Sproul heads list of top drafted OHL defensemen

By Jason Menard

Ryan Sproul - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

Photo: Soo Greyhounds defenseman and Detroit Red Wings prospect Ryan Sproul has developed into an effective offensive defenseman (courtesy of CHL Images)

With five of the past six first-overall NHL draft picks being forwards from the Ontario Hockey League, OHL defensemen have had a lot of practice playing against elite offensive talent. And that’s reflected in the continued development of these 10 promising young NHL-drafted defensemen.

And it’s no surprise that all of these blueliners are anchors on playoff-bound teams (with two notable exceptions), as the presence of a dominant defender is a key part of a successful equation.

HM. Connor Murphy, Sarnia Sting.
NHL Rights: Phoenix Coyotes (1st round, 20th overall, 2011)

Though not part of the top 10, an honourable mention has to be extended to the Sarnia Sting’s 6’5”, 205-pound defenseman, who found his season cut short for the second consecutive year due to knee problems.

Suffering a lateral meniscus tear in the World Junior Hockey Championship final game against Sweden, Murphy had been enjoying a banner year. With six goals and 18 points in 33 OHL games, Murphy was displaying a solid balance between his offensive abilities and defensive responsibility (+18).

However, Murphy’s injury history is starting to be a concern. Already with a history of back problems, this is the second consecutive year that Murphy has been limited to 35 games or fewer. Last year, he saw action in only 35 games before being shut down due to a knee injury (eight goals, 18 assists, -3).

10. Slater Koekkoek, Windsor Spitfires
NHL Rights: Tampa Bay Lightning (1st round, 10th overall, 2012)

Another promising defender who had his season cut short due to injuries. But, unfortunately for the Windsor Spitfires, it came two games after he had been obtained at the OHL trading deadline.

In total, the 6’2” defenseman played in 42 games, scoring six goals and adding 23 assists. His woeful -26 with the Peterborough Petes (over 40 games) showed signs of turning around as he was +2 in his two games with the Spitfires.

Koekkoek’s injury story is an interesting one, as he was shut down this year by the Lightning, who directed him to have a repeat surgery on the left shoulder that limited him to 26 games last season. Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman indicated that Koekkoek’s surgery last year was unsuccessful, which necessitated the repeat. Also, within the past couple of days, the Lightning signed Koekkoek to his first NHL contract.

9. Austin Levi, Plymouth Whalers
NHL Rights: Carolina Hurricanes (3rd round, 85th overall, 2010)

Levi`s development plateaued this season, which may be of some concern to the Hurricanes. After two years of steady growth (25 and 30 points; +16 and +20), his offensive numbers regressed this year (two goals, 17 points).

However, the 6’4”, 205-pound defender showed solid defensive poise and continued to display the leadership abilities that made him so attractive as a prospect. Levi retains that appealing athleticism and still has room to add muscle and bulk to his frame.

8. Stuart Percy, Mississauga Steelheads
NHL Rights: Toronto Maple Leafs (1st round, 25th overall, 2011)

Leafs’ fans can take solace in the fact that Percy returned fully to action this season after suffering a concussion that kept him out of the lineup and limited him to 34 games last year.

The Steelheads’ captain oversaw a squad that’s in transition from its heady Memorial Cup days of recent years’ past. The decline of the former St. Mike’s Majors’ franchise was reflected in his numbers — specifically plus/minus.

During the club’s heyday, Percey reached an incredible +50 in 2010-11. This season, however, his totals were a more modest -8.

Percy’s offensive growth continued with a total of 13 goals and 32 assists in a full complement of 68 games this season. He’s a player lauded by many for his intelligence and intellectual approach to the game. Percy plays within himself, making the smart play as opposed to taking chances.

7. Dylan DeMelo, Mississauga Steelheads
NHL Rights: San Jose Sharks (6th round, 179th overall, 2011)

Much of the Steelheads’ success this season rested on the shoulders of the aforementioned Percy and his blueline cohort DeMelo. On a team that barely registered over 200 goals this season, Demelo and Percy combined for 95 points.

DeMelo’s importance to the team’s offensive game didn’t go unnoticed as the OHL coaches ranked him third in the Eastern Conference in terms of offensive defensemen.

Like Percy, DeMelo won’t overwhelm you with size, but is quick with the first pass and accurate with his shot. In 64 games this season, he finished with 15 goals and 50 points. And with 68 minutes in penalties, DeMelo showed a willingness to get his hands dirty this year.

6. Colin Miller, Soo Greyhounds
NHL Rights: Los Angeles Kings (5th round, 151st overall)

After seasons of 22 and 28 points respectively, Miller had developed a reputation as a steady but unspectacular defenseman with the Greyhounds. And while he still tends to slide under the radar, his play hasn’t escaped the attention of his peers and opponents.

This season, the 6’1”, 173-pound defender took home the OHL Western Conference coaches poll honor as most underrated player. And that would seem to be a tough honor to win for someone who finished fourth in the league in defensive scoring with 20 goals, 35 assists, and a +13 rating.

