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Fantasy sleepers

Edmonton Oilers' Ales Hemsky now has the benefit of another year of experience under his belt and a...

Edmonton Oilers' Ales Hemsky now has the benefit of another year of experience under his belt and a new set of NHL rules to help him. (Edmonton Sun Photo/Darryl Dyck)

CHRIS NICHOLS -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 1:09 PM ET

Each and every season fantasy leagues are littered with players that vastly exceed their expectations and identifying those players early on can often be the difference between success and failure.

Late-season trends can commonly be indicators of future accomplishments, but poolies face a unique situation this year because of the lockout. How much stock can you put on a season in Europe or the AHL for these guys? Honestly, that has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The one constant that still applies here is that whether it's an established star, a young player ready to explode or an average guy with a plum line assignment, there are indicators of success out there if you know where to look.

With that in mind, here are 34 guys that can likely be taken ahead of where they're ranked on your draft list for single season leagues counting goals, assists, plus/minus, power play points, penalty minutes and shots for skaters; goals against, save percentage and wins are counted for goalies.

As always, the big caveat is that you do NOT want to load your team with sleeper picks. Grab a few here and there to supplement the proven performers and that could pay off with that extra boost your fantasy team needs to claim the title.

Stay tuned to SLAM! next week for another preseason primer, where we'll look at players you should target via draft or trade in keeper leagues. And in case you missed them, we also covered goalie rankings and the top 75 players in fantasy earlier this week.

PRIME PICKS

Tuomo Ruutu, F, Chicago: Ruutu is a great prospect who sizzled in the second half of '03-4 and should be a great bet to hit 70 points/ 70 PIM's this year on a vastly improved Hawks team.

Kari Lehtonen, G, Atlanta: Lehtonen is a franchise player for your keeper team, but he's also likely going to have surprisingly high value for the '05-6 season. Chances are good that you'll be able to grab him in the mid-rounds and with Atlanta's strengthened squad he stands an excellent chance to be in the top 15 in goalie stats this season, which means he'll far exceed his draft position value.

Jason Spezza, F, Ottawa: Spezza goes from my best sleeper pick of '03-4 to a guy ready to make the jump to NHL stardom. The young center will get a big boost in ice time over that season and with a bevy of talented wingers skating alongside him, his chances of success are very good. Spezza was dominant in the AHL during the lockout and he's both ready and hungry to make a splash in the NHL.

Jeff Carter, F, Philadelphia: This 20-year old rookie is a solid player and although he'll probably be converted from a center to a winger this year due to Philly's glut of middlemen, Carter's fantasy value is helped because he should skate with Forsberg and Gagne. When Forsberg goes down with an inevitable injury, Carter will likely shift to pivot again and center the number one line.

Bobby Holik, F, Atlanta: Holik's worth gets bumped up this season regardless, but should he center Kovalchuk and Hossa his value gets a massive boost. The best part about Holik's fantasy game is he shoots the puck a lot and he also racks up PIM's, so when he's put into a scoring line situation his value is outstanding for where you're going to get him in the draft.

Scott Hartnell, F, Nashville: Keep a close eye on this guy because he could be a difference maker in the late rounds. If Hartnell can reach just 45 points, which is entirely feasible this year, his value will skyrocket. He'll hit the 100 PIM, 200 SOG mark if he stays healthy and when you throw in those points, you've suddenly found a cheap power forward for practically nothing. He's got bigger value in deeper keeper leagues.

STARS GETTING A BUMP IN VALUE

Sergei Gonchar, D, Pittsburgh: Gonchar has always been an elite fantasy defenseman, but his move to Pittsburgh on a team that already had the eighth-best power play overall (18.1) with nowhere near the talent they currently have means Gonchar should be able to challenge his career-best 67-point season ('02-3 in Washington).

