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Cullen: Possible NHL sleepers, bounceback players

Scott Cullen

1/14/2013 3:48:36 PM

Finding value is the secret of player evaluation in all aspects of hockey, including fantasy hockey.

How a player gets valued by other owners in your league, for example, will determine whether there is actual value to be gained by taking any of the potential sleepers or bounceback players listed below.

Players that struggle with consistency are notoriously labeled as sleepers. They come awake for a good year, follow with a bad one and the cycle continues, but rarely in such a regular manner. Maybe it will be two good seasons, then a bad one, making them far more difficult to forecast.

Perhaps the prime reason for players to be undervalued is that injuries have affected recent performance. It's tough to generate a positive opinion sitting in the press box and when players start missing bigger chunks of the season (increasingly due to concussions), they carry bigger question marks when projecting future performance.

As a result, my list of potential sleepers and bounceback players is full of players that have battled injuries in recent seasons, but there is some reason to think that they might be in position to perform better this year than they have in recent seasons.

Even with some reason to expect better from these players, the whole point to landing sleepers and bounceback players is to get them without overpaying, so their value comes in the mid-to-late rounds of most drafts, once the more established performers are gone.

But, pluck a couple of these guys in the late rounds and if they hit, the value gained could be enough to swing the balance of power in your league.

Travis Zajac, C, New Jersey - A two-time 60-point scorer, Zajac's 2011-2012 season was ruined largely as he recovered from a torn Achilles, limiting him to just six points in 15 games. However, he contributed 14 points in 24 games during the Devils' run to the Stanley Cup Final and could get a crack at centering Ilya Kovalchuk's line.

Mike Green, D, Washington - The only defenceman in the league to have two point-per-game seasons since 2000, Green has been hampered by injuries (including concussions), playing only 81 games over the last couple seasons and with Dennis Wideman (who had 20 power play points last season) gone to Calgary, there is room once again for Green to play a significant role on the Capitals' power play.

Alexander Semin, RW, Carolina - Back-to-back 54-point seasons would be great for many of those included on this list, but Semin had tallied 163 points in the previous two seasons and is one of the most talented players in the league, so mediocre production isn't becoming on him. Moving to Carolina, Semin has a chance to skate with Eric Staal on the number one line and potentially play more than the 16:47 per game he was getting in Washington last season. Consistency is an issue with Semin, and it's why he was left to sign a one-year contract as a free agent, but he remains an intriguing player because of his high ceiling.

Chris Stewart, RW, St. Louis - Nevermind the stories about him being in the best shape of his life, but focus instead on the player who scored 15 goals in 26 games after the Blues acquired him from Colorado in the 2010-2011 season, only to fall off to 15 goals in 79 games last season when, for the first time in his career, his shooting percentage dipped below 10% (to 9.0%). If Stewart simply connected on his career standard of 12.7% of his shots, that would have meant scoring 21 goals last year; probably enough to not be considered a bounceback player this year.

Nikolai Kulemin, RW, Toronto - When a player goes from 30 goals to seven in one season, without massive underlying reasons, it's pretty reasonable to believe that his real value might be somewhere in between. Kulemin scored on just 6.5% of his shots on goal last season, well below his career mark of 12.3% and he thrived during the lockout, scoring 38 points in 36 games with Magnitogorsk. Sure, he won't be playing with Evgeni Malkin in Toronto, but Kulemin's solid two-way play should still earn him plenty of ice time alongside Mikhail Grabovski.

Ilya Bryzgalov, G, Philadelphia - Prior to the All-Star break last season, Bryzgalov posted an .895 save percentage, which was bad enough in its own right, but in conjunction with the, um, quirkiness he showed during HBO's 24/7 series, it was easy to dismiss Bryz as a flake. However, his save percentage in the second half of last season was .929 and he has three seasons with a save percentage of at least .919 since 2007-2008, making him one of 11 goaltenders to do so (only one, Tim Thomas, has done it four times).

Martin Havlat, RW, San Jose - Staying healthy has been an issue throughout Havlat's career, as he has missed at least 25 games in four of the last seven seasons, but when he does stay healthy, the 31-year-old has enjoyed some productive seasons. Last year, he scored just seven goals and 27 points in 39 games, scoring on a career-low 7.3% of his shots on goal. A healthy Havlat, who has scored 50 points seven times in his career, should be a valuable contributor for the Sharks playing alongside Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe.

Ales Hemsky, RW, Edmonton - Injuries have marred Hemsky's career too, but even though he played 69 games last season -- which counts as relatively healthy for Hemsky -- he finished with only 36 points, his fewest points per game since the 2003-2004 season. As the talent around him gets better in Edmonton, Hemsky isn't responsible for driving the Oilers' offence, but he can benefit from that supporting cast and produce better than he did in 2011-2012.

Kyle Okposo, RW, N.Y. Islanders - Maybe Okposo should be considered more of a breakout candidate but, considering that he already scored a career-high 24 goals last season, that might be leap. However, with PA Parenteau departing as a free agent, Okposo is poised to play a prominent scoring role for the Islanders and if he ends up skating on the wing with John Tavares, he should put up points at a better rate than he has to this point in his career.

Andrei Markov, D, Montreal - A massive injury risk at this point, having played 20 games total in the last two seasons, and 65 in the last three, 34-year-old Markov may only be a shell of what he was before injuries ravaged his career. However, if he can stay healthy, there should be power play time available and his role will be significant, especially if P.K. Subban's contract negotiation drags beyond the start of the season.