He missed seven games early in the season with an inflamed and infected bursa sac, but the overager played a key, steadying role on the young Greyhounds’ roster as the team’s captain.

5. Olli Maatta, London Knights
NHL Rights: Pittsburgh Penguins (1st round, 22nd overall, 2012)

Maatta’s season has been solid, if unspectacular to date. With only a slight hiccup courtesy of an injury suffered in Finland’s opening game of the World Junior Hockey Championship, Maatta has played a key role on the OHL regular-season champion Knights’ roster.

In 57 games this season, he accounted for eight goals and 30 assists. Overall, he was a +9, which is down from his +25 totals last year.

It often feels that Maatta has yet to define his game. But that chameleon-like quality is exactly what makes him so appealing; he is proficient at so many things. Maatta can impact a game in any number of ways.

We saw that last year when Maatta finished the regular season with five goals, yet turned it on in the playoffs and became an offensive force — including netting six goals en route to the Memorial Cup finals.

4. Ryan Murphy, Kitchener Rangers
NHL Rights: Carolina Hurricanes (1st round, 12th overall, 2011)

Like Percy, Murphy’s greatest accomplishment this season may be his successful return from a major concussion that shut him down for the season last year.

Well, that and being called up to the NHL as an emergency replacement in late February. While he didn’t make a huge impact on the score sheet (four games played; no points and a -4), Murphy showed that it won’t be long before he is with the Hurricanes for good.

This season, Murphy accounted for 10 goals and 48 points in 54 games. He also was recognized as one of the league’s elite stickhandlers — a perception that’s stuck with him for the past three years (he finished second in that category in both 2010-11 and 2011-12, and finished third this year).

3. Cody Ceci, Owen Sound Attack
NHL Rights: Ottawa Senators (1st round, 15th overall, 2012)

The 6’3”, 215-pound Ceci has made a big impact on the OHL’s Western Conference since coming to the attack in a deadline trade from the Ottawa 67's. He finished second in defensive scoring with 19 goals and 64 points — with eight of the goals and 15 of the assists coming in the 27 games he suited up with the Attack.

In fact, the trade allowed Ceci to sneak in an extra game — he played in 69 games for a league whose teams only compete in 68.

Despite his size, Ceci doesn’t play a particularly physical game (only 12 PIM), but he does put every ounce of that big frame into his shot — which makes him a valuable addition to the Attack’s power play.

And Western coaches noticed. He finished third in the Hardest Shot component of the coaches’ poll this year, after winning the award for the East last season. He was also recognized as the second-best offensive defenseman in the Western Conference.

2. Scott Harrington, London Knights
NHL Rights: Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd round, 54th overall, Pittsburgh Penguins)

Some may be surprised to see Harrington on this list because he’s so non-descript in his style of play. One can watch any number of London Knights’ games and walk away wondering where he was.

And that’s exactly what sets Harrington apart from the rest.

At 6’1”, 205 pounds, he’s not overwhelmingly large. With three goals and 16 assists, he’s not amongst the league’s offensive stalwarts. But what he does is play an integral and steadying role on the OHL’s top regular-season team.

You don’t notice Harrington because his game’s not meant to be noticed. He has proven to be a master of making the right play, being in the right place at the right time, and not making mistakes. That doesn’t show up on the score sheet (unless you count the +21 rating), but it does show up where it matters most — in the respect of his peers and opponents.

For the second straight year, Harrington was recognized by the Western coaches as the league’s top defensive defenseman. He also took home the Best Penalty Killer nod. However, Harrington has been sidelined since Feb. 24th with what the team is describing as an upper body injury. He is questionable for the playoff opener.

1. Ryan Sproul, Soo Greyhounds
NHL Rights: Detroit Red Wings (2nd round, 55th overall, 2011)

The 6’4” defender often makes a big impression on the ice for the Soo Greyhounds, and this year — despite an injury-delayed start to the season — he cast a big shadow on the rest of the league.

Sproul led the OHL in defensive scoring and was one of only two blueliners, along with teammate Miller, to reach 20 goals in the season. With 66 points in 50 games played, Sproul’s play turned heads throughout the league this season.

In the annual coaches poll, Sproul took home the titles for Hardest Shot and Best Offensive Defenseman. He also was the runner up in the Best Skater and Best Shot categories. In addition, he earned OHL Defenseman of the Month honors in both December and February of this season.

Sproul has shown an incredible ability to recover from seemingly devastating injuries. Last year, he returned to the lineup just seven games after suffering a broken jaw while this year, he began the early part of the season with a broken arm, causing him to miss the better part of two months and 16 regular season games.

Doug Hamilton, Niagara Ice Dogs
NHL Rights: Boston Bruins (1st round, 9th overall, 2011)

It’s safe to say that Hamilton has seen the last of the OHL this season, but the big defender cast a long shadow on the league when he left.

Despite playing only 32 games this season, Hamilton ended the year in the top 20 for OHL defensive scoring with eight goals and 41 points. And he hasn’t looked out of place at the NHL level, playing regularly with the Bruins, accounting for three goals and nine assists in 27 games.

It seemed only fair to include him in the list of top NHL-drafted defensemen.