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Central Division Fantasy Hockey Sleepers: The Forwards

Cry 'Hockey!', and let slip the dogs of war.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy hockey can be a fantastic way of learning about and keeping up on happenings across the NHL. It provides a motivating framework for going outside the box of your favourite team, similar to signing up for a sport as a more stimulating form of exercise.

Having said that, even without money on the table, this is a competitive format and not many folks like to lose. The time-worn cliche of 'knowledge is power' certainly applies here, and to that end, I'd like to provide our readers with a positionally systematic Fantasy Hockey S.O.S.: Sleepers, Overvalued and Stars. This may or may not advance beyond the Central Division, depending on how worried I am about fellow AIH authors using my own posts against me in any hypothetical staff fantasy league.

A point of clarification: by sleepers, I do not necessarily mean completely off-the-radar. More often, these are players who I simply believe most folks will undervalue within the context of fantasy hockey. Which is another way of saying, look for many of them in the later rounds when filling out your roster. Also, unless I explicitly state otherwise, I'm focused on one-off single season leagues, as opposed to keepers.

Now, shall we begin? Here are the forwards I would consider fantasy hockey sleepers in the Central Division:

Undervalued

Marko Dano

A fair number of folks may be vaguely aware of Dano's existence thanks to the Saad trade, but how many will realistically consider drafting him? In Columbus, he averaged just 13:15 ATOI per game and next to no special teams usage while regularly skating with Scott Hartnell and something called an Alex Wennberg. In Chicago, a top-six role is his for the taking, perhaps even alongside Toews and Hossa.

If you think what he briefly showed with limited opportunity in 2014-15 wasn't just a flash in the pan, and he earns a top-six role with the Blackhawks, would it be that hard to pencil Dano in for 40+ points? He also racked up hits like a mad man last season, if your league cares about that sort of thing.

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Teuvo Teräväinen

There was a time when Joel Quenneville envisioned Teravainen moving from wing to third line centre in 2015-16, and it made quite a lot of sense. Then the investigation into Patrick Kane started. With no resolution in sight, one hypothetical has the team or league moving to suspend Kane pre-training camp if charges remain a possibility. And if Kane is out of the picture, with Shaw, Tikhonov, perhaps Dano and presumably Kruger on the team serving as potential centre depth, Quenneville may not be able to afford the luxury of having Teravainen's dynamic ability outside the top-six.

If, for instance, he looks set to take Kane's place beside Anisimov on the second line, Teravainen may be worth taking a flyer on. But his tenuous hold begs caution, and especially if in an Auction Draft, don't overpay for "Teuvo Time" if there are more certain options available.

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Paul Stastny

In a down year, Paul Stastny still managed a regular season consisting of 46 points, a 57.9 faceoff winning percentage against a team-leading total of 1158, 17:38 ATOI per game plus solid power play time. Now, in the wake of another playoff disappointment, Ken Hitchcock has publicly discussed Stastny as a top-six centre, with Backes moving either to right wing or third line centre. This would give Stastny either Steen or Schwartz on his left, which likely won't hurt his point totals.

Ironically enough, Paul Stastny definitely shouldn't be your fantasy team's #1 centre, and perhaps not even your #2. But if he's the third centre on your depth chart, that should put you in a strong position down the middle, and his stock is low enough where it's possible. Plan accordingly.

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Dmitrij Jaskin

With TJ Oshie gone and the Blues line combinations being jumbled, the opportunity is there for Jaskin to dramatically increase his 13:28 ATOI from last year. Indeed, his 2015-16 will have an incredible impact on how the team's pieces fall into place. Whether the Blues captain moves primarily to right wing or third line centre sounds directly related to if Jaskin (or one of the other kids) is ready for a top-six role. No pressure, right?

I'm skeptical of his ability to repeat the 12.0 shooting percentage he had in 2014-15, but if he earns that spot beside Stastny, any dip should be more than balanced out by increased opportunity. If Jaskin (which it occurs to me is the linguistic love child of Jansen Harkins' first and last names) goes all carpe diem, be ready.

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Troy Brouwer

Between the two of them, I am quite willing to believe that TJ Oshie is the better player. With that said, while the Oshie trade may depress Troy Brouwer's reputation, it doesn't affect his own ability or strengths.

