get there as early as this season. There is a little concern that linemate Jared McCann will regress slightly because of a high shooting percentage last year, but Beniers is just 20 and only going to get better. Plus, I think it’s clear he’s well above Shane Wright on the depth chart at this point and will be the Seattle Kraken’s top centre for the foreseeable future.
4. There won’t be many Boston Bruins that benefit from Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci’s retirement, but Pavel Zacha is one. Zacha has stumbled into the Bruins’ number one centre role by default and that might give him an opportunity to build on the 57 points he dropped last season. I think what’s key here is how Boston deploys its top six. If they play Zacha with both David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, he could have major value this season. Even if he only plays with one, Zacha should still see a substantial uptick in power-play time.
5. I was very intrigued with Jonathan Drouin as a deep sleeper this season, though the addition of Tomas Tatar complicates things. Drouin would’ve been a great fit on a top line with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen and he still could be, but Tatar will definitely create more competition in the Colorado Avalanche top six. Whoever plays with MacKinnon and Rantanen will be a must-have.
6. Barrett Hayton only had 43 points last season, but 34 of those came in his final 47 games. That’s a 73-point pace to go along with over a hit per game. The line of Hayton, Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz was one of the most potent down the stretch in 2022-23 and if that continues into this year, Hayton will be a savvy pick.
7. Newly added defender Sean Durzi should get the first crack at quarterbacking Arizona’s top power-play unit and he’s becoming a bit of a specialist in that area. Two years ago, when Drew Doughty was sidelined with an injury, Durzi recorded more than half of his 27 points on the power play and he managed to better that total last season with Doughty healthy. He should get more playing time with the man advantage in 2023-24 and would make a nice depth addition to your roster on the blueline.
8. I’m very interested to see what Jakub Vrana can do over a full season. He’s scored at a 42-goal pace over the past three campaigns and found the back of the net 10 times in 20 games after joining the St. Louis Blues last year, but he hasn’t played enough to be fantasy relevant. Still, very few players can score the way Vrana can, so he’ll be a tempting late-round gamble.
9. Brayden Schenn isn’t exactly a sleeper at this point in his career, but he’s unquestionably one of the more underappreciated players in fantasy. He’s usually good for around 60 points and has at least 100 hits in 12 straight seasons. Schenn’s ceiling isn’t very high, though he’s one of the safest picks out there.
10. Even though you could argue Owen Tippett’s breakout may have come last season, I still think he’ll be under the radar again. He is quietly coming off a season with 27 goals and really strong shot and hits coverage. Tippett will be on the Philadelphia Flyers’ top line and first power-play unit, while getting significant minutes. Don’t miss out on him.
11. Thomas Novak was one of the best kept secrets in fantasy last season, notching 43 points in 51 games. The Nashville Predators centre did all of that while barely playing with Filip Forsberg. I think Novak has a real chance to overtake Ryan O’Reilly as the Preds’ top centre and play regularly with Forsberg this time around.
12. Andre Burakovsky has been scoring at over a 60-point pace in four straight seasons now, though he’s only been healthy enough in one of those campaigns to have real fantasy value. The Seattle Kraken really filled the net last season, so if you take a chance on Burakovksy and he plays close to 80 games, you won’t be disappointed.
13. I talked extensively about some sleeper goalies in an article earlier this week and I really think Joseph Woll, Akira Schmid and Pyotr Kochetkov are all good targets. All three are on strong squads where there could be a path to taking over the number one job for a good portion of the season.
14. Someone whom I didn’t have on that bargain-goalies list is Cam Talbot. He’s in a great spot, but the odds of a 36-year-old netminder with some recent injury concerns playing more than 35 games seems slim to me. Still, Talbot will have more upside than most goalies that will probably be hanging around later in your draft.
15. Coming off 35 points in his first full season in the NHL as a 20-year-old, I think Owen Power could do big things in 2023-24. The Buffalo Sabres clearly trust him, as Power played almost 24 minutes a night last season and as long as that continues, his offensive production is only going to rise as he continues to get a better grasp on the pro game. Buffalo should be one of the highest-scoring teams once again and are stocked full of young talent, so it wouldn’t shock me if Power makes a jump to around 50 points.
16. Mason McTavish dropped 17 goals as a rookie and if you watch him play, it feels like he has the makings of a future multi-cat fantasy stud. In leagues that count faceoffs I don’t think it’s going to be long before McTavish gives you a little bit of everything and he’s going to end up being great for overall category coverage. If you’re in a keeper league, I’d try to get McTavish locked up this season.
17. Kirby Dach scored at a 65-point pace last season and if he’s deployed on the top line again with Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki, there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue. He also had sneaky value when it came to penalty minutes, recording 43 in 58 contests, which works out to more than 60 over a full 82 games. That’s not bad at all for an offensive forward.
18. I talked about Connor Brown in my mailbag earlier this week, but I’ll reiterate it here. He could have a 30-goal season in him if he stays healthy and plays with McDavid for most of the year. Target him as a late sleeper pick.
19. Sticking with the Edmonton Oilers, this has to be the year for an Evan Bouchard breakout. You could argue that it already came last season with 36 points in his final 31 games when including the playoffs, but for fantasy hockey purposes, it was a 40-point regular season. This year I think the over/under should be set at 70. With Tyson Barrie gone, Bouchard is going to get a full season quarterbacking one of the best power plays ever. He should be a can’t miss pick.
20. I noticed a bit of an uproar when Yahoo! released their initial position eligibility for players, which has since been updated. This tends to happen every year and people get frustrated when they see a player that should clearly have dual eligibility but doesn’t. It usually gets ironed out as we get closer to the start of the season and it’s a big reason why I always recommend waiting as long as you can to hold your drafts. Between this, possible trades and roster decisions during training camps, you won’t have the most accurate outlook of the players you’re picking if you draft too early.