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January 16, 2013
Shots On Goal
Draft Strategy And Potential Sleepers

by Ryan Schwepfinger

Draft and preseason strategy

My longstanding theory to winning fantasy hockey is to acquire players that are undervalued by everybody else, but to do so at the appropriate cost. In this short season, I believe that the importance of your mid-to-late round draft picks/auction purchases is magnified. Anybody can draft Sidney Crosby in the first round, but the winner of the league is going to be the owner who drafts the mispriced players in the latter third, or who makes the shrewd early free agent pickups.

I've found that the key to identifying mispricing is to ask a simple question when considering a player—what are the odds this player exceeds expectations for his average draft slot/cost? For a veteran, the answer to this question is almost always "slim to none." On one hand, that's a good thing—we generally know what we will get out of an Alex Tanguay-type, for example. However, that kind of thinking is the safe way, and safe generally won't win you championships (not in the back end of drafts, anyway).

For a young player with pedigree, the answer to this question may be different. Target the unknown—rookies/second-year player types with breakout potential. You don't win your league by drafting Alex Tanguay, you win it by drafting this year's Jeff Skinner-type breakout in the same round when everyone else is drafting players like Tanguay.

Avoid players who are "hyped" enough to the point where they are no longer a favorable misprice, but rather a negative one. Great examples of such players this season: Justin Schultz, Nail Yakupov, Chris Kreider, Jonathan Huberdeau. It's impossible not to like the potential of these players, but if you draft them where they are currently going, you are setting expectations that they have virtually no chance to exceed, only meet.

Undervalued free agents

It's likely that you have already drafted for your league. Therefore, here are some players who have been largely disregarded, fit this undervalued mold, and could be available for free agency pickup. Big time sleepers.

Carl Hagelin, NYR

Hagelin has roughly the same average draft position as the aforementioned Kreider. Don't make the mistake of choosing the latter: take the player who is going to start the season with Rick Nash and Brad Richards, the player who has already garnered the trust of John Tortorella at both ends of the rink, and the player who compiled the best rookie season that no one talked about, all while battling through heavy, non-sheltered minutes.

Justin Faulk, CAR

People have put too much emphasis on Justin Faulk's -16 in 2011-12, to the point where it's likely the Hurricanes defenseman went undrafted in your league, if not completely overlooked. He played almost 23 minutes per game last year, against above-average competition in his age-19 season, but unfortunately suffered from poor puck luck thanks to his teammates. That last fact is seemingly killing his perceived value for this year, but it should not do so. Carolina should improve its possession metrics immensely with Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin, and no other defenseman on this roster (with the exception of Ryan Murphy, should he make it) has the upside of Faulk, especially on the power play. Faulk absolutely oozes upside for the price it will cost you to acquire him. He's being drafted, on average, just after teammate Joe Corvo—ask yourself, who of the two is more likely to be the type of late round breakout that wins you your league?

Mystery Forward

Before I reveal the next player, let's look at two sets of numbers:

Player A: 28 GP, 17 G, 25 A, 42 P, 28 PIM, +16
Player B: 33 GP, 25 G, 32 A, 57 P, 49 PIM, +18

These are (admittedly basic) statistics for two players in the Swiss league during the lockout. If I were to present these two sets of numbers to you, you would probably take Player B. If I were to tell you that Player A is a first round pick in fantasy drafts, and Player B is ranging from a late round pick to undrafted, the choice becomes even more clear when you factor in their prices. Remember, in fantasy hockey, you're not drafting players, you're drafting sets of numbers. If you can draft Set B fifteen rounds after Set A, that's how you win championships. This example sums up the introduction nicely, proof that selecting Player A (John Tavares, NYI) at his price won't win you your league, but selecting Player B (Damien Brunner, DET) at his price just might. Yes, the style of the Swiss league compared to the NHL, along with the adjustment factor come into play, but the numbers certainly don't dissuade, and neither does playing on a line with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. I have bought in to Brunner.

