Fantasy Hockey 2021: Sleepers to consider late in drafts

Yahoo Sports Fantasy Staff
·6 min read

By Jordan Mazzara, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

Stars with established production fly off the board in the first few rounds. Most of the players in that stretch are household names, often in situations unchanged from the year prior. The difference between making the playoffs and winning a fantasy championship is successfully picking players in the mid-to-late rounds, primarily achieved by finding breakout stars and bounce-back players alike. Most of these players are due for a promotion in the lineup — including on the power play.

Let's take a look at some personnel who are being slept on and why they could end up being fantasy staples by the end of the season.

Dylan Strome, Chicago Blackhawks (ADP: 170.1)

We’ll find out very quickly if Strome has what it takes to be a No. 1 center in the NHL. With Kirby Dach (wrist) out for the year and Jonathan Toews (illness) out indefinitely, Strome is the only reasonable option at the position. The third overall pick in 2015 is more playmaker than sniper, as he shot the puck just 97 times over 58 games last year. The 23-year-old will need to pump that number up a bit, but his first order of business is feeding his wingers — namely Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, and Dominik Kubalik. With 63 assists over the past two seasons, Strome looks like he'll be up to the task.

Robert Thomas, St. Louis Blues (ADP: 171.5)

Thomas looked raw at times last year, passing up shooting situations to distribute the puck to his linemates. As a 20-year-old who mostly operated in a bottom-six role, he fired just 87 shots on net, scoring 10 goals (11.5 shooting percentage) and adding 32 assists over 66 games. Thomas likely will be a pass-first player once again, but he should start shooting more with the confidence and situational awareness he's gained through two NHL seasons. Blues coach Craig Berube believes he's ready for a full-time role as a top-six center, meaning Thomas could test 20 minutes per game alongside a sniper like Mike Hoffman. His talents certainly warrant the job, as the former OHL standout consistently looks like the fastest player on the ice while possessing the hockey sense of a seasoned veteran.

St. Louis Blues' Robert Thomas
Robert Thomas should do much better in Year 3. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Brandon Saad, Colorado Avalanche (ADP: 164.1)

Saad is on the move again. This time, he's heading to Mile High City, possibly the best landing spot for a player of his caliber. The 28-year-old averaged 2.6 shots per game during his most recent stint in Chicago, finding the back of the net at a 10.9 percent clip to total 62 goals during those three years. Saad accomplished the feat without much success on the power play, as he scored just six goals with the man advantage. He should get more power-play usage in Colorado, even if it's not with Nathan MacKinnon right away.

Jason Zucker, Pittsburgh Penguins (ADP: 168.6)

Zucker doesn't drive the offense, but he's the ideal sidekick, finding open ice and crashing the net with authority. Life's easier when you're paired up with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, too. Zucker discovered chemistry with both centers after being traded from Minnesota, which translated into six goals and six assists over 15 games. With Jake Guentzel back, Zucker likely will line up with Malkin, rounding out another strong top six in Pittsburgh. The Californian has a 30-goal season on his resume from back in 2017-18, and that's the ceiling to target; prorated to a 56-game season, that's 20 tallies.

Evgenii Dadonov, Ottawa Senators (ADP: 166.2)

Dadonov's a gifted winger with a high motor and, most notably, a lethal wrist shot. An underrated star in Florida, Dadonov averaged 0.81 points per game over three seasons, posting at least 25 goals in each campaign. The 31-year-old winger averaged just 17:06 of ice time last year, and he should receive a healthy increase in playing time on a Senators team that features far less versatility. Flanking the opposite side of Brady Tkachuk would make for a relentless forecheck and an ideal situation for both parties. Regardless of who Dadonov lines up with, he'll be a scoring threat with 40-point upside.

Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres (ADP: 174.5)

The arrival of Taylor Hall in Buffalo and his expected role as Jack Eichel's left wing has forced Skinner off many draft boards (he’s being selected in just 40 percent of drafts). The pessimism is warranted, as Skinner's performance of just 23 points through 59 games last year isn't in the same universe as his 40-goal output from the previous season. Skinner still shot the puck more than three times per game, though his conversion rate plummeted from 14.9 to 7.7 percent. His career average is 10.7, so getting back to that mark shouldn’t be a tall task. Keep him in mind ahead of the April 12 trade deadline, too. Hall could be on the move as a pending free agent, and Skinner would likely be promoted to Eichel's line if Hall is dealt.

Nate Schmidt, Vancouver Canucks (ADP: 151.2)

The two-way blueliner is a model for puck possession and generating chances (53.04 xGF% last year), and he has a knack for forcing turnovers in the defensive zone and immediately transitioning into a robust forecheck — often joining the rush himself. Schmidt will be surrounded by high-caliber weapons in Vancouver, setting up a similar situation to his three-year stint in Vegas. The 29-year-old was on track to reach another tier of production before the NHL pause last year (31 points over 59 games), and this rising Canucks squad provides the ideal scenario to finally take the next step.

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils (ADP: 167.7)

The 2019-20 season was abysmal for Subban. He finished with a career-low 18 points over 68 games, marking a dramatic decline from the 59-point campaign he put together just two years prior. Whether the 31-year-old can bounce back will be a defining milestone in his career. The Devils made moves to help the cause in bringing in stay-at-home defender Ryan Murray from the Blue Jackets, which should bolster the blue line and help Subban's offensive game. And a new coach and general manager should improve the culture and systems, partly because they had no other direction to go. Subban will be provided every opportunity to capitalize, particularly with duties on the top pairing and first power play. We know Subban has the tools to hop back into form, so he has perhaps the highest upside of any defenseman in the later rounds.

Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers (ADP: 130.6)

The 24-year-old enjoyed a career-high 41 points over 67 games last year, averaging roughly 23 minutes of ice time and manning the second power-play unit. The 2014 No. 1 overall pick is poised to reach another tier, as head coach Joel Quenneville indicated that he wants Ekblad to run to the top power play, a role that Keith Yandle has occupied for years. With that in mind, Ekblad may push 25-plus minutes a night, handling time on both special-teams units along with a significant workload at even strength. The opportunity could lead to Ekblad matching last year's point total despite the truncated 56-game schedule.