Commentary

Hockey Notebook: Western sleepers

Updated: September 25, 2007, 7:36 AM ET
By Sean Allen | Special to ESPN.com

As promised, and just in time for the quickly approaching season, here is the final piece of the offseason look at sleepers and busts: It's your Western Conference sleepers …

Western Conference

Tuomo Ruutu, LW, Blackhawks: With all the buzz surrounding Jonathan Toews and Pat Kane, Ruutu seems to be a forgotten commodity. He managed a relatively healthy season (for him) with 71 games last season and is almost a lock to play wing on the first line. I would not be shocked to see a Toews/Ruutu/Martin Havlat combination as the top power-play unit. Yet, Ruutu seems to be a write-off for fantasy owners who are looking for the next generation of high-upside Hawks. Give me Ruutu over Kane in any format. If anyone is a risk for injury, it's the diminutive Kane.

Nikolai Zherdev, LW, Blue Jackets: Just as I am ready to declare Zherdev "dead to me" for fantasy purposes comes the shocker that the Jackets will try him at center. There's an Associated Press story that quotes general manager Scott Howson saying that Zherdev "fell out of his seat" when he was asked about playing center, so we aren't the only ones who are shocked. It's a completely different world down the middle than it is on the side, but the new Columbus regime is committed to helping Zherdev along the way. If the Jackets can get him to play unselfishly, he will succeed as a center. Playing with Rick Nash and David Vyborny would be an absolute boon to his value. The extra value comes as you still should be able to play Zherdev in a wing slot on your fantasy team this season.

Igor Grigorenko, RW, Red Wings: Detroit will be an unsettled team on the depth chart after you look past the first line. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will likely play with Tomas Holmstrom. Now what? Jiri Hudler is expected to step up his game, but will he? Of Valtteri Filppula, Dan Cleary, Johan Franzen and Mikael Samuelsson, who actually rounds out the top six, even if the Datsyuk/Zetterberg combination is broken up? That is the question that allows Grigorenko to have some modest value as a sleeper. The prospect still projects as a scoring line winger. It's been years since he was drafted and then injured in a serious car accident. He is rehabbed and ready to win a spot on the Wings. There is more than an outside chance that his spot may be on a scoring line.

Pekka Rinne, G, Predators: Call me a skeptic all you like, but I don't buy the whole "breakout goaltender at the age of 30" thing. Chris Mason put up inconsistent numbers for 10 straight years, had one good half-season, and all of a sudden Nashville hands him the reins? No thank you. While I think it's more important to avoid Mason as your starter in most leagues, deeper leagues should think about rostering Rinne. He is expected to take over the starter's role in Nashville in the next couple of seasons, so why not now?

Erik Johnson, D, Blues: I am torn about what to do with Johnson. I have been trying to downplay his impact and telling anyone who asks not to get all gushy over him, but at the same time I am very excited about what he could do. In other words, my brain says "no" but my heart says "yes." Logically, Johnson is stepping onto a team that still isn't there yet (and by "there," I mean ready to compete with the big boys), but my gut tells me this kid is going to go off like a rocket this season -- Calder Trophy, whispers about a Norris, the works. I will list him as a sleeper here because my gut wants it, not my brain.

Owen Nolan, RW, Flames: Coach Mike Keenan didn't earn the nickname "Iron" by getting his daily minerals. If Owen Nolan wins a relatively important role on the Flames, you can be assured that it has nothing to do with his name or his contract. That's why I think Nolan deserves some attention this year. If his health is good enough for Iron Mike, it's good enough for me. Take a late-round flier on him and see if he pans out.

T.J. Hensick, C, Avalanche: I really don't think his development would be best served by playing on the Avalanche, especially considering that the team doesn't really need him. However, it should be noted that if Hensick continues to look as if he might break camp with the club instead of going to the AHL, he needs to be on your radar. This is the guy who led the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in points last season. Until Hensick is ruled out of Colorado's plans, he deserves to be somewhere other than the waiver wire. The team might play him on the wing to get him onto a scoring line. Heck, if the Avs bring in Hensick they will have three scoring lines, not two.

Robert Nilsson, RW, Oilers: Every single year I pick Nilsson expecting him to break out. Every single year I am disappointed. You think that is going to stop me though? OK, so I am not taking Nilsson in a league where my plus/minus can't absorb some negative energy, but I am expecting Nilsson to start flashing his all-world talent. In the end, I am not too concerned about his stalled development. It did take the Sedin twins several years to become factors on the ice, night in and night out. If Nilsson can find the right guys to click with he could finally have that 60-point season to signal that he has arrived. Obviously, I think he is for deeper leagues until the Oilers get better.

