While we, the collective fantasy hockey universe, is hardly asleep at the wheel, it's fair to suggest we are maybe a little groggy to start the season when it comes to some players.
But you know what? That might even be an unfair suggestion, too. The players I'm specifically looking at here are guys who have started with a bang, but with the exception of a couple, didn't even make most sleeper lists prior to the season.
As I'll discuss for each player, even with a small sample size, there are plenty of reasons to consider getting on board with these players, even in shallower leagues.
Larkin was on plenty of preseason sleeper lists, as the opportunities were expected to be ample for him to shake off a sophomore slump that saw his point total drop and his plus/minus turn into an anchor last year. So far, so good. He started with 15 minutes of ice time and a goal in the season opener, but has played at least 18 minutes in the following three games while tacking on four assists. The changing of the guard for the Red Wings offense could very well come this season, with Larkin eclipsing Henrik Zetterberg as the catalyst.
With the Blackhawks depth chart in flux during the offseason, a 22-goal, 44-point campaign last year wasn't enough to get Panik among the top 200 fantasy hockey selections by average draft position this season. Back in the same position that earned him relevance last season, Panik is off to a great start with three goals and three helpers in five games. So long as he is skating with Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad for his 15 minutes per game, those minutes are going to be exceptionally productive.
We knew the Devils top six coming into the season was going to get its makeup Wild West style: Whoever laid claim to a spot would earn it. Jesper Bratt, the 19-year-old rookie who was expected to be skating for the London Knights right now, earned a spot and is doing everything in his power to keep it. Following a goal and assist in his debut on the third line, Bratt has been sharing the ice with the likes of Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, Nico Hischier and Pavel Zacha for the past two games, adding two more goals and two more assists to his credit. Why not get on board at this point? The Devils are going to play an up-tempo game and rely on speed, which Bratt brings to the table in spades.
Keller is going to be the real deal this season. Coach Rick Tocchet isn't babying this rookie in any way shape or form, with Keller averaging 20:30 in ice time through four games. He already has three goals and a helper, to go with 15 shots on goal. Keller is locked in on a line with Max Domi and Derek Stepan and is an early favorite for Rookie of the Year honors given the fact that he'll have this opportunity right through until April.
Even coach John Tortorella can no longer deny Milano, who has earned credit for exactly half of the Blue Jackets eight goals through three games this season. Milano started on the third line on Tuesday, but was playing on the second line with Nick Foligno and Oliver Bjorkstrand by the third period. That's when he scored a pair of goals to break a scoreless tie with the Hurricanes and win the game in overtime. It's not always going to be this productive for Milano, but clearly the roles on scoring lines are still up for debate. We'll see how he fares after Boone Jenner finally turns the corner on his health.
Limited by injuries and reduced depth chart positioning for the past couple of seasons, Couturier could be in for a breakout campaign if he continues to get prime ice time with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. Not expected to be a top-line player for the Flyers coming into the season, Couturier has used the role to fuel a goal and two helpers through four games. He's also averaging more than 19 minutes of ice time per contest. Couturier has never topped 15 goals, 40 points or 200 shots in a season despite having six of them under his 24-year-old belt at this point, but he's also never been given an opportunity to be a regular top-line forward.
Anze Kopitar seems to be making good on his need for a major bounce-back season, and the early returns suggest Brown is coming along for the ride. Of his 58 minutes of ice time so far this season, Brown has spent only 2:33 without Kopitar at his side. The results? Three goals and two helpers in three games, to go with 13 shots on goal. It's been a few years since Brown's fantasy heyday, but he's still only 32 years old, and Kopitar has the ability to lift those playing with him.
Thorough four games, Yakupov has a point for every 9:56 of ice time he's received so far this season. That's an exceptional start to the campaign and has him among the top 15 in the NHL for that statistic so far. Yakupov has been an absolute bust in the past, in large part due to his defensive ineptitude, but perhaps the Avalanche aren't expecting much from him. If he's only going to play 12 minutes per game -- with a quarter of it on the power play -- then his lack of a 200-foot game isn't going to be much of a factor. It's doubtful he can keep up a 33 percent shooting percentage, but Yakupov is locked in with Matt Duchene on a line and could very well keep up a relevant pace for points.
Fantasy Forecaster: Oct. 16-22
With only three four-game slates on tap for NHL teams, it's a lighter week for hockey. With the exception of the Anaheim Ducks and their one game, there aren't really any squads to avoid.
Reminder: The forecaster chart needs statistics to eat to get stronger. The more data it has to consume, the stronger its evaluations become. Right now, with minimal data to input, the forecaster is still living off its prehibernation stores from last winter. So take the ratings with a grain of salt to begin the season, as the numbers being generated still rely on last season's data. Once we get about three weeks in, we have enough fresh data to remove last season's numbers from the calculations.
In the notes -- team, goalie and player -- below, the focus every week will be mainly on players that are available for potential use. Ownership below 50 percent of ESPN leagues is a good generalized cutoff. I'll try to also include players below 10 percent ownership whenever possible to cater to deeper formats.
Detroit Red Wings
Larkin isn't the only Red Wing available and off to a great start. Mike Green is now averaging two assists per game through four contests and is still available in one-third of leagues, Anthony Mantha has been keeping pace with his linemate Larkin and is available in more than 40 percent of leagues, and rookie Martin Frk has two power play goals among his four points this season. The Wings hit the ice four times next week with a day off between each game and three of the contests at home. Don't forget that the 3-0 Jimmy Howard is also available in almost 50 percent of leagues.
