The Top Fantasy Hockey Sleepers and Busts for 2020-21

Which players are steals at their current average draft positions? Which players are getting picked way too early? Keep this cheat sheet close when drafting for your pool.
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Forget traditional fantasy-draft prep. With the details of the NHL season only unveiled a few weeks ago and teams wading through a river of immigration issues, quarantine periods and, now, positive COVID-19 tests, it’s simply impossible to absorb all the information you would in a normal off-season with a full summer to prepare. It’s time we make peace with that and cram as best we can in these final days before the regular season begins Jan. 13. It’s not going to be perfect. Bad things will happen to your players. Your first-round pick may end up quarantined the next day. Don’t worry about it. Just embrace the unpredictability and move like water.

With the condensed schedule, I won’t be publishing separate articles detailing my top 10 sleepers and top 10 busts of the 2020-21 fantasy season. It’s a top five for each this time, stuffed into a single cheat sheet to ensure you have a couple days to read it if you haven’t drafted yet.

THE TOP FIVE FANTASY SLEEPERS FOR 2020-21

We start with the sleeper picks, which I always select based on average draft position (ADP) data from Yahoo leagues rather than just rhyming off names I’m expecting to have breakout years. A sleeper isn’t a sleeper if everyone scrambles to pick him and his draft position skyrockets. For instance, I’m extremely high on Andrei Svechnikov this year, willing to reach on him in Round 2. I think of him as a Hart Trophy darkhorse. But you know who else feels that way about him: EVERYONE. I rank him as my No. 25 overall player this season, but his Yahoo ADP is actually 15.5. He’s nothing close to a sleeper.

I define sleepers as…

1. Players who will outperform their average draft positions
2. Players who will outperform some players drafted before them
3. Players you can steal cheap at the end of drafts to reap major profits

I cook up my top sleepers by cross-referencing Yahoo ADPs with my current top 250 fantasy player rankings. I don’t necessarily hit on every sleeper every time, but if you followed my list last year, you might’ve stolen Kevin Fiala, Nazem Kadri and Brady Tkachuk.

Here are five sleepers I’m looking at – keeping in mind I don’t consider a sleeper “a guy no one knows about.” For me it’s simply, “a guy going way too late in drafts.”

Max Domi, Columbus Blue Jackets (my rank: 109th; Yahoo ADP: 159.6)

I get it. Domi busted out for a career year in 2018-19 with the Montreal Canadiens, notching 28 goals and 72 points, but he tumbled to 17 goals and 44 points in 71 games last season, ended up on the fourth line during the post-season and got traded to Columbus. Seeing Domi flop relative to expectations last year left a sour taste in the mouths of some drafters, evidently. Not me. Domi’s 2018-19 breakout came with a massive spike in his shot rate, and he actually exceeded those gains last season. He was still creating chances. Now he joins a Blue Jackets team that needs him as its No. 2 center and won’t threaten him with a ton of competition for power-play time, either. So far in camp, he’s playing with Nick Foligno and Cam Atkinson and working on the top power-play unit. I wouldn’t be surprised if a motivated Domi delivered 40 to 45 points in a 56-game schedule this season.

Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils (my rank: 123rd; Yahoo ADP: 158.8)

Leaping off the bandwagon already, drafters? Hughes is only 19. His rookie year after being selected first overall in the 2019 draft was bad, indeed, landing in the 1997-98 Joe Thornton tier, but we all know what happened to ‘Jumbo’ after that. Hughes struggled badly to score as a rookie but was also extremely unlucky. He had the lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage of any freshman forward who played at least 500 minutes. Hughes actually graded out near the top of the rookie class in terms of shot and scoring-chance generation. Odds are, Hughes’ shots will find twine a lot more this year. He’s better equipped to win puck battles, too, after he did so much bulking up during the extended off-season. Hughes is a steal at his current ADP. Superstar pedigree doesn’t disappear in one year.

Kasperi Kapanen, Pittsburgh Penguins (my rank: 128th; Yahoo ADP: 165.9)

I’m surprised drafters aren't reaching like crazy on Kapanen given all the buzz about him playing with Sidney Crosby. I guess people realize Kapanen got the chance to play with high-end centers throughout his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so they aren’t expecting a big spike in his production. That said, Kapanen’s ADP places him in the 14th round of 12-team drafts. Even if we were simply expecting Kapanen’s Toronto level of production, he’d probably deserve to go a bit higher than that. I also believe Crosby might be the best fit Kapanen has ever had for line chemistry. Kapanen’s blindingly fast north-south game fits nicely into the Penguins’ scheme and even reminds me a bit of what longtime Penguin Pascal Dupuis brought to the Crosby line. Once Kapanen completes his quarantine, he’s expected to play with Crosby and Jake Guentzel and could post career-best numbers.

Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild (my rank: 108th; Yahoo ADP: 152.3)

I would’ve expected the hype to inflate Kaprizov’s ADP and make him the opposite of a bargain. Are people really not wise to his potential yet? He joins the Wild as the best player in the world not in the NHL. Speaking to scouts last year for a feature on him in our Future Watch 2020 magazine, I couldn’t get one to name a hole in his game. The comparisons ranged from Brad Marchand (ability to read the play) to Vladimir Tarasenko (core strength) to Artemi Panarin (dynamic puck skills). At 23, Kaprizov arrives in the NHL as a physically mature rookie who led the KHL in goals the past two seasons and is the league’s youngest player to reach 100 career goals. He’s ready to make a splash right away, even if his short-term help at center isn’t dynamic enough to keep up with him. Long-term, it’ll be Marco Rossi as a running mate, but he’s out indefinitely with an upper-body injury.

Anthony Mantha, Detroit Red Wings (my rank: 111th; Yahoo ADP: 161.2)

Ah, the bad-team discount. Mantha toiled for the worst NHL team of the past 20 years in 2019-20. He also missed 28 of 71 games due to injury. But he sure was productive when he was in the lineup on a legendarily pitiful squad, flourishing on the first line with Tyler Bertuzzi and Dylan Larkin. Mantha set career bests in shots per 60, individual scoring chances per 60 and individual high-danger chances per 60. His stat line pro-rated to 31 goals and 72 points over an 82-game schedule. If he can find a way to stay healthy, he should easily produce as a top-100 fantasy asset, if not top-75. At his current ADP, the injury risk and bad team are already baked into his cost. He’s criminally undervalued.

THE ‘WTF’ TOP FIVE

The ADPs for these guys are so bizarrely out of whack that I can’t justifiably call the players sleepers. What’s going on in these drafts? Can I join these leagues and play for a lot of money? Now?

- Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators (my rank: 56th; Yahoo ADP: 117.6)

- Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks (my rank: 27th; Yahoo ADP: 68.7)

- Alexis Lafreniere, New York Rangers (my rank: 84th; Yahoo ADP: 128.5)

- Dylan Strome, Chicago Blackhawks (my rank: 129th; Yahoo ADP: 169.1)

- Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights (my rank: 50th; Yahoo ADP: 93.3)

THOUGHT THEY WERE SLEEPERS, BUT THE SECRET’S OUT

I assumed these players would crack the sleeper list, but their ADPs line up with my rankings, which suggests they’re being appropriately valued and thus can’t be stolen late:

- Quinton Byfield, Los Angeles Kings

- Kaapo Kakko, New York Rangers

- Tim Stuetzle, Ottawa Senators

- Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens

- Cam Talbot, Minnesota Wild

THE GOALIE SLEEPER

As I say every year, I tend to rank goalies lower than most prognosticators because the position is so fickle from season to season. Goalie values may shrink even more this season as teams split work in platoons to navigate the condensed workload of a 56-game sprint season. I almost never find a goalie with a lower ADP than my ranking, but I can at least recommend an under-the-radar stopper who could be a difference maker. That’s Mackenzie Blackwood for me at the moment. He showed a ton of potential in his first full season as a starter, and the Devils have fortified the D-corps in front of him, adding Ryan Murray, Dmitry Kulikov and Sami Vatanen. Even on a weak Devils team last season, Blackwood ranked 14th in 5-on-5 goals saved above average per 60 among 54 netminders who logged at least 1,000 minutes. Now, Corey Crawford’s sudden retirement elevates Blackwood’s playing-time ceiling, as Scott Wedgewood won’t start nearly as often as Crawford would have. In leagues including volume goalie categories like shots and saves and leagues that start two or more goalies, Blackwood could turn a nice profit as your No. 2.

THE ALL-DEEP SLEEPER TEAM

Some of these players aren’t even locks to make their teams yet and are likely long gone in keeper leagues. But they make for high-upside bench stashes or late-round picks in redraft leagues.