We don't yet know whether Brouwer will become a top-six or top-nine player for the St. Louis Blues, and obviously his value is increased if it's the former. There's a scenario here where Jaskin & Co. aren't ready for the top-six, but Hitch still wants Backes at third line centre and so Brouwer moves up beside Stastny. Regardless, he's likely to have an able centerman no matter which line he ends up on. He's also surprisingly capable on faceoffs and no slouch when it comes to hits, if your league counts either of those categories.

On a Ken Hitchcock team, I find it quite easy to imagine he'll rack up a solid ATOI playing in all situations, and should be good for 30-40 points and 40+ PIMs. While he may still be iffy for standard leagues, in larger ones where the talent pool is stretched a bit thin, you could do worse so far as depth forwards go.

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Valeri Nichushkin

We all know the drill when it comes to the Chush-Chush Train. A promising beginning in 2013-14, and a 2014-15 derailed by injury. And yet, despite everybody knowing this, Nichushkin will still see his value depressed going into 2015-16. Yes, drafting him means you're betting that he's both healthy and playing a top-six role. But that's probably a risk I'm willing to take considering both these new and improved Dallas Stars, and his own skill set. If he receives more PP time than he did in 2013-14, he could be a home run. He also hits, which is a nice bonus.

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Cody Eakin

In 2014-15, Cody Eakin was the paragon of found money from a depth forward. 40 points, 17:11 ATOI, a team leading amount of faceoffs being won at a 50.8% clip, six game winning goals, and a smattering of hits and blocks to boot. But despite what was for him and his owners a very successful season, he's still likely to go unappreciated by many because he's Cody Eakin. Even if his shooting percentage takes a dip, it's still easy to pencil him in for 35+ points.

Unless your team and/or league is small enough where Bryan Little is your least valuable centre, keep him in your thoughts. If you're in a league which rolls with four centremen and counts faceoffs, tattoo his name to your forehead.

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Carl Söderberg

One thing I love about Soderberg, is that the focus is neither on him nor on the Colorado Avalanche. A team such as the Dallas Stars has seen an overabundance of the offseason spotlight, which can then lead to value such as Eakin being noticed. By contrast, everyone and their pet canary has seemingly pegged the Avs to finish last in the Central, a condition useful for potentially finding equivalent value at a lower auction price or draft position.

If Colorado was going for a previously Penguins-esque set-up down the middle, with Duchene, MacKinnon and Soderberg 1-2-3, I'd be more wary. But the intention seems to be having him centre the second line, which should be a very favourable position. That likely leaves him playing pivot to two of Landeskog, MacKinnon, Tanguay and Iginla, probable fantasy upgrades over Chris Kelly and Loui Eriksson (with all due respect to Eriksson).

In his previous life as Boston's third line centre in 2014-15, Soderberg scored 44 points in 82 games, averaged 16:48 min per game, had a decent amount of hits and the second most faceoffs on the team (though he only won 48.2% of them). It's reasonable to believe that all will improve with his move to Colorado. After all, remember whose shoes he's filling.

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Mathieu Perreault

In retrospect, did any forward in the Central Division put up a quieter 40+ points than Mathieu Perreault? Okay, maybe Eakin, but shush you. Give Chevy credit where credit's due: when healthy, Perreault last season was like manna from heaven.

It would seem quite likely that 2015-16 will see Perreault return to riding shotgun on Scheifele's wing, along with his healthy ATOI and PP time. He also provides a little extra bit of sugar: in relevant leagues, productive "wingers" who take a healthy amount of faceoffs (also see: Brouwer, Troy) are an underappreciated way of stacking the deck in your favour. Perreault took 438 regular season faceoffs and won 51.6% of them, more than enough to kill anything that moves (or be the difference maker in winning a fantasy hockey faceoff category, either or).

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A high-five for making it this far!

Honourable Mentions

Mikael Granlund

39 points, 68 games, 17:53 ATOI and a whole boatload of yet unrealized potential. So long as Zach Parise and Jason Pominville are Granlund's most common linemates, he'll do all right. But you could always hope to be his owner if and when the 23 year old takes a leap forward.

Mikko Koivu

The trouble with selecting Granlund is that anything he can do, Koivu does better. More points, shots per game, ice time (including a full minute per game more on the power play), nearly double the amount of faceoffs and a 55.2 winning percentage that's 6.8% better than Granlund's. He's in a similar boat as Paul Stastny, but without as much in terms of changing circumstances.

