It’s all about being right. About the right player. At the right time.
Yes, your odds of winning a fantasy hockey league skyrocketed if you were lucky enough to draft Connor McDavid last season. But imagine if, for instance, you snagged McDavid and, a few rounds later, made the bet that Tage Thompson wasn’t a one-year wonder? What if you speculated on a solid year from Linus Ullmark? Or had a hunch that Miro Heiskanen’s potential would be unlocked under a new coach?
Those types of picks are “league winners” in fantasy. They aren’t all breakout picks; in some cases, a league winner is an already-great player joining the elite. What league winners have in common: they produce at a level far exceeding their draft position, to the point it’s almost unfair to get them at that price point. When you already have a McDavid but hit on a Thompson several rounds later, it’s pretty much a cheat code. Voila, league winner.
So: who are the potential league-winner selections for 2023-24 fantasy drafts? I’ve anointed 10, listed in order of their current average draft positions (ADP) on Yahoo. This early in the summer the ADP data tends to be wonky, meaning it’s not wise to trust it – but it is wise to exploit it.
Remember: while some sleepers or breakout players might appear here, some well established names will, too. It’s all about identifying players with potential to blow past their publicly perceived values.
Jack Hughes, C, Devils (ADP: 13.6)
Currently rated as: A late first-round pick
Could be: A top-three overall fantasy asset
Hughes stayed healthy and put it all together for an epic 2022-23 season in which he piled up 99 points, including 43 goals on 336 shots. But…Hughes is still just 22. He likely hasn’t peaked, and he plays on an ascending team that just keeps adding more talent. I can’t imagine 99 points ends up Hughes’ high watermark. It’s more likely his floor. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if he jumps to 110 and becomes the league’s top scoring threat not named Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl.
Tim Stutzle, C, Senators (ADP: 32.0)
Currently rated as: A secondary star to pick in Round 2-3 range
Could be: A superstar who delivers first-round value
If you wanted to reach on Stutzle at the end of the first round this year, I wouldn’t fight you too hard on it. Not only did the emerging German superstar bust out for 90 points last year, he got half those points in his final 33 games of the season alone. It’s not inconceivable that Stutzle makes the leap to 100 points this season, and he provides robust hit totals to boot, upping his value even more in banger formats. If you’re landing Stutzle outside the top 25 in any redraft league, it’s criminal.
Evan Bouchard, D, Oilers (ADP: 84.4)
Currently rated as: A popular breakout pick and possible top-20 fantasy defenseman
Could be: A top-10 defenseman who averages a point per game
Bouchard played 33 games between the regular season and playoffs after the Oilers dealt Tyson Barrie to the Nashville Predators in the Mattias Ekholm blockbuster, freeing up that PP1 shot. Bouchard racked up 36 points over that span. That’s an 89-point pace. And honestly? It’s a believable ceiling if Bouchard holds down the same gig all season long. He’s attached to the greatest fantasy hockey ecosystem since the mid-1990s Pittsburgh Penguins. Anything less than 70 points would qualify as a mild disappointment.
Devon Levi, G, Sabres (ADP: 89.0)
Currently rated as: A hyped rookie breakout pick
Could be: A top-12 goalie on a rising team
Levi was a tricky player to include on this list because the research suggests no one is sleeping on him. A top-100 ADP is pretty rich for a player who is the projected starter but not the guaranteed starter on his team. Levi is a tantalizingly talented prospect, but he’s also an undersized goaltender with just seven pro hockey games to his name. That said: if he proves to be ready, his ceiling is unquestionably “league winner.” Picture Levi panning out as the No. 1 on an ascending Sabres team that almost made the playoffs last year. He could deliver 30-plus wins with some respectable rate stats to boot. The floor remains “AHL demotion,” so he carries plenty of risk, but the purpose of this article is to identify mammoth upside, and Levi has that.
Seth Jones, D, Blackhawks (ADP: 112.2)
Currently rated as: A second or third defenseman in 12-team leagues
Could be: An all-around category monster delivering top-20 value at his position
Seth Jones’ reputation as a player sure has changed over the past several years. He was perceived as one of the game’s next great blueliners half a decade ago, but the analytical data began to expose him as overrated, and his first couple seasons on a floundering Blackhawks team have felt like a banishment to irrelevance.