Josh Harding, G, Wild: As I wrote about Rinne, Mason and the Predators, I just don't buy this aging, bust-out goaltender theory that both teams are employing. Niklas Backstrom did nothing exemplary in his career until last season, and now the Wild have handed him the keys to their defensive machine. Guess what? Harding is going to be a factor this season. He will steal starts away from Backstrom and will be there if Backstrom stumbles, even a little bit. Harding doesn't have the stamina to be the team's No. 1 goalie, but he has the stamina to damage Backstrom's value enough that I don't want to own Nikl-Back in any league. I'll take Harding in semideep leagues as bait for Backstrom's owner, and I'll take him in ultradeep leagues expecting some very decent stats.

Ryan Shannon, RW, Mason Raymond, LW, and Ryan Kesler, C, Canucks: Take your pick of these three sleepers, just make sure that none of them can be had off the wire in deeper leagues. The Sedins are looking for a wingman and these names are the first to be batted about. Kesler has been shifted from center for a trial on the Sedins' wing, and it has been working in camp. That is no guarantee though. Shannon was brought over in a trade to audition for the role and Raymond continues to impress in camp with his speed. Take a gamble on this position in your league. The Sedins are getting better and better, and if they can effectively use a single winger all season, it would be a career season for that person.

Ryan Getzlaf, C, Ducks: Here's a shallow sleeper for you. Getzlaf has been and will be a top-100 pick in most drafts, I'm putting him here to state that I think he is a top-30 player and a top-10 center. Not only did Getzlaf lead the Ducks in points during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but with Teemu Selanne not returning, this team needs a leader. Guess who exudes leadership, as it's one of the first qualities scouts highlighted in him through his junior career? That's right. No matter with whom he winds up skating, Getzlaf will lead the Ducks this season, just as he did during the postseason. He won't be undervalued very long once the season starts.

Joel Lundqvist, LW, Stars: Joel, brother of Henrik, has the upside of a 25-goal scorer and a 65-point kind of guy. Nothing special until you consider his two-way prowess and knack for racking up a few PIMs. Throw in a plus-15 and 65 PIMs and all off a sudden we are talking about deep-league material. Lundqvist's development depends on the Stars pushing forward a youth movement this season, so if you see Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen with 25 minutes of ice time per game, consider waiting on Lundqvist until next season.

Jonathan Bernier, G, Kings: This kid (literally, he's 19) is pegged as a future No. 1 goalie, but he wasn't supposed to be a factor this season. With the release of Dan Cloutier though, there is now a distinct possibility that we could see Bernier in a Kings uniform this season. Jason LaBarbera has had issues translating AHL success into the NHL, while Jean-Sebastien Aubin has been a career backup. The Kings have a team in place to win now, so Bernier might be their best option. At the very least, he deserves to be drafted over LaBarbera or Aubin because his upside is better than theirs. He may not win the job, but if he does, we'll see shades of Henrik Lundqvist's rookie season.

Alex Auld, G, Coyotes: I said I would pick a sleeper for every team, so Auld gets the nod as the least of all evils. With all the sorrowful projections for the team in Phoenix, it's being overlooked that the Coyotes actually have a somewhat decent defense. And think about it, if you have no offense to speak of and a decent defensive corps, what are you going to concentrate on? Keeping the pucks out of our net would be tops for me. When I project Coyotes to have an atrocious plus/minus it's not because they will be scored on an excessive amount, it's because they won't score. So with that said, I give you Alex Auld for deep leagues. Will he win more than 20 games even if he plays 70 for the Coyotes? I doubt it, but you can easily underestimate the value of really cheap and decent ratios from a goaltender. Auld is my favorite to emerge from the trio in the desert.

Sandis Ozolinsh, D, and Devin Setoguchi, RW, Sharks: Somebody help me. Please. I can't lay off the Ozolinsh Kool-Aid. I drink it every season. He just has so much offense to his game he is hard to resist in fantasy. He won't start the season with the Sharks, and in fact cannot legally sign a contract until Oct. 10 because of the league's substance abuse policy. Still, he would be the only Sharks defenseman who could let loose a dangerous point shot. If you are a more reasonable person than I am, look at Setoguchi. He is pressing his case for making the Sharks out of camp, and there are openings alongside Patrick Marleau on the second line and second power-play unit.

Sean Allen is a fantasy hockey and baseball analyst for ESPN.com and TalentedMrRoto.com. He can be reached at alla_rino@TalentedMrRoto.com.

Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He was the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can tweet him @seanard.

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