Rene Bourque, LW, Montreal - A two-time 27-goal scorer who had five goals and eight points in 38 games last season (despite playing a career-high 18:29 per game), Bourque isn't as bad as his worst season, though not as consistently good as he was in best season either. A big body with some skill, though, should be enough to get Bourque another look in a scoring role, unless he gets beaten out by someone like rookie Alex Galchenyuk.

Sergei Bobrovksy, G, Columbus - After a solid rookie season in 2010-2011, Bobrovsky was relegated to a backup role in Philadelphia last season and it didn't work out well. He started fine, posting a .919 save percentage in 19 appearances prior to the All-Star break, but he collapsed after, stopping 86% of the shots faced in his final 10 games. He'll have a chance to usurp Steve Mason in the Blue Jackets' net and while wins won't come easily in Columbus, if Bobrovsky is stopping better than 91% of the shots he faces, he'll represent a significant upgrade on recent results for the Blue Jackets.

Antoine Vermette, C, Phoenix - The Coyotes don't have high-end scorers, especially down the middle, where Vermette and Martin Hanzal man the top two slots. Vermette put up a modest 10 points in 22 games after the Coyotes acquired him from Columbus last season, finishing the year with 37 points in 82 games, his lowest points-per-game output since 2005-2006. But, considering that he's a three-time 20-goal scorer that has twice topped 50 points and added 10 points in 16 playoff games for Phoenix last season, Vermette will have the opportunity to produce in 2013.

Tim Connolly, C, Toronto - Two seasons removed from scoring a career-high 65 points, Connolly ended up with 36 points in 70 games for Toronto last season, his lowest points-per-game since 2002-2003 (excluding one points in two games played during the 2006-2007 season). Injuries have affected 31-year-old Connolly for much of his career and likely contributed to his decline, but he's in a contract year and it's not as though the Maple Leafs are overrun by skilled centres, so if Connolly plays well, there could be opportunities to increase his role.

Peter Mueller, C, Florida - Concussions have shattered Mueller's career and he's still just 24-year-old. Scoring 16 points in 32 games for the Avalanche last season was modest production from the player who tantalized the Avs when he scored 20 points in 15 games when he was first acquired from Phoenix in 2010. Getting a fresh start in Florida, Mueller has the size and skill to bounce back, if he could just stay healthy.

Brian Boyle, C, N.Y. Rangers - 6-foot-7 checking centre Boyle has found a niche with the Rangers, scoring 32 goals while playing more than 15 minutes per game in the last two seasons. What makes him especially noteworthy is his production in categories like hits and shots on goal (particularly relative to goals and assists. Last season, for example, Boyle was one of 19 forwards with at least two shots on goal and two hits per game; enough to not be overlooked.

Simon Gagne, LW, Los Angeles - Concussions are starting to accumulate for Gagne and he's missed at least 19 games in four of the last five seasons. Nevertheless, he's a seven-time 20-goal scorer and two-time 40-goal scorer who has familiarity with ex-Flyers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, so there could still be a role in the top six for Gagne if he's healthy.

Dustin Penner, LW, Los Angeles - Possesses soft hands for such a big man, but is as enigmatic as any skilled forward in the game and finished last year with a paltry seven goals and 17 points in 65 games. If Gagne doesn't earn a top-six role, then perhaps Penner, a four-time 20-goal scorer, will take advantage of the opportunity.

Ryan Whitney, D, Edmonton - Foot problems have been the downfall for the fifth overall pick in the 2002 draft, who has 58 points in 105 games since joining the Oilers. Trouble is, it took more than two seasons for Whitney to play 105 games, but if he's healthy, Whitney is good with the puck and can put up points as one of the veterans on an improving young Oilers team.

Scottie Upshall, RW, Florida - Waiting for a 29-year-old to reach his potential may be a fool's errand, but the Panthers committed $3.5-million per season to Upshall when they signed him prior to last season, so they likely envision him in a scoring role, even after he tallied five points in 26 games last season. Upshall has played more than 60 games in a season just twice in his career and has career-highs of 22 goals and 34 points, so his ceiling isn't the highest, but he could get one more good chance to find a regular role in which he can be a 20-goal scorer.

Ville Leino, LW, Buffalo - After he was signed to a monstrous (six years, $27-million), and ill-advised, free agent contract, Leino delivered eight goals and 25 points in 71 games last season. This after scoring 53 points the season before (and 21 points in 19 playoff games in 2010). The 29-year-old doesn't have a lot of NHL production on his resume, but he should get some sort of shot at redemption this season.

Guillaume Latendresse, LW/RW, Ottawa - Like many on this list, injuries have caused Guillaume Latendresse to miss significant parts of the last couple seasons, playing a total of 27 games, but he scored 52 goals in the two seasons previous and he could be a fit as a finisher alongside Kyle Turris in the nation's capital. There's enough upside in the 25-year-old to be intrigued for a late-round flier.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard, LW, Minnesota - Banking on good health from Bouchard is a tall order, considering that the 28-year-old has played 97 games (scoring 60 ponits) over the last three seasons, but he's undeniably skilled and should benefit from the Wild's improved skill level up front. If he's ready to go by opening night, Bouchard has a chance to use this shortened season to get his career back on track.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.