Offseason Notebook: Eastern conference sleepers
For the past two weeks, I have stressed the importance of identifying busts before you partake in your fantasy hockey draft. Overvalued players tend to be drafted much higher than undervalued players, making the "bust" more important to your team's value than the "sleeper."
But let's face it ... you are all about the sleeper, aren't you?
Everyone wants to be the guy who drafted Rookie McHotshot or Ivan Scoresalot and then brags to his league mates all season.
Busts are boring. Sleepers are sexy.
So, like we did for the past two weeks, when we looked at a bust candidate from each team, we'll now turn our eyes to a sleeper from each squad.
Once again, it's Eastern Conference to start and Western Conference next week.
Dainius Zubrus, C, Devils: Here I am blabbering away about sleepers and I immediately hit you with a household name for fantasy players. Well, I'm trying to tell you that Zubrus is going to be much better than you think he will be in New Jersey. The Devils don't have any position battles brewing for their top six forward positions; they merely need to decide where, and Zubrus is primed for the best role of all. He'll be the set-up man for Brian Gionta and Patrik Elias. Travis Zajac, Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner were a cohesive unit last season, and with Zajac and Parise only getting better, coach Brent Sutter likely won't tinker. That leaves Zubrus to ply his trade with Elias and Gionta on a regular basis. A full season of Zubrus on New Jersey's top line should put him in the 75-point range, with a ceiling of 85. Zubrus can be drafted as a No. 3 center, but he will deliver much more than that.
Jeff Tambellini, LW, Islanders: In the immortal words of John Fogerty, "Put me in coach, I'm ready to play!" Tambellini should steal the first-line left-wing role before the season begins and should be good for a 60-point season (as a basement). Tambellini has lightning speed and plays well in every zone. He has scored at better than a point-per-game pace at every level of hockey, save the NHL. Tambellini ended up being a key cog in the Isles' run at the postseason in April, and by signing no one else other than Ruslan Fedotenko to play the port side, the opportunity is there for Tambellini to grab a key role again. Look for him late in your draft, and you'll be rewarded with a great injury fill-in for shallow leagues or a consistent regular for deep leagues.
Michal Rozsival, D, Rangers: Like Rodney Dangerfield, Rozsival gets no respect, no respect at all. He improved from a 30-point player in 2005-06 to a 40-point player last season, and with the revamped Rangers team he has to work with, his ceiling is yet to come. Rozsival will generate No. 1 defenseman stats this season on a terrific power play. Contrary to popular belief, there are few challengers as power-play quarterbacks on Broadway. Paul Mara has a big shot, not the ability to move the puck around. So Mara needs to contend with Brendan Shanahan for power-play time, not Rozsival. Even Marc Staal gets most of his points from smart breakout passes, not with the man advantage. No, Rozsival is this team's answer on the blue line whenever an opponent is in the box. Draft Rozsival as a No. 2 defenseman and laugh all the way to the bank as he quickly proves to be a No. 1.
Scott Hartnell, RW, Flyers: Mike Knuble is 35 years old, played only 64 games last season and didn't have his career season until 2005-06. Hartnell is 25 years old, played only 64 games last season and has the skills to become a premier power forward in the game. Knuble may be the incumbent, but before long I see Hartnell on the top line with Daniel Briere and Simon Gagne. Hartnell will be taken as a No. 3 winger in deeper leagues, but I think he has No. 2 winger stats this season, playing half of it with the top line. Hartnell should have shallow-league value, as well, if this plays out. To maximize in shallow leagues, look for him as an in-season pickup.
Petr Sykora, C/RW, Penguins: A seemingly forgotten candidate to play on Sidney Crosby's line, Sykora should be a cheap target in drafts. I don't think I need to explain the potential points associated with playing on a line with Sid the Kid. The main competition is a decade older or a decade younger than Sykora, so he has a reasonable shot.
Carl Soderberg, C, Bruins: With few bright spots screaming "undervalued," Soderberg would be the best end-draft pick from the Bruins for your deep fantasy league. The latest news is about his missing the start of training camp to stay in Sweden. He suffered an eye injury last season and is not 100 percent yet. Soderberg is a big boy, with all-around abilities. He can hit, skate, shoot and pass with above-average skills across the board. As a fantasy asset this season, he would be someone to stash away. When he's healthy and ready to go, I foresee the Bruins needing a lift. His size (6-foot-3) should help him transition well to North America. With an obvious weakness on the wing, the Bruins could use Soderberg as their second-line center and convert both Patrice Bergeron and Phil Kessel to the wing. I think we'll see Soderberg this season, and I think he'll have a fantasy impact.
Drew Stafford, RW, Sabres: The first question you might ask me after reading Stafford's name is: "Where is he going to get the ice time, Sean?" Well, I'll tell you this much: Stafford will find ice time one way or another. The top six in Buffalo may be penciled in without Stafford, but he'll force coach Lindy Ruff's hand one way or another. Maxim Afinogenov and Jochen Hecht won't ever be mistaken for durable, so there is always the injury route for Stafford. More likely though, I see him being a natural fit on the one of the lines because he plays physically. I can't speculate at who will get the boot, but all six of these wingers play small, while Stafford plays big. They need someone to slot in and play a tough but skilled role. Stafford is a lock for 60 points.
