Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Top 10 - Most Improved Players of 2012/2013

 The OHL regular season is now 3/4 of the way finished, which means that, I think, it's safe to begin evaluating individual performance and progression. As is the case every year in junior hockey, there are many players who improve from one year to the next. There are many reasons for this. Increased growth/strength. Improved confidence. Another year of experience. An increased role in the lineup. Whatever the case is, you'll find that teenagers seldom get worse as they go along in this league.

With today's list, I intend to highlight some of the players whom I feel have taken the biggest steps forward this year. This was an incredibly hard list to pare down, because so many players got better. That's why I've got several 'Honorable Mentions' today, and quite frankly, could have included many more.

Here's the list; the OHL's most improved players for 2012/2013

10. Josh Anderson - London Knights
While the offensive numbers don't go jumping out at you (19 goals, 39 points thus far), you have to watch him play to truly appreciate what he does for London on a nightly basis. We saw flashes of this last year; that budding power forward approach. But nothing to the extent that we're seeing this year. He's so incredibly difficult to stop with the puck on his stick and he really wears down opposing defenses and creates space for his linemates. Nearly every time I've seen London play, he's stood out for the right reasons. And that includes his play away from the puck too. His shot and ability to score off the rush still needs improvement in order for him to take that next step as a goal scorer, but I think he deserves a place on this list based on what he's been able to accomplish this season.

9. Matthew Mistele - Plymouth Whalers
Mistele barely got any playing time last year on a stacked Plymouth team, but this year he was given a chance at more ice time and he's taken off. Not eligible until 2014 because of an October birthday, Mistele has emerged as one of the league's top 95 talents. He's your typical Mike Vellucci type of player, who gets his nose dirty, but who also has the skill to finish off plays. He's always noticeable on the ice, be it because of a nice hit, a nice goal, or a quality play without the puck. Mistele has turned himself into one of Plymouth's cornerstones moving forward.

8. Scott Sabourin - Oshawa Generals
Came into camp this year having to fight for his spot on the team. Not only did he earn his spot (forcing the trade of Emerson Clark), but he's remained on the team's top line all season long and sits second on the team to Boone Jenner with 25 goals. He's always been a reliable checker with a nose for the net, but it's his ability to create off the rush and score from the slot that have improved tremendously. He's got a ton of confidence carrying the puck now, and has slowly become one of the league's toughest players to stop one on one. Hoping he's earned himself an NHL contract with his play this year.

7. Andreas Athanasiou - Barrie Colts
The jump in numbers hasn't been as great for Athanasiou this year, when compared to some of the other guys on this list (or not even on it for that matter). But if you have watched him play this year, you'd know that AA has become a much better and different player than he was in London. The trade to Barrie has helped him grow as a player. He's become a much more consistent player, and someone willing to pay the price to make a play. He's become more active without the puck and is using his teammates more than he ever did in London. His 8 game winning goals is second to only Reid Boucher (9) in the league. He's been absolutely clutch for Barrie this year and he deserves props for the improvements he's made.

6. Gianluca Curcuruto - Plymouth Whalers
Last year was a disaster for Curcuruto, as harsh as it sounds. He came into the year as a potential first round selection for the NHL draft, and ended up a 7th rounder after a 16 point, -14 year on a roller coaster Greyhound team. That lead to his trade to Plymouth in exchange for Mitchell Dempsey (ask Greyhound fans how they like that deal now). Curcuruto has now re-established himself as one of the top '94 defenseman in the league. He's become Plymouth's top defenseman and is now brimming with confidence. His 9 goals on the year are triple that of his career high, and he's going to (likely) post his first positive +/- in his three year OHL career. His ability to run the powerplay, lead the rush, and defend his zone with urgency have taken massive steps forward. He looks like a new man in the green and blue.

5. Erie Locke - Saginaw Spirit
Locke has always been that player for me, where I've watched him play and asked myself "what's missing?" Lots of skill with the puck, great speed, but just never really to get over that hump of being a secondary player. I've always been a bit critical of his play away from the puck and his intensity level, so I truly believe those deficiencies held him back. This year, it's like I'm watching a different players. Who's that guy who's the first man attacking on the forecheck, hitting guys with authority and winning battles along the boards. Who's that guy playing key minutes on the penalty kill and working hard on the backcheck? It's what Locke has become this year, and it's elevated his offensive game to the point where he's a factor nearly every time he steps on the ice (43 points in his last 20 games).