So long as Scott Hartnell gets to plant in front of the opposing crease with the top power play unit for the Predators, it's not unreasonable to expect continued modest production. Factor in his penalty minutes and, baby, you got a fantasy-relevant stew going. The Preds face the Avalanche, Flyers and New York Rangers next week, which should give Hartnell more opportunities for scraps -- both in the rebound and fisticuffs sense of the word. Also, if Roman Josi isn't healed up by next week, toss Samuel Girard into your lineup. The rookie has three points in two games with Josi out of action and is seeing plenty of power play time in his stead.
There are more exciting options at the moment for the Bolts, including Alex Killorn coming off a four-assist night, but now is the time to invest in Vladislav Namestnikov for long-term returns. Still available in more than 50 percent of ESPN leagues, Namestnikov looks every bit the part of a top-line winger with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Few players get to spend ice time with two bonafide superstars on a nightly basis -- both on and off the power play -- and Namestnikov's four points in four games are no accident. Though three of them are on the road, the Lightning have a four-game week on tap.
Others: The Vancouver Canucks join the Red Wings and Lightning as the only teams with four-game schedules, but Vancouver is doing it road warrior style with visits to the Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres and Red Wings. Besides, there aren't that many potential assets to get excited about on the Canucks until we see some kind of consistent scoring. That said, monitor a potential Canucks debut for Derrick Pouliot, who projects as their best offensive defenseman, but has yet to play this season. Alexander Edler was hurt on Thursday and could provide an opening.
Semyon Varlamov, G, Colorado Avalanche
If you roster John Gibson (one game) or Devan Dubnyk (two games back-to-back) and are worried about your starts next week -- and missed the early season boat on Jimmy Howard or Marc-Andre Fleury -- consider Varlamov to pad out your stats for the week. With games against the Predators and St. Louis Blues on deck, it's not a great matchup on paper for the Avalanche, but neither was a set of games with the Bruins earlier this week, and Varlamov won both games with a shutout to boot.
As I said on Monday, if the Hellebuyck did well against the Edmonton Oilers, this crease would be his for a while. Well, Hellebuyck beat Connor McDavid and company, then earned another win against the Vancouver Canucks. Even if you don't want Hellebuyck right away for your squad, you can comfortably cut loose Steve Mason. Neither goaltender has much fantasy value in a time-share.
Zemgus Girgensons, C/LW, Buffalo Sabres
Never forget that Jack Eichel is the catalyst here. As hot as Evander Kane has been, it's Eichel that is making things happen for him. On Thursday, the Sabres moved Kane to a different line to try to spark Kyle Okposo and Ryan O'Reilly. Girgensons replaced Kane alongside Eichel and promptly picked up two assists. Need more proof? Kane with Eichel has four goals, two assists and 26 shots on goal in three games. Kane without Eichel has zero points and one shot on goal in one game. Don't drop Kane, but find a way to ride Girgensons for the short term.
Part of my eulogy might one day read, "He really liked reminding us of how good Chris Stewart was during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign." The Wild only have two games next week, but they are stacked at the end of the week. If you can make mid-week pickups, why not add Stewart for the weekend? While the Wild still have injuries up front (Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter), Stewart is getting to play some hockey with more talented linemates than he typically does (Joel Eriksson Ek and Tyler Ennis). The result has been four goals and a helper in three games.
Honorable mentions: Radim Vrbata and Nick Bjugstad should make some early season watch lists. Vrbata has three assists, 13 shots on goal and was shifted to the top line in place of Evgeni Dadonov during Thursday's game. Bjugstad has been a no-show for two injury-riddled campaigns following his 24-goal breakout in 2014-15. He certainly looks healthy now, scoring two goals and two assists through three games. ... If you insist on trying to take advantage of the Canucks four-game schedule, Bo Horvat (rostered in 63.6 percent of ESPN leagues) is the first place to look, followed by Brock Boeser (8.8 percent) in deeper leagues. Boeser made his season debut Thursday skating with Horvat at even strength and with the Sedin twins on the power play. ... Not Jake Gardiner and not Morgan Rielly, it's Nikita Zaitsev leading the fantasy charge among Toronto Maple Leafs defenders so far. Zaitsev sports a healthy plus-7 rating to go with five points in four games. He's not shooting enough to keep up the goals (five shots), but he could wind up with some fantasy relevance as a No. 4 defenseman. ... Tyson Barrie, like many of the Avalanche players, looks rejuvenated early in the season. He's back to playing big minutes and leading the way on the power play. Barrie has fired 17 shots on goal through four games and has three points. Scoop him up before it's too late. ... The lines for the Pittsburgh Penguins keep juggling, but keep an eye on Bryan Rust. Seemingly interchangeable with Conor Sheary for a wing spot with Sidney Crosby, Rust has seven points to Sheary's three to show for his efforts. This is all complicated by the return of Patric Hornqvist, who also saw some time with Crosby on Thursday.
To the bench: It's starting to sound like Patrice Bergeron's injury could last a while. It may be wise to lower expectations for David Pastrnak and, to a lesser extent, Brad Marchand for a bit of time. The Bruins only have two games next week, so it's not unfathomable to start someone else over them in weekly formats. ... Jordan Eberle can ride the pine for your team next week, too. The early results don't show much chemistry for Eberle and John Tavares. At five-on-five, they have one goal together on the ice with five scored against them. Obviously, keep Eberle on your roster for now, but this bears watching.