Fantasy: 5 potential NHL sleepers to steal late in drafts

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Every year, a number of players fly under the radar in fantasy hockey drafts despite being set up to excel.

Sometimes, a previously irrelevant player lands a golden opportunity by default. Other times, someone who's played well enough in a small sample size blossoms when given a larger role.

It's important to note the distinction between a sleeper and a breakout candidate. Heading into last season, the latter would've been someone like Chris Kreider, who'd already been a consistent offensive contributor before he erupted for 52 goals. Conversely, Tage Thompson wasn't even on most fantasy managers' radars before he racked up 68 points.

Here are five players going very late in drafts who are primed to make an impact in fantasy this season:

Boone Jenner, C, Blue Jackets

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When it comes to opportunities for non-star players, it's hard to think of a better situation than the one Jenner could have this season. The Columbus Blue Jackets captain will likely get the first chance to center what should be a prolific new top line featuring the club's prized offseason signing, Johnny Gaudreau, and the resurgent Patrik Laine.

Jenner was on pace for a career-high 61 points in 2021-22 before a back injury forced him to miss the final two months of the campaign. If Blue Jackets head coach Brad Larsen keeps him in the driver's seat with Gaudreau and Laine, Jenner can certainly achieve and even surpass that total.

The 29-year-old posted personal bests of 30 goals and 49 points in 2015-16 - but those were outliers. Because Jenner's not a star and missed so much time last season, fantasy managers are sleeping on him: He's currently the 57th center going off the board in Yahoo drafts with an average draft position of 166th overall.

While managers may also worry that Jack Roslovic or Cole Sillinger ultimately gets the top-line gig, Jenner is the logical choice for the role.

Andrei Kuzmenko, LW, Canucks

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The Vancouver Canucks seem to be stockpiling KHL imports, boasting three of them among their forward group alone. Kuzmenko has no NHL experience, unlike his compatriots and new teammates, Ilya Mikheyev and Vasily Podkolzin. But there are several reasons why Kuzmenko is worth taking a chance on late in fantasy drafts.

The 26-year-old ranked second in the KHL in points last season with 53 in 45 games. Kuzmenko's point totals have increased in each of the last six years, and while the NHL is a different beast, he'll likely be set up to succeed. The Russian is projected to line up beside talented center Bo Horvat on Vancouver's second line. While Kuzmenko probably won't play on the club's top power-play unit, the second group should feature plenty of upside with the likes of Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander.

Despite that promising development, Kuzmenko isn't being drafted within the top 100 players at his position in Yahoo leagues. This further cements his sleeper status, and he's a viable target toward the end of drafts.

Alex Newhook, C/LW, Avalanche

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Everyone playing in the Colorado Avalanche's top-six forward group is automatically worth a look in fantasy. Nazem Kadri signing with the Calgary Flames opens up a big hole for the Avalanche at second-line center, and Newhook has a good chance of earning the spot.

The 21-year-old collected 13 goals and 20 assists while averaging only 13:34 of ice time across 71 games in 2021-22, his first full NHL season. Newhook doesn't exactly have a great track record on faceoffs with Colorado (34.7% last season and 43.2% over 77 contests), but that's a small sample size, and he was also a rookie during that span.

Newhook appears to have the inside track over J.T. Compher for the "2C" job. While the Boston College product won't get time on Colorado's top power-play unit barring an injury, he figures to play on the team's second unit with the man advantage. That group could be as good as some teams' PP1, as it'll likely also feature Devon Toews, Valeri Nichushkin, and Bowen Byram.

Drafting Newhook would be a gamble given his status as Kadri's replacement is by no means written in stone. However, he's essentially being ignored in fantasy drafts and would certainly be worth picking toward the end - particularly in deeper leagues - considering the potential payoff.

Dawson Mercer, C/RW, Devils

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When it comes to fantasy value for New Jersey Devils players, most managers will rightfully be focusing on Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Dougie Hamilton. The vast majority of Yahoo managers are sleeping on Mercer in drafts. Don't be one of those people.

Mercer is used to being overlooked, having tied for 11th in Calder Trophy voting after collecting 17 goals and 25 assists while averaging 16:32 of ice time and playing all 82 games last season. The Newfoundland-born forward, who'll turn 21 on Oct. 27, is expected to line up alongside Hughes on New Jersey's second line, and that alone warrants taking a late gamble on Mercer.

In addition, Mercer produced impressive underlying numbers in his rookie year. His 0.75 individual expected goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five matched the figures of Alex DeBrincat, Elias Pettersson, and Kadri while besting those of Mikko Rantanen, Steven Stamkos, and Trevor Zegras. Mercer also posted favorable five-on-five expected goals for and scoring chances for percentages - a commendable feat considering the Devils allowed the fourth-most goals per game in 2021-22.

Mercer is bound to get an increase in ice time and an uptick in production along with it. Yet only 16% of Yahoo managers are drafting him, and only 26% are rostering him. Mercer isn't being chosen until the 17th round on average, at pick No. 183. His value should significantly exceed that given his situation in the lineup and his underappreciated rookie output.

Vitali Kravtsov, RW, Rangers

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Kravtsov is a deep sleeper, but if current trends hold and he takes advantage of his opportunities, the former holdout could be a fantasy steal. The New York Rangers forward is skating on the club's second line to start training camp alongside Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck.

There's clearly a chance he won't stick in the Rangers' top six, but if he can develop some chemistry with his countryman on the opposite wing and a very good two-way center in Trocheck, Kravstov could put up numbers that justify a late-round fantasy draft selection.

Kravtsov and the Rangers were once at odds, but his trade request appears to be water under the bridge after he agreed to a one-year contract in June. New York's ninth overall pick in 2018 seems to have earned the trust of head coach Gerard Gallant, which bodes well for his fantasy value.

Gallant wants to keep the "kid line" of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko together for the time being, which should benefit Kravtsov as well. He doesn't have much NHL experience and is barely rostered at all in Yahoo leagues. While that will change if he sticks in his current spot in the lineup, he should still be available toward the end of drafts and is a worthwhile target at that stage.

(Analytics sources: Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey)

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Fantasy: 5 potential NHL sleepers to steal late in drafts
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