Friday, October 4, 2013

Hockey. Is. Back.

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We’re already underway on the NHL season, and after the exciting yet shortened lockout season last year, the fans are itching for 82 games of intensity. The usual suspects are looking like contenders this year, but with the new realignment in the divisions the NHL playoff picture is going to be a very interesting thing to see develop. Teams like the Detroit Red Wings may have had an easier path the playoffs in the past, but with only 4 divisions, every game and every win is going to matter that much more.
From a fantasy perspective, the 2014 NHL season is going to be incredible. The league this year is more than just about the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins. There are plenty of young and talented players eager to show what they can do over a full season.
Of course, there are the studs – those guys that you absolutely cannot ignore. Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos. But you know all about them already. So let’s move on and find you some guys that people might miss out on during the draft.
There are a few players who are bound to fly under the radar during your fantasy draft, but if you manage to pick them up, you’ll be golden. Some of these sleepers are players who were underperforming on other clubs last year, and others are young players that are bound to break out this season.
After playing some decent hockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mikhail Grabovski has found a new home in Washington and has settled in rather nicely. The speedy forward already has four points in two games for the Capitals – including a hat trick in his debut. He also helped the Caps come back over the Calgary Flames by scoring in the shootout. Grabovski was just not cutting it for the Leafs but it looks like he could do well in Washington.
Speaking of the Leafs, there are several guys on this club who will add a lot of punch to any fantasy lineup. Nazem Kadri, the young center who helped Toronto make the playoffs last season is a sure bet to really explode this year. As is newcomer Dave Bolland who was an excellent role player in Chicago, but seems to be embracing a bigger role for Toronto having scored twice already.
And let’s not forget about Phil Kessel – wait what? How is he a sleeper? Yes I know he’s a solid goal scorer, but for some reason the entire league and plenty of hockey “experts” seem to gloss over the fact that Kessel is one of the top 5-10 best players in hockey over the last three seasons. The numbers are there, you just need to stop ignoring them. 
Considering how tough the Western Conference has been in recent years, there are a lot of teams hiding some serious talent in their rosters. The San Jose Sharks are known for their offensive strength, and Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski are two very underrated hockey players. Playing with the talent that San Jose has to offer will only help these guys score a whole mess of points and help out your fantasy team. The Sharks might not go anywhere every season, but it doesn’t mean they don’t score along the way.
Moving towards some younger players, it’s tough to argue with Nathan MacKinnon’s skill – which is probably why the Avalanche drafted him first overall. But besides for the guy everyone expects to be good, Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin is going to have an excellent year offensively.
But even outside of the 2013 draft, you can’t sleep on two very gifted players who will likely be given extended playing time this season. Nashville’s Filip Forsberg (with a last name like that, he’sgotta be good, right?) and Winnipeg’s Mark Schiefele – a serious sleeper pick for the Calder Trophy this year for the NHL’s best rookie. Both players have a ton of talent and their teams will be relying on them to compete with the top teams in their divisions. Both the Jets and the Predators need all the help they can get for that extra push into the playoffs, and these guys can help them do it.
What about the goalies? No, we didn’t forget about them, but with only a handful to choose from it might not be so easy to define which goaltenders are really sleepers.
These are my top picks for goalies that will be huge this year, outside of the top goaltenders in the league – aka Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick, and Jimmy Howard. 
Antti Niemi – the top scoring goalie fantasy last season is somehow super underrated. It must be a Sharks thing… You can’t miss out on this guy because despite his and his team’s lack of functioning in the postseason, the Sharks get tons of wins during the year.
Braden Holtby/Michael Neuvirth – these two guys may be locked in an intense goalie battle in Washington, but whichever one wins the starting job is going to get a lot of wins this year. They’re both talented goalies so they can withstand the barrage of shots from the Capitals’ lack of defense, but one of them is going to be great.
Jonathan Bernier – he may also be in the middle of a goalie battle in Toronto, but Bernier is clearly more talented than his counterpart, James Reimer. He finally has the chance to challenge for a starting position after backing up Quick in Los Angeles, and looks like he can handle it too. With the Leafs on the rise right now, you gotta jump on the Bernier train.
Ondrej Pavelec – the Winnipeg goaltender is a solid and talented player looking to ride his team’s success to a higher win total. Don’t expect many guys out there to care about the Jets much, let alone their goalie, so Pavelec could be an amazing steal for your fantasy lineup.
There are so many teams who have improved since last year, and plenty of secondary players who will make those teams better. Focusing on these sleepers will vastly improve your fantasy season, especially with the intensity at such a high level so far. Anything can happen in an NHL season, but a lot of the guys above are sure to have great seasons.
Keep your eye out for goalies emerging from lineup battles, and for players who are playing better in newer surroundings. With a full NHL season to go, these guys are just waiting for the opportunity to prove their new positions are where they belong. You just need to ride them to the top. 

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