Cam Atkinson, CBJ

A trendy pick, but nevertheless worth discussing, Cam Atkinson is a player who has simply scored everywhere he has gone. In fact, he was already one of Columbus' best possession forwards last season, and is starting the year on the top line with R.J. Umberger and Derick Brassard. The Blue Jackets desperately need scoring, and Atkinson will be counted on. His current price in leagues is criminally low.

Jiri Tlusty, CAR

Did you know that Jiri Tlusty, a former 13th overall pick, is only entering his age-24 season? It feels like he has been around for a while, but this is still a young player that is receiving an early season opportunity to play alongside Eric Staal and Alex Semin. He has the pedigree, time is on his side, and he is being placed in a position to succeed. This is how breakouts happen.

Steve Downie, COL
Steve Ott, BUF
Derek Dorsett, CBJ

The majority of fantasy hockey leagues count PIMs as a positive statistic, and many also count hits. These are three players that can carry you in the gritty statistics while also helping out offensively. Players like Milan Lucic, Dustin Brown, and Shane Doan are appropriately valuated based on their combination of skill and grittiness, but players like this, who tend to lean towards the grit, are often disregarded. Follow the actual NHL mold—don't waste a roster spot on a pure enforcer (i.e. Zac Rinaldo) who will give you nothing in the other categories. Dorsett is particularly interesting, as he led the league in penalty minutes last season and has been playing on the Blue Jackets' second line alongside Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov.

Peter Mueller, FLA

Like Tlusty, it's easy to forget that Mueller is only entering his age-24 season, and that he was a former eighth overall pick. Battling concussions, he finally looks ready to resume full-time duty in the league, and the extra rest could only have helped. He signed in the perfect place, Florida, a team with no star forwards, where he should receive plenty of opportunity to show the skill that made him such a high draft pick. He has been playing with Jonathan Huberdeau and Alex Kovalev in camp on the second line, and if he receives power play time, he could pick up where Tomas Fleischmann left off in terms of injury comebacks in the Sunshine State.

Roman Cervenka, CGY

There are a lot of "ifs" here, including his blood clot issue and if he gets to play alongside Jarome Iginla, but if he does, Cervenka has potential and is not receiving nearly the attention that a first line center on any team with one of this millennium's best forwards should. He's similar to Brunner, but less of a sure thing.

Brayden Schenn, PHI

Another former top prospect with pedigree, Brayden Schenn is playing for an elite offensive team and is reportedly getting the first crack at playing alongside Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell. Sean Couturier is perhaps a better overall player, but he is being drafted ahead of Schenn despite filling a more defensive role. Perhaps unfortunately, you don't get points for backchecking in fantasy. Schenn should be receiving more attention.

Roman Josi, NAS
Ryan Ellis, NAS

Watch for a) who gets to play alongside Shea Weber at even strength and b) who gets to play the point alongside Shea Weber on the power play. Ryan Suter parlayed that role into value, and as an undrafted pickup, either of these players could provide great value for the cost.

Beau Bennett, PIT
Eric Tangradi, PIT

Monitor this situation closely, because these are the two players rotating opportunities in camp to play alongside Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. The line combinations change frequently in Pittsburgh, so I would not jump to acquire either player, but if the above two players are your linemates, you are worth consideration.

Teddy Purcell, TBL
Cory Conacher, TBL

Very similar to the above situation, watch either of these players and consider them if they get power play time or regular even strength time alongside Steven Stamkos. Purcell received such an opportunity and recorded one of the quietest 65-point seasons I can remember. As such, his price is currently far too low. Conacher is rumored to be in the mix for a high role, and he is coming off an 80-point season in his first full year in the AHL. Keep him on your radar.

Devante Smith-Pelly, ANA

Smith-Pelly was a point-per-game player at his age-17 and age-18 seasons in the OHL, and he is a second round pick with pedigree. After battling through a tough rookie season, hindered by an injury he suffered right after being released to compete in the World Juniors, it's likely that many owners have written him off. If the Ducks fall out of the race and decide to trade Corey Perry or Bobby Ryan, don't make that mistake—he's still just 20 years old, and he is a logical choice to see increased scoring line minutes. He's not worth adding now, but could be down the stretch.

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