But hold on. Jones quietly churned out 12 goals and 37 points with no help last season. Factoring in his above-average contributions in the shot, hit and block categories, he was a pretty good fantasy defenseman if not for his horrific minus-38 rating. Enter Connor Bedard, Taylor Hall, a full season of Lukas Reichel and more. The Hawks project to score quite a bit more this season. Jones’ assist and point totals should grow, and the plus-minus might return to a somewhat palatable level. It’s thus wouldn’t be a stretch for Jones to compile a combo-meal stat line similar to what we expect from, say, Moritz Seider. But Jones still carries an ADP reflecting the ugly environment he’s endured the past couple years. Major profit potential here.
Cole Caufield, RW, Canadiens (ADP: 141.6)
Currently rated as: A bounce-back candidate coming off a major shoulder injury
Could be: A 50-goal scorer
Caufield’s ADP blows me away and serves as a reminder not to trust summer draft data too much. The young man has 48 goals in 83 games since Martin St-Louis took over as Habs coach. What other information do you need? Caufield has a realistic chance to finish top 10 in goals this season, if not top five, He should return top 50 value. And if you’re landing him outside the top 100, that’s the definition of a league winner. The injury risk is already baked into his ADP.
Pavel Zacha, C, Bruins (ADP: 156.2)
Currently rated as: A bench option in shallow leagues or depth scorer in larger leagues
Could be: A point-per-game producer
“Roster turnover elevates depth player into major role with elite linemates.” That’s a story we see every year in fantasy. Sometimes it yields a breakout, and other times the player climbing the depth chart doesn’t have the talent to keep up and ends up removed from the role. Think two years ago when Nick Ritchie couldn’t hack it on Toronto’s top line.
But Zacha is an exciting example to exploit. Yes, he’ll be a first-line center when he hasn’t displayed first-line talent in his NHL career. But in this case, his chemistry with a superstar has already been established. David Pastrnak is not a new linemate. They played on Boston’s second line last season and flourished. Now they’re doing so on the first line. But because we already know Zacha works well with his countryman, we can feel much more confident that he can hold the plum assignment all season long. I thus expect a breakout on top of a breakout; Zacha smashed his career highs last year, and I believe he’ll do so again. As long as Boston doesn’t acquire a high-end center before the season starts, I’d bet on 60 or 70 points from Zacha this season.
Bowen Byram, D, Avalanche (ADP: 164.9)
Currently rated as: A third or fourth fantasy D-man with sleeper potential
Could be: More valuable than Devon Toews, going 60-plus picks later
Byram has had a devil of a time staying healthy in his career. He has yet to top 42 games in an NHL season despite debuting in 2020-21. But the small sample size can work to your advantage in fantasy. It masks the impressive work to date from a player who carried elite, top-prospect-in-the-sport type of pedigree when he broke into the NHL. Byram has 15 goals, 41 points and almost two hits per game over his past two seasons. He’s also just 22. If he plays a full season, he could soon be mentioned alongside Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen as members of the Avs’ star core. Byram as a mid- to late-round pick carries enormous upside.
Joseph Woll, G, Maple Leafs (ADP: 170.6)
Currently rated as: A bench-stash backup goalie
Could be: A top-10 fantasy goalie by season’s end
Woll showed last season that he had it: the blend of size, confidence, athleticism and poise befitting a workhorse No. 1 goaltender. He was dominant at times in the AHL. He posted a sparkling 6-1-0 record, 2.16 goals-against average and .932 save percentage at the NHL level. In the playoffs, he looked sturdier than Ilya Samsonov when called into action.
Woll is already poised to start 25-plus games as the 1B to Samsonov’s 1A in 2023-24. That makes Woll draftable in deeper leagues. But if Woll leapfrogs Samsonov and becomes the No. 1 goaltender on a what should be a 50-win team? Getting that level of fantasy value off a bench stash is what wins you a pool.
Wyatt Johnston, C, Stars (ADP: Undrafted)
Currently rated as: In-season waiver fodder
Could be: The cheapest 30 goals you can draft
The young man buried 24 goals as a rookie. He did so playing just 15:29 a night and sat in the 90th percentile in 5-on-5 goals per 60 among all NHL forwards, and his ice time stands to rise. He plays on a high-end offensive team that might not have peaked yet. He’s likely locked into a second-line role even after the Matt Duchene signing.
So why exactly is Johnston going undrafted on average at the moment? He should be owned in every medium and deep league and perhaps even most shallow leagues by opening night.