Paul Kariya, F, Nashville: It seems strange that a guy who has topped 100 points twice in his 10-year NHL career is flying under anyone's radar, but an injury-plagued, disaster-filled '03-4 season with the Colorado Avalanche has left a sour taste in the mouths of many poolies. The bottom line though, is that there is enough talent in Nashville - including a killer power play defensive duo in Marek Zidlicky and Kimmo Timonen - to think that Kariya, a noted power play fiend, will most likely return to or exceed his point-per-game career average. David Legwand could also see a career year playing alongside him.

Jaromir Jagr, F, New York Rangers: A lot of poolies hate Jagr because he's the poster child for underperformance, but this should be his year to shine again. If the NHL holds onto its promise to prevent people from clutching, grabbing and hacking its stars, then Jagr will be a fantasy gem once more.

J.S. Giguere, G, Anaheim: Will the real JSG please stand up? Chances are fairly good that he'll be more like the amazing Giguere and less like the first half of '03-4 disaster that killed Anaheim.

Alex Yashin, F, New York Islanders: Yashin has been called every name in the book by his fantasy owners over the past few years because of his horrible inconsistencies, but it looks like this year he'll finally deliver. Paired with the newly-arrived Miro Satan, Yashin is a prime candidate to return to point-per-game status and avoid any more trips to the third or fourth lines.

HOLY LINEMATES, BATMAN!

Michael Nylander, Martin Straka, F, New York Rangers: With Jagr producing, likely linemates Nylander and Straka stand to benefit the most. While Jagr could hit 80-90 points, these two are more likely to be in the 60-65 point range each if they're together for an entire season.

Daymond Langkow, F, Calgary: Let's see... Langkow is likely going to center Jarome Iginla and Tony Amonte. Yeah, let's go ahead and say Langkow is going to have a decent year. Normally in the 50-point range, go ahead and bump him up to 60-point status if he sticks on L1.

Sandis Ozolinsh, D, Anaheim: Oz could be the biggest beneficiary of Scott Niedermayer's move to Southern California.

Simon Gagne, F, Philadelphia: Gagne is slated to skate with Forsberg this season. This is the Canadian's sixth NHL season and his previous best of 33-33-66 set in '01-2 should be exceeded this time around. His wheels, Forsberg's immense talent and the new style of the NHL should combine to create an ideal situation for Gagne.

Lasse Pirjeta, F, Pittsburgh: His value is directly tied to the possibility of him centering the second line, where he'd have established NHL talent with which to play. Pirjeta helped many fantasy squads make late-season runs in '03-4 and he continued that fine play into Finland during the lockout. He's also 6'4, 225 pounds, which certainly doesn't hurt. Watch Pittsburgh's line combos closely before committing to this guy.

Jan Hrdina, F, Columbus: Hrdina has been a serviceable depth player in fantasy circles throughout his tenure in the NHL, but a lot of that had to do with a certain linemate named Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh. Still, Hrdina has proven he can be helpful on the power play and he's likely going to be centering either Rick Nash or Nik Zherdev, meaning the Czech can once again find a spot in deeper leagues.

Andrew Cassels, F, Washington: The Caps don't have a lot of offensive talent, but drawing the likely assignment of centering Ovechkin's line is a definite fantasy plus for Cassels. The 36-year old is recovering from a broken bone in his face, but should be ready to go on opening day and should still be able to produce 50-60 points if he's skating with the prodigy.

DON'T FORGET THESE GUYS

Chris Simon, F, Calgary: The big man has put up points in previous seasons and with a possible L2 designation this year along with occasional shifts alongside Iginla, Simon could enjoy a 30-point season with his excellent PIM stats as well. The bonus of playing for a competitive team like Calgary is that his +/- won't hurt you either. If you're going to goon it up, he'll be one of your best-balanced choices.

Oleg Tverdovsky, D, Carolina: This offensive defenseman has played in Russia for the past few seasons and is likely not on the radar of many of your league mates. It's entirely possible that he returns to his 40-50 point form manning the point for the Canes' power play, so gauge your draft as it rolls along and when you feel the time is right, nab him.

