A late bloomer is often defined as someone whose talents or capabilities are slower to develop than their peers. However, they often catch up or even overtake their peers if given time.
In the world of junior hockey and the National Hockey League Entry Draft, this term is often associated with being a “draft sleeper,” or a “draft riser.” In 2003, Brampton Battalion forward (now all star NHL defenseman) Brent Burns was playing 4th line minutes to start his NHL draft year. He was rated 120th in NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings (released in January). By season’s end, he was up to 39th and ended up being selected in the first round by the Minnesota Wild. In 2009, Barrie Colts forward Kyle Clifford was rated 177th at midseason and 182nd in the final rankings. But a strong finish to his OHL season and an eye opening performance at the World Under 18 Hockey Championships elevated his status to the point where he was drafted 35th overall by the Los Angeles Kings. Both cracked NHL lineups by the time they were 19.
Allow me to introduce you to Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenseman Ryan Sproul. Last year, at age 16, he was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League as a slender 6’0 teenager. This year, he’s a 6’4 offensive blueliner turning heads in the great Ontario North.
After being drafted in the 6th round by the Hounds in 2009, Sproul was not physically ready for the rigors of junior hockey, so he returned home to Mississauga where he bounced back and forth between midget and Junior A. “It wasn’t my choice to play midget, I had started off the year with the Bramalea Blues Jr.A team and they had too many defensemen so they sent me back to midget,” says Sproul. Spending that extra year in midget isn’t the worst thing in the world for a developing teenage defenseman. In recent years, it has helped NHL draft picks like Matt Clark and Geoffrey Schemitsch.
While many perceive the term developing, as a player gaining confidence and improving their skills, Sproul developed in a slightly different way. He grew roughly four inches and transformed from an average sized puck moving defenseman to a 6’4 offensive juggernaut on the backend. Stereotypically, that type of growth spurt can wreck havoc on a teenager’s coordination, but Sproul believes it has actually made him a better hockey player, “I think that I have been very lucky in terms of being coordinated for a tall kid. I feel like my size hasn’t got in the way of my ability to play the game and if anything it has enhanced my game more than I could have imagined.”
It was that “enhancement” that brought significant interest from some top NCAA schools, like the opportunity to play for the legendary Red Berenson at the University of Michigan. But after mulling over his options, Sproul made the decision to sign with Sault Ste. Marie and begin his journey as an Ontario Hockey league player. “I [simply] realized that my goal for hockey was to make it to the OHL and then move on professionally from there,” says Sproul, who also received interest from Lake Superior State.
However it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows in the early going. A logjam on the Hounds’ backend prevented Sproul from demonstrating what he could do. He went pointless in his first 17 OHL games. But Sproul grit his teeth, bided his time and waited for his opportunity to shine; even if it was incredibly difficult. “Sitting on that bench knowing you can make a difference but not getting the chance was very frustrating, [but] my coach gave me a shot on the powerplay one game and I went out and scored my first career OHL goal. After that I started to gain confidence and I believe that’s the number one thing a hockey player needs to have in order to be successful,” says Sproul.
While confidence no doubt played a part in his emergence, circumstance contributed too. That aforementioned logjam on defense in Sault Ste. Marie? At the trade deadline it was resolved when the team shipped Brandon Archibald to Saginaw. That opened up lots of powerplay time for Sproul. And when the team lost Brock Beukeboom to a season ending concussion in February, that opened up the door further for Sproul to sprout as a five on five player. Anytime you lose two quality defenseman like that, it’s not an ideal situation for an OHL club. But it’s worked out for the Hounds in the sense that they’ve discovered what a gem they’ve got in Ryan Sproul.
Gem is an understatement. Check out this stat. Goals from a defenseman in 2011 (just the new calendar year): Ryan Ellis (12), Ryan Murphy (9), Ryan Sproul (10). That’s pretty elite company among the dynamic Ryan’s of the OHL. As it is, his 14 goals on the season placed him fifth among OHL blueliners (tied with Taylor Doherty). In fact, his 32 points in the last 42 games of the season would have put him on a pace for the top 7 of OHL defenseman scoring, pro-rated to a full season. Niagara IceDogs defenseman and potential top five NHL draft pick Dougie Hamilton had 37 points in his last 42 games. Again, that’s some impressive company.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. I’m not going to try and compare Hamilton and Sproul and suggest Sproul should be in consideration as an NHL lottery selection. But he’s certainly someone flying under the radar that deserves more attention than he’s getting. After all, 6’4 offensive defenseman with booming shots and a smooth skating stride do not grow on trees. Heck, wouldn’t you want to get your hands on a 6’4 version of Mike Green (whom Sproul identifies as a player he admires)? Sproul is not without his faults, and he’d be the first to tell you that. “I need to keep on working on my defensive side of the game. I am still getting used to the size and speed that most players have and as a rookie I think that defense will come as you keep working on it, which I have been all year,” says Sproul. And it shows. The defense has been getting better, especially when you consider that Sproul, as he identified, is playing in his first OHL season. In fact, his first full season above the midget level.
