Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Top 10 - Most Improved Players

One thing we often forget about this great league is that the players who play in it are just teenagers (for the majority). They are either still in high school or recently graduated. And as a direct result of their age, they are still maturing; as both individuals and athletes.

For a whole host of different reasons, players in this league can often take gigantic leaps forward in their playing ability from one year to the next. Maybe it's more playing time and increased confidence. Maybe it's a greater focus and commitment to the OHL (e.g. diet, lifestyle, practice habits). Or maybe it's an improvement in an area previously holding them back (e.g. skating). Different strokes for different folks, and as a result every year many OHL players take that step forward from background player to star player (although in some cases, good player to superstar).

With nearly three quarters of the OHL regular season finished, I think it's safe to say who the most improved players are this year. With the exception of some 16 year old rookies, not many guys take that next step forward in the last six weeks of the regular season and playoffs. The following top 10 is dedicated to those who've really taken a step forward in the right direction this year and man was it a tough list to make. So many players have greatly improved this year for the reasons listed above. As a result, I've included several guys in an honorable mention list which I don't always include.

Here's the Top 10 Most Improved Players of the 2009-10 OHL Season...

10. Mike Cazzola - Erie Otters
A tiny center (generously listed at about 5'7), Cazzola didn't really hit his stride until about a month into the season. This corresponds with the formation of one of the hottest and best lines in the OHL (that no one talks about) which is made up of Cazzola, Greg McKegg, and Zack Torquato. Since the beginning of November, Cazzola has 50 points in 34 games which is nearly double the amount he had last season as an energy player for the Otters. While his production increase is no doubt correlated to the chemistry he and his linemates have developed, Cazzola has an equal part in the success. While small, he is fearless in traffic, is a tireless worker, and has the hockey sense that allows him to succeed against larger defenders. As a 1991, he looks to have carved out a very nice OHL career for himself.

9. Vern Cooper - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
When the Hounds acquired the undersized forward from Plymouth at the import draft, I don't think they expected to be getting their top scoring forward for the 2009-10 season. Traded as part of a deal that saw Plymouth move up to 3rd in the Import Draft and the Soo down to 6th, Cooper was essentially a throw in. A strong energy, two way forward for Plymouth since he entered the league in 2006-07, Cooper was a tremendous acquisition for the Hounds. He's been the team's best forward all season long and has transferred his energy into offensive production, on pace to nearly double his best season to date. Best of all, he has been a large reason the Hounds sit 5th in the Western Conference (surprising to some but not to me if you see my preseason predictions). An overager next season, Cooper will no doubt be back in the Soo where he'll likely lead an even stronger and more improved Hounds squad.

8. Mavric Parks - Barrie Colts
Acquired this offseason by Kitchener in exchange for a mid round draft pick, Parks was seen as a veteran back up to the incoming Brandon Maxwell. Little did the Rangers know that they'd be getting one heck of a goaltender, who was stuck in the place good goaltenders go to die (Kingston). Parks immediately showed what he was capable of and has been one of the best goaltenders in the league this season. Not the biggest goaltender, Parks manages to play the angles so well that he gives shooters so little to shoot at. Parks is as technically sound as you can get. As a testament to his improvement, Parks was acquired from Kingston for a 5th rounder, but then traded at the deadline by Kitchener to Barrie for a 5th and a 3rd. The Rangers got 14 wins and a 3rd rounder for free basically. For the rest of the season Parks will play the platoon role with Barrie's Peter Di Salvo and then likely play next season as an overager with another OHL team looking for a hired gun to secure their goaltending position.

7. Casey Cizikas - Mississauga St. Michael's Majors
Cizikas had a pretty tough season last year. A former 3rd overall priority draft selection, Cizikas battled through inconsistency and off ice issues. With all of those behind him and a surprising selection inside of the Top 100 of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Cizikas has really blossomed into the player many expected he would this season. He's centering the first line of one of the top teams in the Canadian Hockey League, he's an OHL All Star, and he's developed into one of the best two way players in the Ontario Hockey League. Essentially, any criticisms that scouts had towards him last season have been erased this season. He's playing with passion and it shows. He's on a near point per game pace, and his +30 is 4th among forwards in the OHL, to Taylor Hall, Alex Hutchings, and Eric Wellwood. Pretty good company.

