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Fantasy: 6 NHL sleepers to target late in drafts

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Each year, late-round selections pop off to become the backbone of a fantasy hockey championship squad.

Whether it's a player primed for a new opportunity, someone whose performance the previous season flew under the radar, or a young player ready to take the next step, identifying these sleepers before your draft - rather than playing catch up on the waiver wire weeks into the season - can be the difference between competing for your league title and battling on the playoff bubble.

Here are six NHLers with significant upside that are currently available in late rounds to keep in mind as your board starts to wither on draft day:

Jamie Drysdale, D, Ducks

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A torn shoulder labrum limited Drysdale to just eight games and no points last season, leaving the promising blue-liner in an awkward spot this offseason.

The 2020 sixth-overall pick clearly possesses an exciting offensive upside. After all, he scored 32 points as a 19-year-old defenseman in 2021-22 with the Anaheim Ducks. Unlike his draft counterpart Jake Sanderson, Drysdale's yet to come to terms on an extension this offseason. He remains a restricted free agent only days from the start of training camp.

Should the two parties agree to a new deal before the season, Drysdale becomes one of the most intriguing late-round fliers among defensemen in fantasy.

When Drysdale was healthy in 2021-22, he led the Ducks' defenders in power-play minutes. Drysdale should slide back into those prime minutes on an Anaheim top unit that could feature Troy Terry, Trevor Zegras, Mason McTavish, and Alex Killorn.

The lone threat to Drysdale's power-play upside is if either Pavel Mintyukov or Olen Zellweger, the Ducks' top prospects, make the roster out of camp - or if both of them do. But general manager Pat Verbeek told's Nicholas Cotsonika that the team plans to be patient with the duo, indicating the two are likely to start in the AHL.

Should Drysdale continue his pre-injury upward trajectory, he'll be a strong candidate to outperform his current 11 percent ownership in Yahoo leagues.

Sean Durzi, D, Coyotes

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If Drysdale's boom-or-bust potential isn't your style, Durzi's a safer bet to solidify himself as a fantasy lineup regular this season.

The Arizona Coyotes made a statement when they traded Montreal's 2024 second-round pick to the Los Angeles Kings for the blue-liner. Expect Durzi to get ample opportunity at Mullett Arena, particularly on the offensive side.

Durzi quarterbacked the Kings' second power-play unit last season - registering 16 points on the man advantage - but had no realistic shot of usurping Drew Doughty on PP1. That completely changes in Arizona, where Durzi's competition on the top unit comes in J.J. Moser and Juuso Valimaki.

The Coyotes' other marquee addition on defense this summer, Matt Dumba, only played 10:13 on the power play last season in Minnesota and hasn't tallied double-digit points on the man advantage since the 2018-19 campaign.

Don't underestimate Arizona's offensive upside this season either. Clayton Keller ranked fourth in league scoring in the final 30 games of the season, while Nick Schmaltz produced at a point-per-game rate over the same stretch. Factor in an electric young playmaker in Matias Maccelli and a Calder candidate in Logan Cooley, and the Coyotes could have a sneaky good power play in 2023-24.

Durzi's likely to play significant minutes with those point producers on the ice and, at only 33 percent ownership in Yahoo, he makes for a quality target deep in drafts.

Wyatt Johnston, C, Stars

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All Johnston has done since returning to action after the canceled 2020-21 OHL season is score goals.

He annihilated the OHL two years ago to the tune of 46 goals and 124 points in just 68 games and made the jump to the NHL last campaign despite not even being old enough to play in the AHL.

Johnston's 24 goals matched Calder Trophy winner Matty Beniers as the most by a rookie in 2022-23. He was superb for the Stars down the stretch, tallying 10 goals and 15 points in 22 games from March through the end of the regular season.

Though his scoring prowess didn't translate to the same degree in the playoffs, Johnston's four postseason goals were the most among rookies and his 16:59 average ice time was second to Beniers among rookie forwards.