4. Mitchell Theoret - Niagara IceDogs/Barrie Colts
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I've always believed in Theoret. I had him ranked for the 2011 NHL Draft when no one else did. But last year was not pretty for him. He seemed to lose that fire, and was trying to be something he wasn't. This year, resurgence time. He's returned to doing the things he does well, like working the cycle, being a net presence, and getting active on the forecheck. And because he's gotten bigger and stronger, he's become very difficult for opposing defenses to stop. This is opening up more offensive chances for him...and for the guys he plays with. Good timing too, considering the Isles have to decide whether to sign him this year.

3. Anthony Camara - Barrie Colts
He's going to double his goal and point output from a year ago and has really made himself into a dangerous offensive player this year. Previously, Camara was a simple, hard working checker. His hard work would reward him with the occasional goal, but he was not an offensive leader. This year, his game has taken off. His ability to carry the puck and create offense off the rush is something we never saw consistently from him until this year. He's also greatly improved his shot and is able to score in ways other than crashing the crease. Camara has become a complete player and is making the Bruins happy for using a 3rd rounder on him two years ago.

2. Tyler Graovac - Ottawa 67's/Belleville Bulls
You've got to give it up for a player I figured was a long shot to end up earning an NHL contract from the Minnesota Wild this year. He just hadn't really progressed during his OHL career...until now. Graovac has tripled his previous high in goals ALREADY (with 30) and has emerged as a quality NHL prospect. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that he finally started to use his size (likely with increased strength) to his advantage offensively. The speed and hands have always been there. Now the rest of his game has caught up.

1. Jordan Binnington - Owen Sound Attack
IMO, Binnington is the leading candidate for the Red Tilson right now. The Attack have been one of the league's top teams all season long. Despite being only 7th in the Conference in goals for, they have the second best record because they lead the entire OHL in goals against. And that reason has been Binnington. He's posting the best numbers of his career (in a landslide) and has finally been able to play at the top of his game consistently. He's controlling pucks better, challenging shooters with more confidence and winning hockey games. He's only been pulled from two games this year, which means he's giving the Attack a chance to win every night. What a difference a year can make.

Honorable Mentions:

Reid Boucher - Sarnia Sting
I'll probably get lambasted for not including Boucher in my top 10 here, considering his dominance as a goal scorer this year. That's always been his game though, and I just feel some of the guys I've listed have come a bit further than he has. That said, he does deserve credit. He's worked hard on his skating to become more involved off the rush, and he's gotten stronger, allowing him to fight through traffic to get his shot off. 50 goals in this league don't come by accident.

Matthew Campagna - Sudbury Wolves
His skill level has never been questioned. Perhaps after going undrafted last year by the NHL, it opened his eyes a bit. He's still not the league's most complete player, but he's made strides in being a more active player without the puck and has increased his intensity level making him a much more consistent offensive contributor.

Jimmy Lodge - Saginaw Spirit
Similar to a guy like Matthew Mistele, Lodge was a depth player for the Spirit last year, and has emerged as a go to offensive contributor this year. His real improvement didn't really come until after the trade of Vincent Trocheck to Plymouth. With that added responsibility has come terrific results.

Colin Miller - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Miller has always been a dependable defensive player. Sort of that jack of all trades kind of guy. This year, he's made incredible improvements to his offensive game. He's second in goal scoring among defenseman (with 15) to only his teammate Ryan Sproul and has become one of the league's top powerplay quarterbacks. Los Angeles is looking like a genius again with another overage draft selection out of the OHL.

Cody Payne - Plymouth Whalers
Last year Payne had one role, mash bodies and work hard on the forecheck. This year, his offensive game has grown leaps and bounds. He's taking chances with the puck and getting himself into better scoring position. This had lead to him posting career highs in all offensive categories (more than double).

Darnell Nurse - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Probably the player I wanted to most include on this list. Defensively, he looks more confident (especially physically), while offensively he's a changed man. We saw very little offense from Nurse last year as he adjusted to the league. This year, he's leading the rush with authority and picking great spots to unleash his cannon from the point. There's a reason why he's still exploding up the draft charts.

Justin Auger - Guelph Storm
Behemoth of a player. Considerable improvements to his skating, in addition to added strength, have made him a much more effective offensive player. His reach and size makes him very good in the cycle and he's slowly learning how to best use his frame to create offense.

Connor Crisp - Erie Otters
He's come a LONG way from being that kid who got tossed to the wolves in Niagara; forced to act as an emergency netminder. His 20 goals on the year put him 3rd on his team and represent a quadrupling of his previous career high. He's still fighting and working hard as a checker, but he's added that goal scoring element to his game. I think he even earns a look from the NHL at this year's draft.

That's it, and I'm sure I've missed players whom you believe should be on this list. Quite frankly, it could have gone on forever.'s got to stop somewhere.

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