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Minor League Hockey

Greyhounds' Sproul focused on elevating game

By Mackenzie Liddell, Contributing Editor

Toronto, Canada (Sports Network) - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenseman Ryan Sproul grew by leaps and bounds in his first Ontario Hockey League season.

When drafted in the sixth round of the OHL Priority Selection in 2009, Sproul checked in at six-foot and 160 pounds. And now, as he participates in the NHL Scouting Combine from May 30-June 4 in Toronto, Sproul tips the scales at 6- foot-4 and 195 pounds.

But Sproul's growth goes far beyond his physical maturation.

After starting the season with the Vaughan Vipers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, much wasn't expected of the Mississauga, Ont., native when he made the trip north to join the Greyhounds in late September.

Penciled in as the team's seventh defenceman and fighting for ice time, Sproul went pointless in his first 16 OHL games and only showed glimpses of his outstanding offensive instincts.

But after adjusting to the speed and physicality of the league and gaining the confidence of the coaching staff with his improved play, Sproul took off and never looked back.

"I just kept working off ice to get stronger and on ice to improve my skating and shot," Sproul said. "As I got my opportunity my confidence went up and I started playing the game I like to play."

He finished the season with 14 goals and 33 points, which was good for second in rookie scoring among defenceman. But from January on, when he was thrust into a bigger role following the trade of veteran rearguard Brandon Archibald and a season-ending injury to Brock Beukeboom, Sproul went off for 10 goals and 24 points in 30 games.

During that span, highly touted draft eligible defencemen Ryan Murphy and Dougie Hamilton had nine and seven goals respectively.

As a result of his stellar play down the stretch, Sproul jumped 70 spots (124 to 54) from NHL Central Scouting's mid-term to final rankings.

"I was shocked," Sproul said. "I played midget last year and wasn't expecting anything at all at this point. It's crazy and exciting, but for me it's more about getting drafted - to where it doesn't matter - and then make the most of my opportunity from there."

Although Sproul was surprised by his ascent through the ranks, Mark Edwards, a scout for hockeyprospect.com and one of Sproul's coaches in Vaughan, isn't taken aback by his former student's progress.

"We've got him as a first-rounder," Edwards said. "If the season was a couple months longer or he played a few rounds in the playoffs, you would likely see him go in the first round.

"He has exceptional offensive skills, his offensive instincts are high end. He can lug the puck up ice and has a tremendously hard and accurate shot."

While Sproul is pegged as an offensive defenceman and flashed those traits as the season wore on, his most noticeable improvement was his play in his own zone.

"Where he struggled, and it's not uncommon for a rookie, was defensive awareness, and that's where he made big strides," Edwards said. "We're talking about a kid who's played peanuts in the OHL. Once he gets more games under his belt, we're talking about a guy that can be a No. 1 NHL defenceman who can run a power play."

Sproul also acknowledged his shortcomings, but is confident he can take that part of his game to another level.

"My defensive game still struggles a bit, but I really think it's improved; just the little things in the defensive zone that I wasn't good at before," he said. "My No. 1 goal is to play better defensively, and with my size I should be able to do that."

He'll get a chance to prove it next year on a Greyhounds team that looks poised to make some noise in the Western Conference, but for now he is focused on showcasing his physical tools and mental makeup to the 30 NHL general manager's that will be in attendance at the combine.

And based on his meteoric rise from minor midget to highly regarded draft prospect, it wouldn't be surprising if Sproul continued to open eyes over the next week.

Edwards expects the same. "There's only one place for him to go, and that's up."

05/31 13:58:38 ET

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