Mark Scheifele

For all the consternation we do around here, Scheifele's 45+ points and second line centre role are easy to bank on when it comes to fantasy hockey. He'll get you ATOI, plus a decent amount of shots and hits. You should also expect a good deal of blocked shots and faceoffs, though with the latter prepare for significantly more losses than wins.

Aleš Hemský

Hemsky will be given opportunities to bounce back from a disappointing 2014-15, likely still alongside Jason Spezza. It shouldn't be too hard for him to improve upon last season's 32 points, especially if a return to form coincides with an increase on his 13:38 ATOI. Hemsky has less certainty than the other honourable mentions, but is also likely to be far more removed from people's radars. An interesting redemption pick.

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Who?

Artemi Panarin

After scoring 62 points in 54 regular season games with the KHL's SKA St. Petersburg, plus 10 points in 10 games at the 2015 World Championship, Panarin is now taking his offensive prowess to Chicago. Panarin's presence here isn't to mean that I think his fantasy hockey upside is lower than Dano's or Teravainen's, simply that I figure fewer folks are aware of his existence.

With the trading of both Saad and Sharp, Chicago's top-six was a bastion of uncertainty even before the investigation into Patrick Kane. On the left side, Joel Quenneville could go with Panarin and Dano, or Versteeg and Bickell, or some combination between the four of them, and that's all without mentioning Teravainen. Candidates abound for that cushy spot beside Toews and Hossa. But while Dano has the versatility to move up and down the lineup, Panarin may need a top-six role to be successful, and that's where I'm inclined to think he'll end up.

Ty Rattie

It wouldn't be an upset of WrestleMania XXX proportions, but in the coming battle for a spot in the St. Louis Blues' top-six, Ty Rattie definitely seems the underdog to Dmitrij Jaskin. Much like Jaskin, Rattie brings a very capable offensive skill set to the table; neither of them have quite reached the point of 'proving all that they can' at the AHL level, but they're both well on their way.

Keep tabs on this situation throughout training camp. Should Jaskin falter and Rattie excel, that could be enough to change the top-six conversation from one to the other. With St. Louis looking internally to solve its perennial playoff frustrations, the opportunity is there, if only somebody will take it.

Nikolaj Ehlers

Actually, most folks reading this have probably heard of Ehlers. We drafted him 9th overall in 2014. While in the QMJHL, he's scored 204 points in 114 regular season games and 59 points in 30 playoff games. He's pretty good.

But for those planning to draft Nik Ehlers, it should be with you consciously banking on him seizing a top-six role. Even if he sticks on the Jets' third line and receives some PP time, there will probably be more established and/or productive players you could give that roster spot to. His ice time is likely to be limited, and if he ends up on a hypothetical line with, say, Burmi and Lowry, that's not a combination I'm confident will put many points on the board.

If you've got a strong belief and/or a crystal ball telling you Ehlers will be in the top-six, I can understand rolling the dice on him. Worst case scenario, if you take the Danish plunge and it doesn't pan out, you'll hopefully still be able to find an alternative on the waiver wire or free agent pool. And if there's a keeper league where he hasn't yet been selected, what are you waiting for.

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Summary

In my occasionally-humble opinion, the Central Division heading into 2015-16 provides an abundance of obscured potential gems. In St. Louis for instance, par for the course postseason disappointment has spurred on a rearranging of the deck chairs, one which may be more advantageous for individual players than it is to their overall playoff hopes.

By contrast, in Chicago it's (mostly) success rather than failure which has bred new opportunity. With underrated goaltending, solid structure & coaching vis-à-vis Joel Quenneville, and a core still featuring Toews, Hossa and Keith, there is a very probable limit to how far the defending Stanley Cup Champions can step back. Despite this, in the process of reloading-not-rebuilding, the forward corps has opened up a few holes you might and should take advantage of. Injuries, uncertainty and downright lack of recognition account for most if not all of the remaining names from different teams.

Now, do not mistake my intention with these particular players above: I'm not suggesting you go and draft them en masse. Even in leagues which count extra statistical bells and whistles, you'll likely need some star power to ensure success. But having depth to surround your stars can be just as important in fantasy hockey as it is with the real thing. Remember these names when your opposition is scrambling for value but thinks Carl Söderberg is a really good Swedish beer.

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What do you folks think? Am I completely off the mark on any of the players above? Are there names you feel I unfairly omitted? Thanks for reading, and be sure to share your thoughts (and any way I can delete "Data courtesy Hockey-Reference.com" from the embedded widgets) in the Comments section below!