The Stars' addition of Matt Duchene won't take opportunities from Johnston, either. Duchene essentially replaces Max Domi in Dallas' lineup and gives the Stars scoring depth through three lines. Whether Johnston slots in as a second-line center or third-line wing, he'll have talented offensive players around him and produce points alongside.

Johnston's only rostered at 16 percent in Yahoo leagues and though he's only listed as a center at the moment, could provide flexibility if right wing is added to his positions at a later date.

Casey Mittelstadt, C, Sabres

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Mittelstadt brushed aside the draft bust tag that was beginning to be placed on him when he tallied 15 goals and 59 points last season.

To say the end of his campaign was a hot streak would be an understatement. Mittelstadt scored 31 points in 33 contests after Feb. 1, which included 17 in his final 11 games of the campaign.

The Sabres are an exciting up-and-coming team that is finally turning the corner. Though Mittelstadt won't get the headlines Tage Thompson or Rasmus Dahlin will, he projects to be a vital component of the team's success, particularly early in the season.

Jack Quinn sustained a ruptured Achilles in June and will be out for six months. That puts Mittelstadt firmly in the Sabres' top six to start the year, where he'll have every chance to build on his momentum at the end of 2022-23.

Mittelstadt's superb stretch to end last season combined with his opportunity to solidify his spot in Buffalo's top six isn't reflected on Yahoo yet. He's rostered in just 13 percent of leagues, making him a great value selection late in drafts.

Tommy Novak, C, Predators

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What do Novak, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, and Brady Tkachuk have in common? All four players scored 32 points after Feb. 1.

Now, nobody is claiming Novak is a first-round candidate like the other three. But Novak's scoring wasn't limited to just this stretch, either. He tallied 17 goals and 43 points in 51 contests after making his season debut in mid-December.

Combine his out-of-nowhere production with a new offensive-minded head coach in Andrew Brunette, and Novak becomes a highly intriguing late-round option for fantasy.

The Predators are entering a new era with Brunette behind the bench. Barry Trotz also took over as general manager and made significant changes to the forward group this summer. Even with Ryan O'Reilly's addition, Novak remains a projected top-six center for Nashville with the departures of Ryan Johansen and Duchene.

Novak's scoring rate will likely regress - he had an 18.3 shooting percentage a year ago - but he should receive more minutes that can counteract an expected drop in how often he finds the back of the net. He averaged 14:39 last season but played 17:16 in the final month of the campaign, indicating more frequent usage higher in the lineup in the fall.

Playing on a non-playoff team and a lack of name value results in just six percent ownership of Novak in Yahoo leagues. He should be available in most drafts very late - take advantage before he becomes more widely known.

Gabe Vilardi, C, Jets

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Vilardi was the marquee piece added by the Winnipeg Jets in return for Pierre-Luc Dubois this summer. After breaking out with 23 goals and 41 points in 63 contests last season with the Los Angeles Kings, Vilardi should see even more opportunity in Manitoba.

Regardless of whether Vilardi ends up at center or right wing, he'll almost surely feature in the Jets' top six. He'll do so likely alongside an excellent passer in Cole Perfetti or Nikolaj Ehlers - possibly even both.

He started the 2022-23 campaign remarkably well with 10 goals and 15 points in as many games before levelling out the rest of the way. On the whole, Vilardi operated at a 30-goal pace last season but, as has been the case for much of his career, health will be a deciding factor in the heights he can reach.

In 152 career NHL games, Vilardi has a 16.6 shooting percentage. He's consistently scored at an above-average rate, though he's very likely to regress from his 18.9 percent clip in 2022-23.

Still, Vilardi is a worthwhile swing considering the caliber of offensive talent he'll be playing with and his upside as a goal scorer. Factor in a measly nine percent ownership in Yahoo leagues, and Vilardi will be one of the highest upside goal scorers available late in drafts.

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