In the last few weeks we have looked at Mantha, Sheahan, and Athanasiou, however let’s take a look now at a defenseman, Ryan Sproul. The Wings are probably deepest at this position with players like Oullet, Backman, and Marchenko, however, Sproul is the cream of this crop.
At 6’4″ 205 pounds he is a big guy, but he could definitely benefit from being more physical and throwing his weight around a little bit more. This isn’t really uncommon for a big defenseman at his level of development. The Red Wings drafted him with their third selection, 55th overall, in the 2011 draft. Sproul played his junior hockey with the Sault Slt. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL, where he was voted the best offensive defenseman in the OHL in the 2012-2013 season.
One reason defensemen are hard to project is because they are largely reactive as opposed to a forward who is proactive. A forward decides where the play goes and the defenseman, largely, is at the whim of where the forward goes. Now, the defenseman can manipulate the forward to go certain places by his positioning or by the placement of his stick, but the forward can still go anywhere he wants, he just may find some spots allow him to keep the puck and others cause him to be hit hard and lose the puck. As you move up in levels from Juniors to the AHL and then into the NHL the game speeds up immensely. The forwards are more talented, more creative, and they can get past you in ways that less skilled players simply can’t. Obviously, a defenseman who is good at one level has a better chance of being good at the next level, but there are some skills that are more projectable than others. These are generally the same projectable skills that forwards have, things like speed, passing ability, vision, strength, shot, and compete level. These are skills that generally evolve as the game speeds up. Defenseman don’t really develop until they reach the NHL so unlike forwards, their impact will often times be negative before it is positive(see Brendan Smith). The jump from the AHL to the NHL is a huge gap and it is rarely made seamlessly.
Lucky for Sproul, he possesses a few of the projectable skills that we talked about above. Firstly, he boasts and absolute killer shot. His shot has been NHL ready since juniors and it is going to allow him to be a major threat in the offensive zone. Sproul excels as a transition player. He recognizes stretch pass opportunities well and can speed up the game while moving into the offensive zone which compacts the defense and gives the offense more room to move around and to score with more ease.
A common comparison for Sproul in Red Wing circles is Brendan Smith. It is true that these two players are both offensive defenseman, but beyond that, there isn’t much base to that comparison. Smith could almost be compared to a player with a forwards skill set who plays defense, while the same can’t be said for Sproul. His offensive production is almost entirely a result of his great shot. As said earlier, his shot projects well into the NHL so his one dimensional offensive ability isn’t a problem, it’s almost more of a strength due to its repeatability. Smith has had a particularly hard transition into the NHL because he possesses the puck for such long periods of time when he used to play, and as he adjusted to the NHL he had to learn when and where to pass, he has more finesse and plays a different game than Sproul does. A better comparison to Sproul would be to a player like Justin Schultz of the Oilers, though it’s not clear his ceiling is as high as Schultz’.
Sproul is not a polished prospect and has a few things he needs to work on before he sniffs the NHL. He needs to get bigger and stronger and learn to use his size effectively. At 6’4″ he is going to be one of the bigger guys on the rink and he needs to be assertive with his size and strength. He also needs to be better in his own zone. As a defenseman, your number one priority is of course to prevent goals and get the puck out of your zone. Sproul excels at getting the puck from the defensive zone into the offensive zone, but he misses assignments and is weak defensively. For him to make the NHL push and progress into being a legitimate top 4 defenseman(like his ceiling would suggest) he needs to get bigger and stronger and mature defensively.
That being said however, Sproul has two more years after this one to mature and progress in the AHL before the Wings are out of options. I expect Sproul to stay in the AHL for the entire 2014-2015 season. I expect him to get called up a little bit in the 2015-2016 season, then to get a roster spot in the 2016-2017 season. He is still very young and there should be no rush with him. He is a project. But a very exciting one at that.