6. Steven Tarasuk - London Knights
No John Carlson, Michael Del Zotto, Kevin Montgomery or Matt Clarke in London this season. Pretty rare for a team to lose it's entire Top 4 on defense. Even rarer for that team to expect themselves to still be contenders in their Conference and Division. Enter overager Steven Tarasuk. A very capable defenseman throughout his OHL career, but not someone thought to be a game changer. All that has changed this season with Tarasuk leading an inexperienced London defense to first in their division and intermittent inclusions in the CHL Top 10. Tarasuk is averaging nearly a point per game, leads the OHL in +/-, and his 14 goals are second by defenseman to fellow overager Reggie Traccitto of Niagara. Tarasuk has previously shown glimpses of this ability in 2007-08 when he split the year between Kitchener and London, but last season he really got buried by London's depth of offensively gifted defenseman.

5. Eric Wellwood - Windsor Spitfires
Perhaps last year's playoffs and Memorial Cup were Wellwood's coming out party, and this year he's only continued with the success. But if you go back to over one year ago and the beginning of the 2008-09 OHL season, not many players have improved as much as Eric Wellwood. One of the fastest skaters in the OHL, Wellwood has developed from a speedy energy player/penalty killer into one of the most dynamic two way forwards in the league. He's developed confidence in his ability to take the puck to the net, utilizing his speed and he's finding scoring areas playing a high tempo game in Windsor. It's clear the Philadelphia Flyers saw this ability in him when they drafted him last year as a re-entry. Pretty smart decision as Wellwood looks to have developed into at worst a solid 3rd-4th liner at the next level and could absolutely develop into a better NHL player than his brother Kyle.

4. Jacob Muzzin - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Some guys just develop later than others. Last year the Pittsburgh Penguins opted to not sign Muzzin, their 5th round pick in the 2007 Entry Draft. Muzzin then went undrafted and returned to the Soo for his overage season. Muzzin was actually an OHL all star last season, playing for an atrocious Greyhounds team that finished last in the league. Despite being a larger physical defenseman with some offensive upside, no one seemed to want Muzzin, perhaps due to his poor mobility and questionable puck decisions. This season, Muzzin has become a new player. Whether not getting signed was a wake up call to improve his commitment to improvement remains to be seen. One thing is for certain, Muzzin has developed into one of the best defenseman in the OHL. On top of retaining his physical defensive style, Muzzin leads the league in defenseman scoring with 54 points and has improved his mobility considerably. So much so that according to TSN's Bob Mackenzie, there was quite the frenzy by NHL teams to try and sign him to an entry level contract. The Los Angeles Kings ended up winning his services and it'll be interesting to see how his game progresses at the next level.

3. Mark Visentin - Niagara IceDogs
It's often tough for 16 year old goalies in the OHL. Going from midget to the OHL is about the same as going from the OHL straight to the NHL for goaltenders. Players make quicker decisions, can shoot harder and more accurate, and the pressure to perform is that much greater. Visentin did not have a good rookie season and quite often looked overmatched in the league. But to his credit, this season has been a complete 180 degrees. I say to his credit because I've heard some people around the league say that this guy's work ethic is among the best in the league. The combination of a great attitude with great goaltending is a big reason why he's currently the top rated goalie from the OHL for the 2010 Entry Draft and earned himself a performance (and a great one at that) in the Top Prospects Game. While Niagara has struggled at times this season, Visentin has held his ground and it's only a matter of time before he can call himself the best goaltender in this league. The icing on the cake would be a selection inside the first three rounds of the draft in June.

