Talent and opportunity are the best identifiers when trolling for fantasy hockey sleepers. Here are 10 players who, through a combination of talent and opportunity coming into the 2017-18 season, have a chance to outperform their ranking and average draft position.
There is a very good chance that we, the collective fantasy hockey community, just aren't ready to accept the fact that we could have a second generational player developing in lockstep and only a year behind another. Matthews has all the opportunity in the world to be 2016-17 Connor McDavid, version 2.0. He's being ranked (No. 29) and drafted (ADP of 18.0) ahead of the value he finished with last season (No. 43 on the ESPN Player Rater), but not by much. Remember that he turned in that value while playing just 17:38 per game, which ranked 90th among NHL forwards last season. Coach Mike Babcock doesn't have to give Matthews more ice time, but with a win-now attitude in Toronto, here's betting he starts getting it. And this isn't even mentioning yet that Patrick Marleau is a huge upgrade over Zach Hyman on the wing.
For one, let's remember that Arvidsson didn't start last season on the top line for the Predators. In fact, he averaged 14:00 per game in October and slowly worked his way onto a unit with Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg. Yet, despite that muted start, Arvidsson finished with 31 goals and 30 assists, complemented by a whopping 246 shots on goal. At 17:09 of ice time per game last season, Arvidsson had the lowest minutes of all NHLers who finished among the top-20 for shots on goal. Still just 24 years old, Arvidsson should be pegged for improvement, but instead, he is being drafted for regression with an ADP of 126.0.
Last season, Stepan finished 24th among all centers and 42nd among all forwards for fantasy value on the ESPN Player Rater. So far this season, he's being drafted 39th among all centers and 90th among all forwards with an ADP of 141.2. He's being drafted as if the Coyotes traded for him in order to bring him out to the desert and rot. That is obviously not the case. Stepan, though only 27, will be a veteran leader for a crop of kids that includes Dylan Strome, Clayton Keller, Christian Dvorak, Anthony Duclair, Brendan Perlini and Max Domi - all of whom are 22 or younger. Stepan will be this team's only top-six forward who wasn't in diapers when the franchise was still in Winnipeg. Bottom line: He's going to be depended on for a lot of scoring situations and should push his already fantasy-relevant totals even higher.
Not even showing up among the top 200 for ADP in early drafts, Larkin begs forgiveness for a sophomore slump of epic proportions. Let's not forget that he turned in 23 goals and 45 points in a rookie campaign that came out of left field in 2015-16. His totals plummeted last season as the Red Wings struggled throughout the lineup. Assuming the team as a whole trends back toward their collective talent levels, Larkin could emerge as a leader for the group. You won't find too many other guys that are already NHL-tested and have 30-goal potential after the 200th pick in your draft.
Injuries last season prevented Fabbri from building on a successful 2015-16 rookie campaign. He's still only 21 years old and is being pegged for a move to center this season. While, that may seem troubling on paper with Brayden Schenn coming to town and Paul Stastny already residing there, this deserves a second look. Vladimir Tarasenko needs a new center, with Jori Lehtera now gone, and we know already that Stastny doesn't click in that role. Schenn has been playing the wing throughout his tenure with the Flyers and could just as easily stay there. It won't take much for Fabbri to push up the depth chart and earn a connection with Tarasenko on the top line.
"Strome drips with creative offense and could be a huge boon to the Islanders when he is ready for a top-six role, but that might not be right away. There are plenty of danglers that have made junior hockey opponents look silly only to never find their defensive feet in the NHL." That's what I wrote about Strome in September 2013. I've been waiting for this kid to hit the big time for some time. Swapped for Jordan Eberle in the offseason, Strome gets a fresh start in Edmonton where early projections have him playing on a line with Connor McDavid. We'd be talking about where to draft a sack of onions if it was pegged to share the ice in the offensive zone with McDavid, but the fact is that we are talking about a 24-year-old who has scored at better than a point per game for his career at every level except the NHL. Strome certainly struggled with his 200-foot game in Long Island, but McDavid erases a lot of those concerns with his own ability. The sky is the limit here, but just don't get too cute. The Oilers have lots of other options, and Strome has zero fantasy value as a bottom-six forward.
Not all sleepers are the sexy kind of sleepers that make you look knowledgable in front of your leaguemates. Some sleepers are downright ugly, but they get the job done. Phaneuf is not a pick that will make anyone tip their fantasy cap in your direction, but the dude does his job, statistically. He finished 20th among defensemen last season on the ESPN Player Rater, but is being drafted this season as the 39th defenseman off the board. To boot, he could have the power play all to himself to begin the season, as Erik Karlsson continues to recover from a heel injury.
This 22-year-old defenseman has had a couple of false starts to his NHL career, but he has all the makings of a new power play quarterback for the Islanders. His shot is a cannon, as evidenced by his scoring totals in the AHL. He was two goals off the league lead in 2014-15 as an AHL rookie, scoring 17 goals in just 54 games (the defensemen ahead of him all played 62 games or more). Pulock might have earned the quarterback role last season if not for an early lower-body injury that shelved him until December. After that, he finished out the season in the AHL, once again scoring at an elevated pace (15 goals and 46 points in 55 games). With Travis Hamonic's locker cleared out, there is a clear path to prime time for Pulock.
I totally get a soft approach to Smith. It's easy to sell the bad argument here: He's a 35-year-old goaltender who ranks 31st in wins, 48th in save percentage and 71st in goals against average (of 77 goalies with at least 20 starts) over the past three seasons. That's far from encouraging. But the other side of this coin is that Smith has been in goaltending purgatory with the Arizona Coyotes during that time, on teams that finished 14th, 10th and 10th in the Western Conference with a losing record every season. The Calgary Flames, on the other hand, are coming off a winning campaign in which their biggest weakness was inconsistent goaltending. If Smith can go out and stop at least 91 percent of the pucks thrown his way, as he has done for his career, his numbers could push into No. 1 fantasy goalie territory. He's being drafted now as a low-end No. 2, with an ADP of 163.2.
Petr Mrazek, G, Detroit Red Wings (NR)
The entire Detroit Red Wings team struggled last season with scoring and defense, yet we are collectively throwing out Mrazek's sterling track record prior to last season with the bathwater? That doesn't seem entirely fair. No, the Red Wings didn't make a lot of standout personnel changes during the offseason, but that's been true for a couple of years now. This is still largely the same squad that skated in front of Mrazek in 2015-16, when he stole the starting job from Jimmy Howard with 27 wins, a 2.33 goals against average and a .921 save percentage. The job is likely Howard's heading into this season, but if a 25-year-old Mrazek - in the final year of his contract - decides to buckle down and improve his play, he could easily swing the pendulum back in his favor.