Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sunday Top 10 - Most Improved Players of 2014/2015

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 2014/2015

10. Matt Schmalz - Sudbury Wolves
The Wolves haven't had a lot to cheer about this year, but the progression of Schmalz stands out. A former OHL first rounder and the main piece of the Corrado/Leivo return, Schmalz struggled in his first year and a half in Sudbury. His draft year last year certainly did not go as planned. But this year, the 6'6 forward looks like a different player. He's gone from 3 goals a year ago to already 19 this year and he currently leads Sudbury in scoring. His skating has always been a strength, but he's now using it to be more aggressive in driving the net and is playing with a serious chip on his shoulder. The power forward should be a lock to be drafted this year in his second year of eligibility.

9. Pius Suter - Guelph Storm
Excelled as a depth player last year for Guelph, playing 3rd/4th line minutes and working as a penalty killer. But the Storm needed him to step up and play a top 6 role this year. He's responded very well to the increased ice time. He continues to play a high energy game that made him a fan favourite last year, but his offensive abilities have grown by leaps and bounds. He looks stronger on the puck and has excelled with higher skilled linemates, showcasing good vision and playmaking ability. Like Schmalz, Suter is another player passed over in the draft last year, that should be a lock to be taken this year.

8. Joseph Blandisi - Barrie Colts
After the Avalanche chose not to sign Blandisi last year, he came into his overage season with the right mind set; motivated to prove them wrong. As part of a potent Barrie Colts first line (which contains another player on this list), Blandisi has broken out in a big way and has consistently been among the league's leading scorers this year. He's always been a great secondary player in this league, but he's developed into a star who looks way more confident in leading drives and working with/without the puck. Blandisi has already parlayed his strong season into an NHL contract with the New Jersey Devils.

7. Nick Moutrey - North Bay Battalion
Hasn't had quite the impact yet that I expected from him in North Bay, but a lot of that can be attributed to an ankle injury. Regardless, Moutrey has been one of the league's most improved for me. While the jump in stats hasn't been overwhelming (although he's finally a point per game guy), Moutrey does look like a different and more engaged player. Inconsistency has always been something that's plagued him, but every time I've seen him play this year, he's been the best player on the ice. He looks way more explosive as a skater and that's helping him make a larger impact at both ends of the ice. I've been particularly impressed with the way he's transformed his game as a forechecker and general pain in the butt without the puck. His game is very well suited to play a 3rd line role at the NHL level.

6. Dylan Strome - Erie Otters
Just because the development was expected, doesn't mean that Strome doesn't deserve to be on this list. Near the top of the league scoring race, Strome has been a beast since game one this year. He's become better in nearly every asset of the game and he looks more confident (and is now strong enough) to lead the play. He's creating his own scoring chances now and is no longer the secondary option he was in his rookie year. His defensive game has also grown, to the point where I would consider him a solid two way forward. He deserves the top 5 consideration he's received thus far for 2015.

5. Tyler Bertuzzi - Guelph Storm
Amazing what staying healthy can do for a player. Bertuzzi certainly showed flashes of being at this level the last couple of years, but injuries kept stalling his development. Now that he's healthy...he's second in the league in goal scoring. I've been incredibly impressed by his ability to create scoring chances this year. He operates so well in traffic and excels in the dirty areas of the ice. Even without Robby Fabbri, his game hasn't skipped a beat. The Detroit Red Wings just keep finding these guys.

4. Chris Bigras - Owen Sound Attack
Lots of people were hard on Bigras last year after his offensive numbers declined and he struggled a bit at the WJC's. I didn't have a ton of issue with his development last year though, as I felt he really made a consistent effort to improve his defensive game. With the increased confidence in his defensive game, it's allowed the offensive side of his game to grow by leaps and bounds this year. He's always possessed the potential to be a big time offensive contributor, but he's been hesitant to join/lead the rush consistently. This year, he's taking chances offensively and has also greatly improved his point shot on the powerplay. If I were voting, he'd have my vote for OHL defender of the year.