2. Taylor Beck - Guelph Storm
Last year a lot of people were split on Beck for the NHL Entry Draft. Either it was his skating not being good enough, his offensive ceiling being too low, or his intensity level lacking for his game style. A lot of knocks against a player who ended up going 70th overall. But it's pretty clear he's erasing a lot of those doubts this season. The least likely candidate of the Guelph big three (Holland and Latta) to break out, Beck has exploded. He's currently third in OHL scoring, is playing with intensity every night and is showing people that he's got the offensive upside of a top 6 winger in the NHL. While Beck did have a solid year last season, he's on pace for over 100 points this season and his progression as an OHL player, and even more as an NHL prospect earns him second place on this list.

1. Tyler Seguin - Plymouth Whalers
Perhaps a lot of people could be surprised about Seguin appearing on this list. After all, he shined as an OHL rookie last season (had the best year of any 1992) and was tremendous for Plymouth down the stretch. The natural progression would have had him take that next step this season. However I don't think people could have expected what he's done this season. He's leading the OHL in scoring (and his team by 35 points) and has moved into consideration for first overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, which was once considered to be locked up by Windsor's Taylor Hall. Seguin has the confidence, skill, and speed of few forwards in this league and could still continue to improve, especially as a dominant two way center. He's on pace to double his goal totals from last season and is completely erasing the memories of those who claimed he was leaching off of Chris Terry and Matt Caria last season. Taking that next step from budding superstar to superstar is definitely good enough to earn him the top spot on this list.

Honorable Mention:
Kyle Clifford & Taylor Carnevale - Barrie Colts
The progression of these two has been a large reason for Barrie's emergence as (possibly) the team to beat in the OHL. Clifford has become a strong offensive power forward while Carnevale has developed into a solid two way center who might just be one of the better penalty killers in the league.

Alex Friesen & Reggie Traccitto - Niagara IceDogs
Considering how many players have taken steps forward this season, it's amazing that the Dogs haven't been better than they currently are. Friesen has emerged as one of the teams most dangerous offensive players after looking like purely an energy forward last season. While overager Traccitto has taken over the role of number one defenseman from Alex Pietrangelo and leads the league in goals scored by a defenseman.

Tony DeHart & Christian Thomas - Oshawa Generals
While the Generals have had an up and down season, they do currently sit 7th in the East, which is better than most people expected. DeHart has emerged as a 1st pairing OHL defenseman and with Calvin de Haan out for the remainder of the season, he's going to have to continue to lead this team from the back end. Thomas is another guy who was expected to improve this season, but has exceeded expectations as the teams leading scorer and the type of dynamite offensive firecracker his father was.

Luke Judson - Belleville Bulls
It's hard to get noticed when your team sucks. The Bulls sit last in the Eastern Conference and seemed destined for a top 3 pick at Priority Draft. Yet one player's improvement is going completely unnoticed. Buried on a solid team last year, Judson managed to shine at times as one of the teams checking players. It wasn't enough to get him drafted (despite many teams being interested). This year, he leads the team in goals with 19 and has been named the team captain at the age of 18, all the while still playing the truculent style that made him noticeable last season. Don't be surprised if he gets noticed at this years NHL Entry Draft.

Taylor Doherty - Kingston Frontenacs
One player who does have more to gain by making this list at the end of the season. With Erik Gudbranson out with mono, Doherty has finally taken steps forward and has 11 goals and 6 assists in his last 18 games over a two month span. Finally using his big shot and playing better defensively, Doherty looks to be on the right track developmentally.

Devante Smith-Pelly - Mississauga St. Michael's Majors
Smith-Pelly was one of the more impressive 1992's last season, when he played a checking line role for the Majors. This year he's become the team's top scorer and has emerged as a future star in this league as a hard working offensive power winger. The chemistry he has developed with Casey Cizikas should make them both even more dangerous next season.

Garrett Wilson - Owen Sound Attack
Improved skating goes a long way to improve the offensive production of a power forward. Able to take the puck to the net with confidence, Wilson is having a career year in Owen Sound and is making the Florida Panthers very happy for rolling the dice on him.

Jared Knight - London Knights
If the award was for most improved from the start of the 2009-10 to the end of the 2009-10 season, Knight would probably take the cake. Struggling through a diabetes diagnosis, Knight has finally producing for London and currently sits second in team scoring behind Nazem Kadri.

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