Ranked 124th by NHL Central Scouting on their midterm rankings, it’s pretty safe to say that his ranking will improve significantly when their final rankings are released some time at the beginning of April. I think it’s also pretty safe to say that there is a good chance we could see Sproul suit up for Canada at the upcoming IIHF Under 18 World Hockey Championships. All the stars are aligning just right for Sproul to be that guy your favourite National Hockey League team drafts way earlier than expected. So I implore you, don’t sleep on Ryan Sproul. He’s got the potential to be something special. He’s someone worth remembering. He’s going to be that next “draft riser” everyone talks about.
Thanks to Ryan Sproul and Greyhounds media relations guru Gerry Liscumb Jr. for their facilitation of this article.
Below is a transcript of the Q &A session Ryan and I had.
Brock Otten - You signed with the Greyhounds about a week into the 2010/2011 OHL Season. Why did you end up choosing to play in the OHL (since I know you weighed the option of playing collegiately)?
Ryan Sproul - I had a lot of NCAA D1 school’s calling me and I still had not yet made up my mind completely. I really wanted to make sure that I made the right decision for my future and after touring a school like Michigan, I realized that my goal for hockey was to make it to the OHL and then move on professionally from there.
BO - Just how hard did you think about the NCAA and who were the main programs recruiting you?
RS - Before I came to main camp for the Greyhounds in August I had no intentions of the team wanting me to stay this year, so I made sure that I kept the school option available to me. I had talked to a couple D1 schools like Michigan and Lake Superior State and felt like I needed to make my decision before I had any solid offers.
BO - You spent the 2009/10 season in midget. There seems to be a lot more OHL players choosing this route than before, especially defenseman (Jordan Auld, Matt Petgrave, Geoffrey Schemitsch). Why go back to midget instead of playing Tier 2?
RS - It wasn’t my choice to play midget, I had started off the year with the Bramalea Blues Jr.A team and they had too many defensemen so they sent me back to midget.
BO - Your OHL draft data lists you at 6’0. You’re now listed at 6’4. What did your parents feed you during that growth spurt?
RS - I think the biggest thing that allowed me to have that growth spurt was the sleep I was getting. I felt like every time I walked in the house and lied on the couch, I was extremely tired and needed to sleep. My parents had realized I was going through this spurt because I was always either eating or sleeping.
BO - In all seriousness, 4 inches in a year and a half is a HUGE jump. The thing we constantly hear about young athletes going through big growth spurts is that it hinders their coordination. That “awkward” stage, for lack of a better word. Do you think that you’re still getting used to being as tall as you’ve become?
RS - I think that I have been very lucky in terms of being coordinated for a tall kid. I feel like my size hasn’t got in the way of my ability to play the game and if anything it has enhanced my game more than I could have imagined.
BO - I want you to take me through this season so far. It took you 17 games to register your first OHL point. Needless to say there had to be a huge learning curve. Was that opening month incredibly difficult/frustrating for you?
RS - Being the seventh D man on a team can be very hard and that’s what I was at the beginning of the year, felt like that was the hardest thing to go through in the early stages. Sitting on that bench knowing you can make a difference but not getting the chance was very frustrating. My coach gave me a shot on the PP one game and I went out and scored my first career OHL goal. After that I had started to gain confidence and I believe that’s the number one thing a hockey player needs to have in order to be successful.
BO - So what’s been the difference in the past 2 months then? You’ve been at near a point per game pace and you’ve got as many goals as Ryan Ellis since the beginning of December!
RS - The biggest thing for me is now that I’ve worked on everything else, the points are finally starting to come. That also comes with the fact that my coach’s believe in me and are giving me the ice time I have been getting.
BO - In the times I’ve seen you play this year, your strong skating ability and hard shot have been your two most noticeable characteristics. Would you say they are your greatest strengths?
RS - Yes, those are the two things that most people say are my strengths and I agree.
BO - So then, if an NHL scout asked you what you need to work on most, what would you say?
RS - I need to keep on working on my defensive side of the game. I am still getting used to the size and speed that most players have and as a rookie I think the defense will come as you keep working on it, which I have been all year.
BO - As a 6’4 defenseman, people are probably always going to expect you to play a physical game. Do you think you can be that type of player in the future?
RS - I think that if I was asked to be a physical player by a coach, then yes I absolutely could be. I’m not the type of D man that will go out and make a highlight reel hit every night, but I know that I can go out and be as physical as possible to be a solid defensive guy if asked to be.
BO - You were ranked 124th by Central Scouting in their midterm rankings. But if you continue to play as you have lately, I have a hard time imagining you won’t move up on that list considerably by season’s end. Do you have any goals pertaining to the NHL draft?
RS - The NHL draft is dream for me. Last year at this point I would watch NHL games and just dream of being there. I don’t have any set goals for the draft then actually being drafted in general because that’s something I have always wanted.
BO - It’s no secret that NHL scouts have been flocking to the Soo to catch a glimpse of your teammate Daniel Catenacci. Tell us one thing that most people don’t know about him.
RS - He is a health freak and living with him for more than a month made it rub out on me.
BO - Have you always played defense in your hockey career?
RS - About three years before the OHL draft in ‘09 I was a forward on the Toronto Jr. Canadiens
BO - Is there an NHL player you look at and say, “that’s a guy I try to play like?”
RS - Mike Green
BO - Last question for you. In the past, the Northern OHL teams have had some difficulty recruiting players. Why should potential OHL players consider playing in Sault Ste. Marie?
RS - Excellent city, extremely loyal fans, the team is a family because it‘s a small city and the organization is outstanding.