Boston's L1 winger: Since Mike Knuble is gone, someone new will be skating alongside Thornton and Murray and will be an automatic bet to hit the 50-point mark. If Brad Isbister got an extended shot he could finally realize his potential. Whoever it is, keep an eye on them.

Jeff Halpern, F, Washington: Halpern ended the '03-4 season on a tear and although that was a while ago, he's one of the few bright lights offensively for the Caps. If he starts another streak, ride it for awhile.

Ray Emery, G, Ottawa: If you've got concerns about Hasek holding together for a season, grab Emery. Ottawa has an amazing team and if the old man gets hurt, Emery will be there to pick up the pieces.

Mike Cammalleri, F, Los Angeles: Don't forget about this 23-year old pivot who has a mere 59 games of NHL games under his belt and those were spread out over two seasons. Cammalleri KILLED in the AHL during the lockout, going 46-63-109 in 79GP for a 1.38 points-per-game average and finishing second to Spezza in the scoring race. The Kings center is only 5-9, 180, but with less clutching and grabbing this is one guy who should benefit.

Kristian Huselius, F, Florida: A top scorer in Sweden, Huselius has not yet been able to translate his game at the NHL level. The 26-year old winger isn't a safe bet, by any means, but a free-flowing game could lend itself to his style and his value may rise accordingly. Again, watch Florida's line combos closely since they added veteran depth this summer and that could push his ice time down.

Ty Conklin, G, Edmonton: The 29-year old Alaskan-born goalie will enter the season as the number one goalie for the Oilers and with the addition of Chris Pronger to a defense that already included some solid characters, Conklin could be the best late draft goalie available.

Martin Skoula, D, Dallas Stars: The oft-disappointing defenseman had nine points in 21GP after being traded to Anaheim late in the '03-4 campaign and in Dallas he'll be given a chance to play a key part in the offense and learn from veteran stud Sergei Zubov. Remember that this guy was a first round pick (17th overall) in 1998 and he's entering his sixth season, a time when the light generally tends to go on for offensive defensemen.

Craig Conroy, F, Los Angeles Kings: Conroy's fantasy value in Calgary was always tied to his line assignment with Iginla, but in Los Angeles there is enough talent for two really productive lines. As such, Conroy's value should be fairly consistent this year and a 60-point season seems reasonable.

Mark Bell, F, Chicago: Better opportunities and an increased shot total helped Bell with a steady 45-point season in '03-4 and that, combined with his usual healthy penalty totals gave Bell a huge boost in fantasy value. He'll shift to center this season and be on the second line, so Bell should definitely be on your mind later in the draft. PIM guys that can get in the 40+ point area can be gold.

Todd White, F, Minnesota: The new number one center for Wild won't be going crazy with points, but with Brian Rolston shifted to wing from center and Marian Gaborik as two notable wingers on the team, White has a pretty good shot at reaching 45-55 points if he can stay healthy. While that's not great, it's much better than you might think with a change of scenery from Ottawa to Minnesota.

Mike Knuble, F, Philly: If there's one thing we know about Mike Knuble's fantasy game, it's that he can be a late-round difference maker in fantasy circles when he skates with the big boys. We'll have to see how his line assignment shakes out, but keep an eye on him if he sneaks onto L2.

Steve Yzerman, F, Detroit: Captain Courageous is well-rested and depending on the role he plays, he could see 60 points again. Watch the first month to see how his health holds up and how the Wings decide to use him. If Yzerman stays at center he's behind Datsyuk and Lang, but a shift to the wing is certainly possible.

Ales Hemsky, F, Edmonton: Last, but not least, is the kid I had hoped would break out in '03-4 after a strong finish to the '02-3 season. Hemsky now has the benefit of another year of experience under his belt and a new set of NHL rules to help him, so watch him closely because he's got a lot of talent. And like I've been saying since he broke into the NHL... Ales, shoot the puck more often, will you?


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