3. Michael McCarron - Oshawa Generals
McCarron just wasn't very good last year. The Canadiens first rounder came in with high expectations which he failed to meet. But this year has been a completely different story. Players transferring from the USDP or the USHL tend to take a year to adjust to the OHL (which is why it's important for Windsor fans to be patient with Luke Kirwan) and McCarron was no different. He looks infinitely better in puck possession, using his size and speed to dominate near the boards and in the cycle. He's also making better decisions with the puck and has demonstrated more poise/patience in the offensive end. In front of the net, he's an absolute beast. I would assume Montreal is very happy with the way he's played this year. A stat I mentioned on twitter. As I write this, London was 18-7 with him in the lineup and are 13-16 without him.

2. Kevin Lebanc - Barrie Colts
File this under the same situation as McCarron (a USDP player taking a year to adjust). Lebanc was not incredibly impressive in his first OHL season, and draft year. This year, he's been one of the OHL's best players and is a guy that not many people are talking about despite his fantastic year. Biggest difference I've noticed is in his skating. He's much more explosive now, which has suited his high energy game very well. He's also much stronger on the puck and is having a lot of success leading the rush across the blue line and controlling the pace in the offensive end. His ability to make one on one moves in the offensive end was certainly not completely apparent last year. He's on pace to triple his production of 2013/2014.

1. Christian Dvorak - London Knights
With his ACL injury and London's depth last year, Dvorak just didn't have a chance to showcase his true abilities in 2013/2014. The potential was always evident though. And boy has he lived up to it this year. From 14 points last year to 95 points (and counting) this year. Dvorak has exploded as an OHL star and top NHL prospect. He has also developed into a very complete player. He's a guy who can create offensive chances in a variety of ways (off the rush, on the forecheck, from the cycle) and who's speed on the outside gives many OHL defenders trouble. He's also a terrific defensive player who's fully committed to playing at both ends of the ice. The Coyotes got a good one.

Honorable Mentions

Mitchell Marner - London Knights
Marner has exploded this year, in his NHL draft year. He doesn't crack the main list because I was so impressed with his play last year. Marner's breakout this year is due to the fact that he's gotten stronger and more confident in his abilities. In particular, his shot and goal scoring ability has greatly improved, as last year I found him to be a little pass happy.

Lucas Peressini - Kingston Frontenacs
Really the main reason that Kingston has been able to stay in the playoff conversation this year. Peressini has gone from a guy who may have had a questionable long term future in the league, to one of the top (and most underrated) goaltenders in the league. His consistency in the crease has helped to counteract some of the injury issues that the Fronts have had to deal with this year.

Nick Betz - Erie Otters
Playing with the talented centres that Betz has at his disposal certainly doesn't hurt, but he deserves credit for the way he's improved his game this year. The big power forward has done well to improve his skating and it's making him a more dangerous player as he's finding scoring lanes and beating opponents to loose pucks with more consistency. With a 25 goal season in his sights, the big winger may have put himself on the NHL draft radar.

Kyle Platzer - Owen Sound Attack
Platzer has most definitely taken his game to the next level this year. He looks considerably stronger on the puck and it's helped to give him more time to operate and use his high end vision/hockey sense to make plays. He's also been more aggressive in playing in traffic and along the boards. He'll end up doubling his own personal best in points.

Dylan Sadowy - Saginaw Spirit
Has emerged as Saginaw's top offensive threat this year. Last year he was applauded for his strong two-way play and work away from the puck (that led him to a 27 goal year). This year, his offensive game has grown substantially. He looks quicker and is creating his own scoring chances by looking to drive the net and being more patient in the cycle game. Like Platzer, Sadowy is likely to double his personal best in points.

Mitchell Vande Sompel - Oshawa Generals
I add Vande Sompel on this list because the improvements that he's made defensively. His offensive game was very impressive as an OHL rookie last year, but his defensive game was quite raw. This year, he's proved to NHL scouts that he can play in all situations and that despite his lack of size, he can be a competent NHL defender. When mixed with his terrific (and also improved) offensive skill set, you've got a great OHL blue liner (in the mold of a Dan Boyle).


Anonymous said...

I asked this question before Marner vs Bennett

Do you still give the edge to Bennett?

I know people only look at points and then they decide but just wanted your second opinion.

Brock Otten said...

Still give the edge to Bennett.

That's not a slight to Marner. He's a great prospect and my 2nd ranked guy behind McDavid from the O.

But Bennett has a lot of the same qualities that Marner does, but is the more physically assertive player and has a better "overall" game.