Andrei Kostitsyn, RW, Canadiens: Kostitsyn is going to be on every one of my fantasy teams this year. It's been a slow transition to North America for the Russian, but he finally made the AHL look silly last season. He has skills with the puck that can be compared only to, well, teammate Alexei Kovalev. While Kovalev often lacks desire, though, Kostitsyn is a hard worker and -- coincidentally enough -- may replace Kovalev on the top line. I am expecting a breakout season for Kostitsyn in the range of 65-70 points. The Habs need a go-to goal scorer; Michael Ryder leading the team in goals while copping a minus-25 rating has been uninspiring.
Chris Kelly, C, Senators: The Senators are bound to try to separate their three stars to create two scoring lines. It didn't work well last season when Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson were apart, but there are some new pieces to the puzzle that could make it possible this year. Chris Kelly and (to a certain extent) Josh Hennessey give the Sens some speedy players who can keep up with the aforementioned superstars. Kelly has some deep-league value because of his plus/minus anyway, so an increase in points would be quite significant. He's a good guy to gamble on, though, as he will have some value no matter where he plays on the Sens.
Simon Gamache, C, Maple Leafs: Gamache has destroyed at every level but the NHL. The Leafs are taking a wise gamble by bringing him back from Europe on a two-year contract. Gamache won the CHL Player of the Year award in 2000, the year he was drafted by Atlanta. With his size (5-foot-10) he was never given a fair shake in the old NHL. He still put up dynamic offensive numbers in the Swiss league last season, so the skill is there; it's just a matter of opportunity. Pending a surprise in the preseason, there is not a roster spot ready for Gamache, but if injuries strike he will get a chance. He is only 26 years old, so there is still time. Stash him on the bench in deep leagues.
Brett Sterling, LW, Thrashers: You may be wondering why I didn't list Bryan Little here. Therein lies the problem. If you're expecting me to talk about him, he's not really a sleeper, is he? While Little has Calder potential if he makes the team, Sterling should quietly make the Thrashers and put up points. Sterling led all rookies in the AHL with 97 points last season and has the ability to start and finish plays. Now, Sterling is not undersized, he's downright tiny. At 5-foot-7 he'll have his work cut out for him, but little guys can succeed in the new NHL. If Todd White doesn't work out as the center for Marian Hossa and Vyacheslav Kozlov, Kozlov could shift back over to center, leaving an opening for Sterling on the port side. He's definitely someone to keep an eye on.
Andrew Ladd, LW, Hurricanes: I've been waiting for Ladd to bust out for a couple seasons now. He certainly showed some flashes in an injury-shortened 2006-07 campaign. The problem remains a lack of space in Carolina's top six. Ladd is a power forward and the Hurricanes already have Erik Cole to fill that role. However, I think Carolina's third line is going to do some damage this year. Ladd should line up with Matt Cullen and Scott Walker. Even if injuries don't press Ladd into a prime-time role, I could see him approaching 45 points on the third line. Ladd could have value in deep leagues, especially if the triple-digit penalty minutes he put up in his junior career show up in the NHL.
Cory Murphy, D, Panthers: We've been waiting a long time for Jay Bouwmeester to become an elite power-play quarterback -- too long, frankly. Scoring 40-plus points per season is good, but not great. The door remains open for someone else to steal away power-play minutes on the blue line. Enter Murphy: a 29-year-old power-play specialist who has been honing his skills in Europe for the past six years. While dominating Europeans doesn't guarantee NHL success, you don't often see defensemen in Europe putting up more than a point per game. The power play is where Murphy shines, so he really would be a specialist in the truest sense of the word. However, he is not the defensive liability that a Ric Jackman is, so Murphy could actually stay out of the doghouse. He is worth a shot as a No. 6 defenseman.
Michel Ouellet, C, Lightning: Ouellet showed us his skills last season, but he was never going to get the ice time in Pittsburgh to be a strong fantasy asset. The opposite is true in Tampa Bay, as Ouellet will be heavily relied upon as a complement to Brad Richards on the second line. You should be able to draft Ouellet as a No. 3 right winger, but he'll give you upwards of 65 points.
Tom Poti, D, Capitals: You know Poti's name, but he's being extraordinarily underrated this season. Poti steps in at the helm of what is going to be a dominant power play and will be the most talented puck-moving defenseman Alexander Ovechkin has had a chance to work with. I'm banking on at least 50 points and numbers worthy of a No. 1 defenseman, but you can draft him much later.
Sean Allen is a fantasy hockey and baseball analyst at ESPN.com and TalentedMrRoto.com. He can be reached at alla_rino@TalentedMrRoto.com.
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