G: Cal Petersen, Los Angeles Kings

D: Adam Boqvist, Chicago Blackhawks

D: Bowen Byram, Colorado Avalanche

F: Nils Hoglander, Vancouver Canucks

F: Owen Tippett, Florida Panthers

F: Trevor Zegras, Anaheim Ducks

THE TOP FIVE OVERVALUED FANTASY PLAYERS IN 2020-21

"Overvalued" fits this section better than "Bust." In truth, "bust" is a simplified term that fits snugly in a headline, but I don’t consider the players below “busts.” Almost any player can still be draftable if he falls enough that his draft position accurately reflects his value. My "bust" players are guys who are being drafted far too early to deliver a profit based on how I perceive their values.

I define overvalued fantasy picks as:

1. Players whose production won’t match their average draft positions
2. Players being drafted ahead of players who will outperform them
3. Players with falsely inflated value because of real-life success, playing in popular markets or other emotional attachments

Here are my picks for 2020-21 after cross-referencing Yahoo ADPs with my top 250 rankings.

Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars (my rank: 186th; Yahoo ADP: 112.9)

That’s quite the discrepancy. I can only assume casual players are falling for the name brand. Benn had quite a lovely peak as a fantasy asset half a decade ago, winning the Art Ross Trophy in 2014-15 and establishing himself as one of the best power forwards of his generation. Benn, though, has worn down physically over the past few seasons and endured the worst regular season of his career in 2019-20 with a 19-20-39 line across 69 games. Benn showed something in the 2020 playoffs during Dallas’ run to the final, no doubt, but he enters 2020-21 minus top center Tyler Seguin, who remains out several more months after hip surgery. Benn is 31, has often looked older than that physically in recent seasons and has his weakest supporting cast in terms of top-end forward talent in a long time. There’s just so much more downside than upside here.

Ryan Graves, Colorado Avalanche (my rank: none; Yahoo ADP: 148.5)

Are drafters just clicking “sort” in the 2019-20 stats section, seeing Graves was plus-40 last year and drafting him to replicate that number? He did so paired with the sublimely talented Cale Makar. So far in the Avs’ 2020-21 camp, new acquisition Devon Toews is the one rolling with Makar, while Graves was most recently demoted to the third pair alongside Ian Cole. Can you devote a pick to a one-category fantasy asset when you can’t even guarantee he’ll deliver that category this season?

Colton Parayko, St. Louis Blues (my rank: none; Yahoo ADP: 137.2)

The real life value skews the perceived fantasy value here. Real Parayko is a towering monster of a defenseman, a chore for forwards to play against, armed with a powerful slapshot. Any team would kill to have him. Parayko in fantasy: a decent depth asset whose goal total is never as high as you’d expect it to be based on his shot power. Drafters are reaching on Parayko this season likely because they believe he’ll inherit minutes on the right side from the departed Alex Pietrangelo, particularly on the power play. But the Blues may roll four forwards on their PP1 unit. Also, right-shooter Justin Faulk has more natural offensive acumen than Parayko and thus might get those opportunities before him anyway.

Joe Thornton, Toronto Maple Leafs (my rank: 212th; Yahoo ADP: 166.2)

Here’s where my bust definition plays an important role. Listing Thornton here doesn’t mean he’s on my do-not draft list. I actually love him as a late-round flier as long as he’s playing with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. But poolies are picking him ahead of Andre Burakovsky, Dylan Strome, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Anthony Cirelli and William Karlsson, just to cherrypick a few names. All those players are locked into top-six scoring roles for the year. Thornton, 41, may or may not be equipped to keep up with Matthews and Marner. It’s possible the line makes magic and Thornton becomes a home-run draft pick. It’s more likely the younger, faster Zach Hyman gets his job back on Line 1 before long and Thornton ends up a quality third-liner. So just make sure you remove the Toronto-hype filter before you reach on ‘Jumbo.’ He’s a fun pick – but not if it’s at the expense of a reliable season-long asset.

Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders (my rank: 184th; Yahoo ADP: 154.2)

Any Islanders goalie makes for a pretty safe source of rate stats under the tutelage of Mitch Korn and Piero Greco, so it’s not that I expect Varlamov to torpedo your ratios. I just fear his role will change from 1A to 1B and maybe even just B by season’s end. The Isles have a truly elite goaltending prospect in Ilya Sorokin, and he’s already projected for almost an even share in goal. Why pick Varlamov at an average slot of 154th when Sorokin, the better raw talent, can be had at pick 171 on average? If you’re choosing between two goalies in an even platoon, you may as well grab the higher-ceiling half of the duo.

Advanced stats courtesy of natturalstatrick.com

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